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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

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Activities: Author Activities

Charles W. Chesnutt - Teaching Tips

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  • Unlike Joel Chandler Harris, Chesnutt insisted that his renditions of traditional African American folktales were not transcriptions but rather "the fruit of my own imagination." He frequently incorporated elements from his reading of classical Greek and Roman literature into his stories; for instance, in "The Goophered Grapevine," Henry is transformed into a kind of Bacchanalian vineyard figure. Ask students to think about the implications of Chesnutt's "imaginative" additions to traditional African American tales. Why might he have been interested in incorporating classical elements into these stories? Why did he want to be known as a creator of stories rather than as a transcriber of existing folktales? Why might Harris and Chesnutt have had such different approaches to their characterization of themselves as authors?

  • Because his Uncle Julius stories contain a frame narrative from the point of view of a rather condescending white man, many of Chesnutt's early readers probably assumed that the writer was white. In 1899, when he began to write full time, Chesnutt made his own racial identity more public. Ask students to think about the role of the white narrator in the Uncle Julius stories. Why might Chesnutt have adopted this narrative voice? Why might he have eventually felt compelled to publicize his own racial background as the stories became more popular? You might ask students to rewrite the frame narrative of Chesnutt's work so that it is clearly not a white narrator. What would need to be changed? What would get left as is? How does this change the nature of the story?

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