(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt.)
Charles W. Chesnutt, America's first great Black novelist, lived in
the distinct political, social and cultural environment that found expression
in his literary works. By analyzing the works of a writer, we can gain
the general insights of the author's contemporary environment - the world
he grows up in and the world he later writes to. Charles W. Chesnutt is
not an exception, and his novels reveal the harsh world of prejudice and
social indifference in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Charles W. Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858, in Cleveland Ohio, the eldest child of Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anne Maria Sampson, free blacks from North Carolina. The increasing civil turmoil regarding slavery and coming political unrest forced Charles Chesnutt's parents to move to Ohio, where they remained before the end of Civil War, and came back to Fayetteville, North Carolina with five young children. Charles's father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, was a product of union between Waddell Cade, a prosperous slaveholding farmer and Ann Chesnutt, his mistress and later his housekeeper.
Charles's mother also descended from a free mulatto Fayetteville family. Charles Chesnutt's family heritage gave him the features that barely distinguished him from whites, but determined his social status as lower than that of the white Americans.
That Chesnutt's works are centered around social issues, racism in particular, is not accidental and is mainly due to the environment and experiences in Chesnutt's life. He was born two years before the Civil War, grew up in a turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere, and experienced the futile attempts of Reconstruction of Southern states.
After settling in Fayetteville at the age of eight, Charles started working at the grocery shop operated by his father, and attended the school set up by Freedman's Bureau. After the death of his mother, Charles decided to contribute to the family's poor budget by taking position at the school as pupil teacher. Deprived of the opportunity of formal education, Charles continued vigorous self education while teaching in various black educational institutions.
After teaching at black schools of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles returned to Fayetteville in 1877 to become an assistant principal of the normal school. Here Charles met his colleague and future wife, Susan Perry, daughter of a prosperous barber. They got married in 1878. Being in a new position of a family man, Charles Chesnutt stood before two important decisions: determining the place for him and his family to settle and deciding on his future career. Despite his physical features that gave him close look to whites, Charles Chesnutt's chances of success in impoverished and deeply prejudiced South were minimal. His mixed racial heritage was a burden that would always haunt him in the South. The entry in his personal journal shows Charles's opinion about his place in the society of the South:
Belief that the North would provide fair treatment and a place where his endeavors would bare fruit attracted Charles to New York City. But it was not only the prejudice-free atmosphere that prompted his departure to North, but the immense desire to dedicate his career to literary work. Having a thorough realization and good knowledge of pre and post slavery life in the South, Chesnutt felt confident that he was in a position to start a successful literary career concentrating on problems and issues of the South."I occupy here a position similar to that of Mahomet's Coffin. I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl-neither "nigger," white, nor "buckrah." Too "stuck-up" for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites."
After working for six months in New York City, Chesnutt decided to return to his birth city and in 1884, settled in Cleveland with his family. Here he begun working as a stenographer for Nickel Plate Railroad Company and simultaneously started studying law. At that time, his family included two little girls and a baby boy.
His spare time Chesnutt dedicated to writing. His first short story, "Uncle Peter's House," appeared in the Cleveland News and Herald in 1885. Chesnutt's other novels followed, and he became the first African American author to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, one of the major contemporary literary journals. The title of the story that first appeared in the Atlanticwas "The Goophered Grapevine," in which Charles used Uncle Julius as a bridge between the past and the present realms in order to capture the miseries of the slavery and display them to the contemporary reader. "The Goophered Grapevine," as well as other short stories by Chesnutt, included tales about black hoodoo practices and beliefs, and presented slave culture with African elements to white readers.
After the publication of "The Goophered Grapevine," Houghton Mifflin publishing firm showed interest in Chesnutt's works, and organized them into a collection of short stories. In March of 1899, Charles Chesnutt's first book, The Conjure Woman,was published. The stories from The Conjure Woman describe the struggle between ill-natured, cruel slaveholders and witty, clever slaves. Using the magic of conjuration, slaves in "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," and "Hot-Foot Hannibal" manipulate the will and power of their masters to their own advantage.
The success of his first book prompted Charles W. Chesnutt to publish the second collection of short stories. "The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line" includes nine stories, all of them united under common theme and based on same fundamental social issue - miscegenation in America. The book met a harsher criticism than its predecessor, because many reviewers were bothered by Chesnutt's excessive concentration on issues such as segregation and miscegenation.
Financial problems regarding the second book did not discourage Chesnutt from following his lifelong dream of being a full-time author. In march of 1900, Houghton Mifflin accepted Chesnutt's first novel, The House Behind the Cedars for publication. According to the author, the plot of the novel was simple: it is "a story of a colored girl who passed for white." The story brings out a problem that many Chesnutt's contemporary writers and politicians tried to cope with - the issue of racial identity. By introducing racially mixed characters like John and Rena Walden, Chesnutt advocates the right of mixed races to be accepted on equal terms with whites.
After the success of his first novel, Charles used the opportunity to address pressing racial issues in a new novel, The Marrow of Tradition. The novel was published on 27 October 1901, with the expectations of high sales, but to the author's disappointment, turned out to be a financial disaster. The Marrow of Tradition is based on the Wilmington, N.C., race riot of 1898. As the critics noted, the reason of the book's failure to sell was not the poor workmanship or weakness of Chesnutt's writing, but the subject matter and the moral thesis that Northern readers declined to accept.
In order to support his family, Chesnutt was forced to reopen his court reporting business which he closed in 1899. Chesnutt shifted his literary concentration towards essays and short articles regarding racial issues. He also experimented in writing entertaining, non-controversial novels about the high society of the North. The result was "Baxter's Procrustes," his last novel to be published in the Atlantic.
When Chesnutt finally completed a new novel about racial issues, The Colonel's Dream, Houghton Mifflin didn't accept it with previous enthusiasm, and requested much revision and development from the author. After the book was published, critics evaluated it poorly, and declared the novel full of pessimistic mood and unpleasant for reading. The Colonel's Dream gave Chesnutt a final hint that the interest of public didn't coincide with his own, and in order to sell, he had to turn to other forms of literature. In 1906, Chesnutt wrote a play in four acts, "Mrs. Darcy's Daughter," but again failed to find a producer to make it a financial success. At this moment, Charles Chesnutt set his literary carrier aside and got absorbed in social and political activities, devoting his time to preparing speeches and writing articles in defense of his race. Together with prominent black activists, such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, Chesnutt advocated the reform of the racial conditions in the South and better treatment of black population of that region.
Among the clubs, organizations and sororities honored by Charles W. Chesnutt's membership, Chamber of Commerce of Cleveland, the City Club, and the Rowfant Club were most important. Serving on the General Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Chesnutt was awarded NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful carrier as scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America's greatest cities."
Chesnutt died on 15 November 1932, leaving behind him a rich artistic
legacy for twentieth-century African-American literature.