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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

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- Charles W.
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Authors: Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)

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

Charles W. Chesnutt Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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."

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