Another first book of stories is attracting much attention through the author's subtle understanding of negro traits and character, expressed with much skill. This is the work of Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, of Cleveland, Ohio. His book, "The Conjure Woman," is noticed elsewhere by Miss Earle in this number. We are indebted to his publishers, Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., for his portrait and a sketch of his life which is interesting as showing the gradual development of literary power in a man whose busy life has been spent, until now, in other pursuits. We subjoin the details.
His parents were both North Carolinians, but Mr. Chesnutt himself was born in Cleveland in 1858. He attended the public schools in Cleveland until his father, after serving four years in the War of the Rebellion, returned to his southern home, where he is still living. His mother was naturally a very bright woman with some education, an omnivorous reader, and in her youth taught slave children surreptitiously, at some serious risk to herself. She died when her son was thirteen years old.
After removing to North Carolina, Mr. Chesnutt had the good fortune to fall under the influence of a teacher who went from Cleveland after the war to teach in colored schools-a man of irreproachable character, of high ideals and of fair education. At the early age of thirteen or fourteen, Mr. Chesnutt began to assist this teacher and others, and at nineteen was appointed an assistant to this friend, who was Principal of the State Normal School at Fayetteville. On the death of the principal several years later, Mr. Chesnutt was chosen to fill his place, and served acceptably for three years. But the conditions of life in the South were intolerable to him, and at the age of twenty-five he, with his wife and children, went to New York City. There he found employment in a Wall Street News Agency, and, while there, contributed for some time a daily column of Wall Street gossip to the Mail and Express. After a comparatively short time he resigned and went again to Cleveland, where he had some distant relations and some ties of sentiment. While in North Carolina he had learned the art of shorthand, and this secured him instant employment in the accounting department of the Nickel Plate Railroad Company, from which, after a year and a half, he was transferred to the legal department, to the office of Judge Samuel R. Williamson, now general counsel for the New York Central Railroad. There he remained two years, earning his living and reading law at the same time, and at the expiration of this period he was admitted to the Ohio bar.
On first starting in the profession of the law he had, like many other young lawyers, much spare time; so he began reporting cases in court, at which he soon became so popular that he decided to make that his main business until such a time as he should be ready to follow entirely the profession of literature. Mr. Chesnutt's first story was written at fourteen, and was published in a newspaper issued by a colored man in North Carolina. Its motive was the baleful effects on the youthful mind of reading dime novels. Since 1884 he has contributed stories to various periodicals. He has written much and published little, however, hoping, when he should be able to make literature his profession, to have a style and fund of experience which would give him the tools to work with. It is very gratifying to him that the publication of "The Wife of His Youth" in The Atlantic Monthly for July, 1898, marked almost the exact time at which he had for years intended to begin definitely a literary career. Mr. Chesnutt never went to college, but he is a man of thorough cultivation, knows something of the classics and of German and French literature, and has traveled in Europe. Of his four children, two are sophomores at Smith College and a boy is preparing for college.
Anon.--The Book Buyer--Publication Notice of The Conjure Woman and Chesnutt Bio Note" In: The Rambler, The Book Buyer. 18 (June 1899): 360-61.