Chesnutt's Works




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(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

Paul Laurence Dunbar   (1872 - 1906)
Picture of Dunbar

    Taught to read and write as a young child by his mother, Dunbar gained inspiration early on by the tales of slavery told by his parents who had earned their freedom.  Raised in Ohio, Dunbar excelled through school, earning local popularity as a writer and poet.  He worked for Frederick Douglass for a short time and in 1892 Dunbar spoke at the a Convention of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton; he gave such an impressive welcome that he was invited to join the association.  He soon began work on dialect pieces and published his first collection,"Oak and Ivy" (1893).  In 1896 Dunbar received promising reviews on his "Majors and Minors" collection by the reknowned critic William Dean Howells, who became a close professional friend and motivator in Dunbar's career.  Dunbar was the first person of color to acheive such a high degree of popularity in the white world of writing.  Between 1896 and 1906 he published 4 novels, 3 more volumes of poetry, and 4 volumes of short stories.  Dunber died of tuberculosis in 1906, suffering with the illness for 7 years.
    Many of Dunbar's poems dealt with the "good ol' times" -- with relgion, food, and family-- before the war; his dialect pieces used irony and stereotypes reflecting the more pleasant, what should have been, or could have been American south.   Some critics have stated that this type of  poetry and writing gained popularity as it relieved guilt and fullfilled the interest of the "Negro being okay."


Frances Watkins Harper   (1825 - 1911)
Picture of Harper
    Frances Watkins was born in Baltimore to a free family, and taught in Pennsylvannia as a young women.  She became a lecturer with the Anti-Slavery Society, working in Maine beginning in 1852, where she gained popularity as a poetic orator and lecturer.  Her first publication, "Poems om Miscellaneous Sublects" in 1854, was so popular that it was out in 20 editions within 20 years.  Her work focused on the tragic elements of slavery and the lives of African decendents of the time.  She worte a novel in 1892, entitled "Iola LeRoy" which explored similar 'mulatto' themes to several of Chesnutt's short stories, as well as "The House Behind the Cedars" and "Mandy Oxendine,"  but it lacked the style, compostion, and deeply penetrating moral concernes which Chesnutt provides.  Nevertheless, Harper greatly influenced thought on racial issues during the time.


Albery Allson Whitman  (1851 - 1901)

    Whitman was born a slave in Kentucky and lost his parent as a young boy.  Following the Civil War he traveled to Ohio in search of work.  He attened school for a short time then became a teacher, returning to Kentucky.  In 1870 he began studies at Wilberforce University where college President Payne became his mentor.  Whitman became a pastor with the AME, traveling across the south.  He died of pnemonia during a trip to Alabama.  He published many works, his first a poetry work.  His major publications include "The Rape of Florida" (1884) and "Twasinta's Seminoles" (1885) where he looks at the seminole culture.  Several of his poems gained popularity, including "The World's Fair Poem" (1893),  "Ye Bards of England," a eulogy for many figures including great English writers-- those who inspired Chesnutt as well-- and his best poem "The Octoroon."  Although usually avoiding political statements in his work, Whitman believed in Emersonianism ideas such as 'self-reliance' and disagreed with the theories of Booker T. Washington, as did Chesnutt.  Albery Allson Whitman may not have been a strongly influnetial or remebered name, but his contribution helped to forward the reputation of African-American writers.


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois
    Two of the most influential African-Americans during Chesnutt's time were Booker T. Washington and W.E. B. Du Bois.

 Picture of WashingtonWashington, founder of Tuskegee, forwarded the ideas of 'accomadation'.  He saw the conditions under which his people were suffering and looked at them in the present sense with a "pragmatic realism", rather than looking towards more equality in the future.  He encouraged folks to acquire labor and craft skilled positions in the developing Industrial Revolution.  "It seemed as though he received the white world's acclaimed because what he attempted to do did not disturb the status quo" (Barksdale, 409).  Despite the criticism he received from other prominent African-Americans and white progressives, Washington enjoyed a successful career as an orator, prolific writer, diligent worker, and President of Tuskegee.
 Picture of Du BoisDu Bois gained international fame as an historian, sociologist, writer, professor, and intellectual.  A Northern man, Du Bois studied at Fisk, Harvard, the University of Berlin, and taught at Wilberforce University.  He wrote extensive hisotries on American slavery and African history, as well as many other subjects, including biographical and autobiographical works.  Du Bois organized the Niagra Movement in 1905, which lead to the creation of the NAACP.  Du Bois encouraged the higher education of African-Americans and opposed Washington's ideas involving vocational training.  He believed that education included the entire person -- "Work, culture, and liberty--all these we need together" (Barksdale, 367).  Chesnutt associated with both men, although he followed more along Du Bois's line of thinking, with a belief in higher education for all races.

White Plantation Writers
Picture of HarrisPicture of Thomas Page
    During the reconstructrion period the American public became particularly interested in 'plantation literature' discussing and romanticizing the "Old South," demonstrating the 'better' side of slavery, and relieving the stress created by the horrifying moral problems caused by slavery, racism, and prejudice.  Many white writers sought out to record the stories of slaves and tell tales of the "good ol' days."  These writers are sometimes termed "apologists" as they seem to say "sorry for all the beatings, family separations, terrible living and laboring conditions--this is what it should have been."  Their stories, especially those by Thomas Nelson Page (pictured at the right), eliminate beatings, despair, and suffering from the picture of American slavery and stereotype the slave as ignorant, content and well-treated.   These images conflict directly with the straightforward, real impressions given in Chesnutt's Uncle Julius stories.  One plantation writer, Joel Chandler Harris (pictured at the left), createdthe character Uncle Remus, an old Atlanta African-American who tell tales of the plantation.  The character can be paralleled to Chesnutt's Uncle Julius; however, Uncle Julius is a much more believable, real character.  Chesnutt's writings bring the reality of slavery to the reader's of plantation fiction with an elegance that almost covers up the horrifying and commonplace beatings and debilitating conditions.