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Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt

Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt

Copyright Date: 2004
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    Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt
    Book Description:

    Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932), critically acclaimed for his novels, short stories, and essays, was one of the most ambitious and influential African American writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today recognized as a major innovator of American fiction, Chesnutt is an important contributor to de-romanticizing trends in post-Civil War Southern literature, and a singular voice among turn-of-the-century realists who wrote about race in American life.

    Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnuttis the first study to focus exclusively on Chesnutt's novels. Examining the three published in Chesnutt's lifetime-The House Behind the Cedars,The Marrow of Tradition, andThe Colonel's Dream-as well as his posthumously published novels, this study explores the dilemma of a black writer who wrote primarily for a white audience.

    Throughout, Matthew Wilson analyzes the ways in which Chesnutt crafted narratives for his white readership and focuses on how he attempted to infiltrate and manipulate the feelings and convictions of that audience.

    Wilson pays close attention to the genres in which Chesnutt was working and also to the social and historical context of the novels. In articulating the development of Chesnutt's career, Wilson shows how Chesnutt's views on race evolved. By the end of his career, he felt that racial differences were not genetically inherent, but social constructions based on our background and upbringing. Finally, the book closely examines Chesnutt's unpublished manuscripts that did not deal with race. Even in these works, in which African Americans are only minor characters, Wilson finds Chesnutt engaged with the conundrum of race and reveals him as one of America's most significant writers on the subject.

    Matthew Wilson is a professor of humanities and writing at Penn State University, Harrisburg. He is the editor ofCharles W. Chesnutt's Paul Marchand, F.M.C.(University Press of Mississippi).

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-056-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-2)

    This study is an exploration of Charles W. Chesnutt’s engagement with whiteness and with white audiences. It takes as its jumping-off point a claim of Chesnutt’s and an argument by Toni Morrison. In accepting the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1928, Chesnutt said that his “books were written … a generation too soon…. I had to sell my books chiefly to white readers. There were few colored book buyers” (Essays514). Although Chesnutt stressed the selling of books here, my interest in this study is in Chesnutt’s awareness of that white audience...

  4. 1 Chesnutt’s Racial Nonfiction: Theorizing Race
    (pp. 3-19)

    Before I begin my discussion of whiteness in Chesnutt’s novels, it is first necessary to provide a frame of reference: Chesnutt’s theoretical pronouncements about race, over some fifteen years, from the beginning of his fiction-writing career until the publication of the last novel issued in his lifetime,The Colonel’s Dreamin 1905. Beginning with his racial nonfiction will allow me to use this chapter as a touchstone for Chesnutt’s representations of whiteness in his novels and will facilitate my chronological analysis (with one significant exception) of his novels by connecting individual analyses to the issues raised by the racial nonfiction....

  5. 2 The White Novels: Melodrama and Popular Fiction
    (pp. 20-44)

    During the years he wrote his first published race fiction—the novel that eventually becameThe House Behind the Cedars(1900)—and apparently after he had finished his magnum opus,The Marrow of Tradition(1901), Charles W. Chesnutt was also working in another fictional genre altogether: he wrote a series of white-life novels (which only incidentally contain people of color) in popular genres. Chesnutt wrote the first two novels,A Business CareerandThe Rainbow Chasers, during the same years he worked onMandy Oxendine(1894?–97) andThe House Behind the Cedars. Houghton Mifflin rejectedA Business Careerin...

  6. 3 Mandy Oxendine: The Protocols of Tragic Mulatta Fiction
    (pp. 45-58)

    In contrast to his work in his white-life novels, inMandy OxendineCharles W. Chesnutt was writing more directly out of his own experience, and he was, for the only time in his career, relatively free of his audience’s racial expectations, something of which he was clearly always aware in his subsequent race fictions.Mandy Oxendine, Chesnutt’s first novel, was probably written in 1896 and was rejected by Houghton Mifflin in February 1897 (Hackenberry, Introduction xv). Charles Hackenberry, the editor of the 1997 edition ofMandy Oxendine, speculates that the novella “could have existed, in one form or another, as...

  7. 4 The House Behind the Cedars: Race Melodrama and the White Audience
    (pp. 59-98)

    WhenThe House Behind the Cedarswas published, it was clear that Chesnutt had paid more attention to his white audience than he had inMandy Oxendine. In fact, his awareness of that audience dated back to the beginning of his career, when he published short stories and sketches in a variety of venues between 1886 and 1889. Some of the earliest work was published in local newspapers such as theCleveland News and Herald, while other stories and sketches were published in national humor magazines such asPuck,¹ which had a circulation of ninety thousand during the years Chesnutt...

  8. 5 The Marrow of Tradition: Living to Tell the Tale
    (pp. 99-147)

    Charles W. Chesnutt clearly failed to create the “commotion” for which he had hoped withThe House Behind the Cedars, perhaps because he met his readers’ generic expectations too well and, as withThe Conjure Woman, his subversions of genre were invisible to those readers. When he turned to his next fiction,The Marrow of Tradition(1901), he tried to create a commotion by moving from representing the relatively distant past to depicting a recent historical event: in Wilmington, North Carolina, on 10 November 1898, an elected city government was overthrown, and African Americans were terrorized and killed by their...

  9. 6 The Colonel’s Dream: The Eccentric Design of Charles W. Chesnutt’s New South Novel
    (pp. 148-182)

    InThe Colonel’s Dream(1905), the last novel published in his lifetime, Chesnutt continues to interrogate his desire to “elevate” his white audience by creating a central white character who is a well-meaning liberal on the question of race. Chesnutt diagnoses the contradictions of the most “elevated,” the most “ideal” white man he can imagine. A rich northern outsider with family ties to the South and a somewhat sympathetic but critical insight into the life world of southerners is bound to fail as reformer because he, like the South more generally, is incapable of acknowledging the inescapability of the past,...

  10. 7 Paul Marchand, F.M.C.: The Strange Alchemy of Race
    (pp. 183-200)

    When Charles W. Chesnutt returned to novel writing fifteen years afterThe Colonel’s Dreamwas published, he had given up on the potential elevation of his white audience. The ambivalence that he expressed in the final paragraphs ofThe Colonel’s Dreamhad vanished and had been replaced by a thorough despair at the lack of African American improvement that had occurred in his lifetime. Perhaps his only concession to his potential audience is the setting of the novel in antebellum New Orleans. Representing conditions there before the Civil War, he moved directly into George Washington Cable’s imaginative terrain, (and this...

  11. 8 The Quarry: “No White Person of Sound Mind Would Ever Claim to Be a Negro”
    (pp. 201-221)

    When Charles W. Chesnutt began writing his final novel,The Quarry, in 1927, he made a major alteration in the orientation of his novel-writing career. Unexpectedly, he shifted from the pessimism ofPaul Marchandto a quiet optimism; even more remarkably, he acknowledged, for the first time in his career, African American writers and an African American audience, in effect turning away from the white audience he had addressed in the rest of his novels. In 1928, he submittedThe Quarryto Knopf and subsequently to Houghton Mifflin, but both declined to publish the book (McWilliams, Introduction toThe Quarry...

  12. Postscript
    (pp. 222-225)

    When he was seventy-one, three years before his death, Charles W. Chesnutt completed his ninth novel,The Quarry. From his late adolescence until his old age, Chesnutt possessed striking literary ambitions. Even when his career seemed to have come to an end in 1905 with the failure ofThe Colonel’s Dream, he persisted, writing at least four more books (Paul Marchand, F.M.C.; The Quarry;and two works that are no longer extant: a book of short stories entitledAunt Hagar’s Childrenand a book of children’s stories). This middle-class autodidact, as his journals demonstrate, worked very hard to acquire cultural...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 226-239)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 240-250)
  15. Index
    (pp. 251-256)