Highlights of a Life
Charles Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, the son of free Negro parents who had originally lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but who had fled the region as their “civil rights” were increasingly restricted as the time of the Civil War approached. For a period of several years, the Chesnutt family lived in Cleveland, Ohio, before returning to Fayetteville. Charles attended the Howard School for blacks—founded by the Freedman’s Bureau a year earlier—and he worked for his father at their grocery store. When the family had difficulty making ends meet, however, he was asked to give up his academic education—at the age of 14. Believing in Charles’ abilities, the school’s principal, Robert Harris, asked the elder Chesnutt to allow Charles to remain at the school as both a pupil and a teacher. The compromise provided a pay check to the Chesnutt family, and Charles continued his studies. Two years later, Chesnutt moved to Charlotte to begin teaching full-time, and he didn’t return to Fayetteville until 1877 when he became the assistant principal of Howard School; in 1880, he became its principal. During this time, Chesnutt continued his own studies through reading and studying, becoming proficient in Latin, German, French, mathematics, and stenography.
In 1883, Chesnutt left the school and headed North in search of a better job. He found work in New York City as a stenographer and journalist before returning to Cleveland, where he was hired as a railway clerk and, in 1884, settled with his family. After being hired as a stenographer for Judge Samuel E. Williamson, Chesnutt studied law with his mentor, and in 1887 he passed the Ohio Bar with honors. Believing a black man could study law more easily in Europe, Judge Williamson offered to finance a law practice for Chesnutt there, but he decided against making such a move.
In 1890 Chesnutt established a court reporting business and devoted his evenings to writing fiction. While his first attempts at fiction were conventional stories popular in the magazines of the day, Chesnutt was finally published by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly‘s acceptance of “The Goophered Grapevine” in 1887 and “Po’ Sandy” in 1888. By 1889 Chesnutt had completed The House behind the Cedars, published in 1900.
The Conjure Woman—dialect stories told by an old Negro gardener, “Uncle” Julius McAdoo, to his Northern employer—were on the surface simple tales of “metamorphosis, voodoo, and conjuring,” but they nonetheless “illuminate the dynamics of master-slave relationships and the injustices of slavery.” While The Conjure Woman seems reminiscent of the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, in which happy slaves cheerfully tell animal fables about mischievous Brer Rabbit, in reality, the stories are much richer and calls into question the institution of which they speak.
Chesnutt published a second collection of short stories in 1899, The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line, and he portrays “the dilemma of mulattoes who felt alien in the black community and excluded from the white. Chesnutt satirized the race-conscious Blue Veins of Cleveland—people of Negro descent with skin light enough to show the blueness of their veins—for snubbing their darker-skinned relatives and mimicking middle-class whites.” Again in 1899 Chesnutt published a biography of the noted abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, for the “Beacon Biographies of Eminent Americans.”
The success Chesnutt found in publishing gave him the confidence to forsake stenography for a full-time career of writing and lecturing. He was never destined to be as rich financially as he was in reputation. His novels were controversial, and “reviewers who had applauded The Conjure Woman became disenchanted with Chesnutt when he began to treat taboo themes such as miscegenation and racial hatred.” Indeed, his treatment of erotic love and his pessimism toward the likelihood of racial harmony poisoned his literary standing: “Even William Dean Howells, the distinguished American novelist and critic who in 1900 had praised Chesnutt for ‘sound[ing] a fresh note, boldly, not blatantly’ and placed him in the top rank of American short story writers, declared in a 1901 issue of North American Review that ‘at his worst, [Chesnutt] is no worse than the higher average of the ordinary novelists, but he ought always to be very much better, for he began better.’”
Chesnutt was never to make the money from his literary works what he could make as a stenographer, and in 1902, pressed by family concerns, he returned to a life of court reporting. While he continued writing, he would only publish once more novel—The Colonel’s Dream, a novel “examining the futility of amoral schemes for the economic regeneration of the South” (1905).
During the remainder of the first two decades of the twentieth century Chesnutt was largely silent. However, in the 1920s he renewed his efforts with the novel form. Paul Marchand F.M.C., completed in 1921, is a historical romance set in New Orleans during the 1820s, while The Quarry, finished in 1928, takes place in New York, the South, and Europe during the Harlem Renaissance. Both explore the riddle of racial identity. Unfortunately, neither could find a publisher during Chesnutt’s lifetime. Both, however, are now in print.
Before his death in 1932, Chesnutt wrote one more article that would be published: “Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem.” In it, he reflected on his literary life and on the history of Afro-American writing in general. He summarized his various books and commented on the ambivalence of his publishers toward revealing his racial identity during the early years of his career. He accepted the fact that literary fashion had passed him by, but he proudly noted that Afro-American literature and the attitude of the white literary world had advanced considerably since the days of his earliest publications. Once possibly the only black American to write serious fiction about Negroes, Chesnutt had devoted his art to reorienting his readers toward what he considered the real issues of race in America.
Charles Chesnutt deserves a place in literary history surely as much as William Faulkner—both were ahead of their times and both forged new literary paths. We will do well to keep them at the forefront of our libraries and our book stores.