Charles Chesnutt

The Ohio Connection

  • Born on June 20, 1858, in Cleveland
  • Educated for several years in Cleveland
  • Worked for the Nickel Plate Railroad Co., Cleveland, 1884-89, began as clerk, became stenographer for the firm’s legal counsel
  • Admitted to the Bar of Ohio, 1887
  • Began court reporting in Cleveland
  • Published most of his works while living in Cleveland
  • Died November 15, 1932, in Cleveland

Chesnutt is discussed in virtually every history of the literature of the America South as an Southern writer. Indeed, it is true that Chesnutt spent the formative years of his youth and early manhood in North Carolina and that all of the novels published in his lifetime, and a good many stories, are set in the South. Nonetheless, these novels and most of Chesnutt’s stories were created in Cleveland. It is also true that many of his stories, including some of the best, have Ohio settings.

Ohio had special importance for Chesnutt. First of all, it permitted a level of financial security and social ease he could never have achieved in the South. Second, Ohio provided a setting for a more subtle exploration of Chesnutt’s racial themes. Cleveland in the early twentieth century was relatively enlightened. Racism was present to be sure, often among light-skinned Negroes as well as among whites. The behavior that Chesnutt observed within and between the races in Ohio was less violent, more nuanced than the interaction in the Jim Crow South, but no less fascinating. Ohio provided an ideal locus for Charles Chesnutt to explore more the subtle aspects of American racial identity. The reader wishing to encounter Chesnutt’s Ohio might begin with The Wife of My Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line.

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