Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race

Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 280
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    Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race
    Book Description:

    Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) was the first African American writer of fiction to win the attention and approval of America's literary establishment. Looking anew at Chesnutt's public and private writings, his fiction and nonfiction, and his well-known and recently rediscovered works, Dean McWilliams explores Chesnutt's distinctive contribution to American culture: how his stories and novels challenge our dominant cultural narratives--particularly their underlying assumptions about race. The published canon of Chesnutt's work has doubled in the last decade: three novels completed but unpublished in Chesnutt's life have appeared, as have scholarly editions of Chesnutt's journals, his letters, and his essays. This book is the first to offer chapter-length analyses of each of Chesnutt's six novels. It also devotes three chapters to his short fiction. Previous critics have read Chesnutt's nonfiction as biographical background for his fiction. McWilliams is the first to analyze these nonfiction texts as complex verbal artifacts embodying many of the same tensions and ambiguities found in Chesnutt's stories and novels. The book includes separate chapters on Chesnutt's journal and on his important essay "The Future American." Moreover, Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race approaches Chesnutt's writings from the perspective of recent literary theory. To a greater extent than any previous study of Chesnutt, it explores the way his texts interrogate and deconstruct the language and the intellectual constructs we use to organize reality. The full effect of this new study is to show us how much more of a twentieth-century writer Chesnutt is than has been previously acknowledged. This accomplishment can only hasten his reemergence as one of our most important observers of race in American culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-2724-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. 1 Chesnutt’s Language / Language’s Chesnutt
    (pp. 1-22)

    At an earlier stage, this book bore the working title “Chesnutt’s Language / Language’s Chesnutt.” I subsequently changed the title to the designation on the cover for reasons I will soon explain. Nonetheless, I feel sufficient attachment to the phrase by which I first identified this project to place it here at the head of the first chapter. The attachment is due partly to the shape of the phrase, the satisfying symmetry of the chiasmus. By reversing noun and modifier, the possessor becomes the possessed: Chesnutt the artist in control of his medium becomes its captive. The symmetry of these...

  5. 2 Chesnutt in His Journals: “Nigger” under Erasure
    (pp. 23-42)

    In 1875 Charles Chesnutt, then a seventeen-year-old schoolteacher, took a summer job among rural South Carolina blacks. On August 20, he confided to his journal about his pupils and their families:

    This is the doggondest country I ever saw to teach in. They say they’ll pay your board, and then don’t do it. They accuse you indirectly of lying, almost of stealing, eavesdrop you, retail every word you say. Eavesdrop you when you’re talking to yourself, twist up your words into all sorts of ambiguous meanings, refuse to lend you their mules &c. They are the most suspicious people in...

  6. 3 “The Future American” and “Chas. Chesnutt”
    (pp. 43-56)

    The year 1900 marks the midpoint in Charles Chesnutt’s sequence of book-length compositions. He had completed one novel and two short story collections before this date, and he published another novel in that year; three more novels would follow later in his career. As the new century dawned, Chesnutt was at the peak of his reputation. In his forties, he was a respected man of letters and an accredited spokesperson for the Negro cause. It is not surprising, then, that the august Boston Evening Transcript opened its columns to an extended expression of his opinion on the race question. Chesnutt’s...

  7. 4 Black Vernacular in Chesnutt’s Short Fiction: “A New School of Literature”
    (pp. 57-75)

    Charles Chesnutt used the dialect tale to become the first African American to win a national white audience for his fiction. Chesnutt’s choice of this genre was, of course, the product of a shrewd calculation of the literary market. But there was more: Chesnutt understood that the popularity of stories featuring rural black speech offered an opportunity to introduce a new understanding of the recently emancipated Americans. The historic importance of Chesnutt’s dialect tales and the cultural work that they performed is the subject of this chapter and the next.

    Charles Chesnutt understood the unique moment in which he lived...

  8. 5 The Julius and John Stories: “The Luscious Scuppernong”
    (pp. 76-99)

    Chesnutt’s best-known fictions are the stories based on North Carolina folk culture and narrated by an illiterate ex-slave named Julius McAdoo. Chesnutt collected seven of these stories in The Conjure Woman (1899), and between 1889 and 1904, he completed another seven stories, featuring the same characters, that were not included in the collection.¹ Critics refer to these stories variously as Chesnutt’s “conjure tales” “dialect stories,” or “Uncle Julius tales.”² However, not all of these stories include conjuring, and Chesnutt used dialect in fictions other than those featuring Julius McAdoo. Moreover, Julius is not the only narrator in these stories, nor...

  9. 6 Race in Chesnutt’s Short Fiction: The “Line” and the “Web”
    (pp. 100-121)

    In 1887 when Chesnutt introduced Julius McAdoo to the readers of the Atlantic Monthly, he described him simply as a “venerable looking colored man.”¹ However, in 1899 when he revised “The Goophered Grapevine” for inclusion in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt added to this description. Julius, are told in the revised version, “was not entirely black, and this fact, together with the quality of his hair . . . suggested a slight strain of other negro blood” (9–10). With this retrospective clarification of Julius’s racial identity, Chesnutt created his first important mulatto character. The fact that he has a white...

  10. 7 Mandy Oxendine: “Is You a Rale Black Man?”
    (pp. 122-132)

    Mandy Oxendine begins with the arrival of a man and woman at a rural rail station.¹ Both are well dressed, and both descend from the same first-class coach. The man and the woman boarded the train at the same point, and both now leave at the same terminus. There is no apparent social difference between them. The narrator describes a sign outside the station waiting room: “This Waiting-room for White People Only” (3). This is North Carolina after the failure of Reconstruction, and the man is a Negro—although this is in no way evident from his appearance. The white...

  11. 8 The House behind the Cedars: “Creatures of Our Creation”
    (pp. 133-146)

    The House behind the Cedars, like Mandy Oxendine, begins with a young man’s arrival in a rural North Carolina town. The visitor is, despite appearances, an African American, and he has come to retrieve a light-colored mulatto female. Despite these echoes of the earlier narrative, The House behind the Cedars is, thematically and technically, a significantly different novel. We are made aware of this fact as early as the novel’s first paragraph. The paragraph presents these musings on time in the quiet community:

    Time touches all things with destroying hand. . . . And yet there are places where Time...

  12. 9 The Marrow of Tradition: “The Very Breath of His Nostrils”
    (pp. 147-165)

    The railroad is a potent American symbol, so readers should not be surprised to find that Chesnutt begins three of his novels with his protagonists aboard or descending from a train. But Chesnutt’s trains bear a different thematic weight than do other, more familiar appearances of the iron horse. This is not the machine whose shrill whistle disturbs Thoreau’s pastoral garden, nor is it the continent-spanning engine of progress celebrated in western romance. These more familiar trains follow America’s most famous trajectory, which runs—for good or for ill—from east to west, from civilization

    to wilderness. But other routes...

  13. 10 The Colonel’s Dream: “Sho Would ’a’ Be’n a ’Ristocrat”
    (pp. 166-182)

    The Colonel’s Dream, the last novel that Chesnutt saw into print, is by critical consensus the least successful of the long fictions published during his lifetime. It is also judged to be the most overtly didactic work. The novel, it is true, does strain toward a moral lesson, and yet, at the same time, the actual nature of that lesson remains obscure or contradictory. For Ernestine Pickens the novel shows that the “loss of aristocratic values is a loss of moral force in southern communities.”¹ The protagonist, Colonel Henry French, represents the best values of the Old South, and he...

  14. 11 Paul Marchand, F.M.C.: “F.M.C.” and “C.W.C.”
    (pp. 183-207)

    Paul Marchand, F.M.C., the novel with which Chesnutt sought to break a sixteen-year literary silence, is a geographic, historical, and generic anomaly in Chesnutt’s canon.¹ Chesnutt’s previous novels and many of his stories are set in North Carolina during the 1880s through the first years of the twentieth century. With Paul Marchand, F.M.C., however, Chesnutt moved his attention to Louisiana in the 1820s. His two previous novels, The Marrow of Tradition and The Colonel’s Dream, were executed in the style of muckraking realism popular at the time of their composition, but with Paul Marchand, F.M.C. Chesnutt seems to offer a...

  15. 12 The Quarry: “And Not the Hawk”
    (pp. 208-228)

    Charles Chesnutt’s writings span the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. We first meet him as a teenage diarist in 1874 and we find him still active in his seventies, completing The Quarry in 1928.¹ Surveying this half-century of activity, we are struck, first of all, by Chesnutt’s determination; for it must be admitted that Chesnutt’s literary efforts met more rejection than acceptance during his lifetime. If we isolate our attention on the beginning and the end of his writing career, the journals and the last novel, we are also struck by a...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 229-246)
    (pp. 247-254)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 255-261)