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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)

[4112] Anonymous, Two women hulling rice, Sapelo Island, Georgia (c. 1900), courtesy of the Georgia Department of Archives and History.

Charles W. Chesnutt was a pioneer among African American fiction writers, addressing controversial issues of race in a realist style that commanded the attention and respect of the white literary establishment of the late nineteenth century. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Chesnutt was the son of free parents who had moved north before the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the family returned to North Carolina and Chesnutt was raised among rural African Americans. His family’s financial difficulties led him to take a job as a teacher while he was still a teenager. Building on his studious habits and intellectual curiosity, he eventually rose to the position of principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. In 1883, Chesnutt sought broader opportunities in the North, relocating to Cleveland and working as a clerk for a railway company while he studied law. He soon passed the state bar examination and founded his own successful practice as a court reporter.

Chesnutt first received national recognition as a writer in 1887, when his story “The Goophered Grapevine” appeared in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Narrated by an old black man named “Uncle Julius,” written in African American dialect, and set in the rural South, the story seemed to have affinities with the regional folktales popularized by Joel Chandler Harris. But Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius is a unique figure in nineteenth-century vernacular literature: he recounts plantation stories not out of sentimental nostalgia but in order to manipulate his white listeners to his own ends. The subversive humor and irony of Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius stories subtly satirize nineteenth-century white people’s condescending stereotypes of African Americans. Chesnutt soon negotiated a contract with Houghton Mifflin to publish a book-length collection of his stories, The Conjure Woman, which appeared in 1899. A second book, “The Wife of His Youth” and Other Stories of the Color Line, included stories which explore both urban and rural characters’ experiences with race. Chesnutt followed this collection with a biography of Frederick Douglass and a series of novels that treat the plight of mixed-race people and social tensions in the South. Unfortunately, his novels never achieved the popularity or acclaim of his short stories, and, by 1905, Chesnutt had difficulty publishing his work. As a new generation of African American writers produced the innovative literature associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Chesnutt found himself increasingly out of touch with both his black and his white audiences. Despite the decline at the end of his career, Chesnutt’s contributions to African American letters were foundational and significant. In recognition of his efforts, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1928 for his groundbreaking realist representations of the “life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent.”

Teaching Tips

  • 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?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does Uncle Julius tell the white narrator the story of the “goophered” vineyard? What effect does the story have on the narrator? What do we learn about Julius’s relationship to the land and its produce over the course of the tale?
  2. Comprehension: What is the “Blue Vein Society” to which Ryder belongs in “The Wife of His Youth”? How do the Blue Veins participate in the construction of the social “color line” which Chesnutt found so fascinating? What values do the Blue Veins seem to promote among African Americans?
  3. Context: Compare Uncle Julius to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus. What kinds of relationships do they have with their white auditors? What seems to motivate their storytelling sessions? How do the trickster tales related in Julius’s and Remus’s stories differ?
  4. Context: Compare Chesnutt’s representations of African American dialect to Alexander Posey’s representations of the speech of Creek Indians. What characterizes each group’s speech patterns? How do the speakers describe and relate to members of their own race? How do the speakers describe and relate to people of other races?
  5. Exploration: Chesnutt was part of an early tradition of preserving traditional folktales and recording folk customs. His representations of African American beliefs about “conjuring” and “hoodoo”–spiritual practices that combined African, Caribbean, and Christian religious traditions–offer important insight into African American culture. How do Chesnutt’s representations of “conjuring” relate to later African American writers’ interest in these practices? How might Chesnutt have influenced Toni Morrison’s interest in the supernatural?

Selected Archive Items

[4112] Anonymous, Two women hulling rice, Sapelo Island, Georgia (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Georgia Department of Archives and History.
Technological advancements were slow to arrive in many parts of the country, particularly in the less industrialized South. Here, two African American women use a traditional mortar and pestle to remove the hulls from rice.

[4261] Anonymous, Charles Chesnutt [portrait] (1939),
courtesy of Fisk University.
Photograph of Charles W. Chesnutt, a pioneer African American author. Written in African American dialect, his “Uncle Julius” stories are similar to regional folktales popularized by white author Joel Chandler Harris. Chesnutt’s work, however, intentionally and subtly satirized the condescending stereotypes of African Americans during the nineteenth century.

[4268] Anonymous, Charles Chesnutt study (1906),
courtesy of Fisk University. 
Charles W. Chesnutt worked as a school principal, a stenographer, and, eventually, a lawyer. The expansion of the magazine industry gave Chesnutt his first opportunity to publish. His works depicted both average southern blacks and those of mixed blood who lived on the color line.

 

[4269] Anonymous, Charles Chesnutt (n.d.),

courtesy of Fisk University Library’s Special Collections.
As a person of mixed race, Chesnutt felt removed from both white and black society. “I am too stuck up for colored folks,” he wrote, “and, of course, not recognized by whites.” From this distance, Chesnutt explored issues of race within the black community.

[4419] Anonymous, African Americans in front of piano (c. 1875-1900),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The values that informed parlor culture–the ability to devote the parlor space to formal display rather than stocking it with furnishings designed for private, daily use–were not limited to the wealthy or the urban in mid-nineteenth-century America.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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