(wädl´) (KEY) , 1858–1932, American author and lawyer, b. Cleveland, Ohio. In 1887 he was admitted to the Ohio bar. His short stories were first published in the Atlantic Monthly and syndicated newspapers. At first, his publishers withheld the fact that he was black. A sensitive chronicler of life in the Reconstruction South, he is best known for The Conjure Woman (1899), a series of stories about slave life. His other writings include a volume of stories, The Wife of His Youth (1899), and the novels The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Critics consider his finest novel to be The Marrow of Tradition (1901).
See biographies by H. M. Chesnutt (1952), J. N. Hermance (1974), and F. R. Keller (1977); studies by S. L. Render (1974) and W. L. Andrews (1980).
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Essayist, folklorist, short-story writer and novelist, Charles Chesnutt was the first African-American writer to receive widespread serious attention during his lifetime as a literary artist, and was considered one of the major fiction writers of his era. After teaching for several years in Charlotte, and in Fayetteville at the State Colored Normal School (now Fayetteville State University) he moved north and passed the bar examination. After establishing a successful legal stenography firm, he began writing. Initially the author of humorous sketches and essays on social issues, he published his first short story at the age of twenty-nine in The Atlantic, even then one of the most prestigious magazines in the country. Contemporary William Dean Howells called Chesnutt's short stories "works of art," written by one who had "sounded a fresh note, boldly, not blatantly."
Although Chesnutt lived most of his adult life in his native Ohio, his childhood and early manhood were spent in North Carolina, primarily in Fayetteville. Eastern North Carolina serves as the setting and the source of his most important works. His best known book, The Conjure Woman (1899) is a retelling of seven African-American slave folk tales from the Cape Fear region. Five of the nine stories in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) are set in and around Fayetteville, as is The House Behind the Cedars, a 1900 novel. Both deal with the problems confronting those of mixed race. The Marrow of Tradition (1901), based on the Wilmington race riot of 1898, and The Colonel's Dream (1905), set in Reconstruction-era Fayetteville, address the hopeless situation of blacks in a white society.
During his own lifetime, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was recognized as a pioneer in treating racial themes. Throughout the years that he was writing and publishing, he continued to operate a successful business and to participate in programs dedicated to social justice. In 1928, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal for "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman." The Fayetteville State University Library is named for Chesnutt; a State Highway Historical Marker marks where he taught in Fayetteville, North Carolina; and in Cleveland, Ohio, a street and a school are named for him.
Charles W. Chesnutt crossed a number of lines in his lifetime. Though born in Cleveland in 1858, the grandson of a white man and the son of free blacks, Chesnutt grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina where his family, having left the South originally in 1856, returned after the Civil War. Chesnutt attended a school funded by the Freedman's Bureau, and then worked as a teacher and eventually as a school principal in Charlotte and in Fayetteville. Despite his personal success, Chesnutt resented the racial oppression of the South. Believing a more hospitable environment existed in the North, he moved his family to Cleveland in 1884, where he worked first as a court reporter and then as founder of a successful legal stenography company. Chesnutt also had a passion for writing, and began publishing short stories in 1885. "Dave's Neckliss" was among the first stories written in black dialect by a black author, using the language to convey not only authenticity but also moral complexity. Chesnutt's work dealt primarily with the South, and especially with themes of interracial sex and the phenomenon of people legally defined as "black" whose relatively light skin color enabled them to "pass" as "white." Chesnutt met with much praise for his early stories, but his powerful and controversial novels met with steadily diminishing readerships. He stopped writing fiction in the early twentieth century, devoting his energies to business and to organizations dedicated to improving the lot of African-Americans. Chesnutt wrote powerful essays on the political and economic exploitation of Southern blacks and served as a member of the General Committee of the NAACP, making him one of the most important commentators on racial issues in the early twentieth century, along with men such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. In 1928, the NAACP awarded Chesnutt its Spingarn Medal for his life's work. Charles W. Chesnutt died in 1932.
Andrews, William L., The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Ellison, Curtis, and Metcalf, E.W., Jr., Charles W. Chesnutt: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.
Keller, Frances Richardson, An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.
Render, Sylvia Lyons, Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt, an Afro-American man of letters, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 20 June 1858, the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, Chesnutt's parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked part-time in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen's Bureau. In 1872 financial necessity forced him to begin a teaching career in Charlotte, N.C. He returned to Fayetteville in 1877, married a year later, and by 1880 had become principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. Meanwhile he continued to pursue private studies of the English classics, foreign languages, music, and stenography. Despite his successes, he longed for broader opportunities and a chance to develop the literary skills that by 1880 led him toward an author's life. In 1883 he moved his family to Cleveland. There he passed the state bar examination and established his own court reporting firm. Financially prosperous and prominent in civic affairs, he resided in Cleveland for the remainder of his life.
"The Goophered Grapevine," an unusual dialect story that displayed intimate knowledge of black folk culture in the South, was Chesnutt's first nationally recognized work of fiction. Its publication in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly marked the first time that a short story by a black had appeared in that prestigious magazine. After subsequent tales in this vein were accepted by other magazines, Chesnutt submitted to Houghton, Mifflin a collection of these stories, which was published in 1899 as The Conjure Woman. His second collection of short fiction, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), ranged over a broader area of southern and northern racial experience than any previous writer on black American life had attempted. These two volumes were popular enough to convince Houghton, Mifflin to publish Chesnutt's first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, in 1900. This story of two blacks who pass for white in the postwar South revealed Chesnutt's sense of the psychological and social dilemmas facing persons of mixed blood in the region. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), is based on the Wilmington, N.C., race riot of 1898. Hoping to write the Uncle Tom's Cabin of his generation, Chesnutt made a plea for racial justice that impressed William Dean Howells as a work of "great power," though with "more justice than mercy in it." The failure of the book to sell widely forced Chesnutt to give up his dream of supporting his family as a professional author. In 1905 he published his final novel, The Colonel's Dream, a tragic story of an idealist's attempt to revive a depressed North Carolina town through a socioeconomic program much akin to the New South creed of Henry W. Grady and Booker T. Washington. The novel received little critical notice.
During the latter years of his life Chesnutt continued to write and publish occasional short stories, but he was largely eclipsed in the 1920s by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1928 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his pioneering literary work on behalf of the Afro-American struggle. Today Chesnutt is recognized as a major innovator in the tradition of Afro American fiction, an important contributor to the deromanticizing trend in post-Civil War southern literature and a singular voice among turn-of-the-century realists who treated the color line in American life.
William L. Andrews
University of Wisconsin
William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1980); Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (1952); Frances Richardson Keller, An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1978).
Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.