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Charles W. Chesnutt Essay, Research Paper

Charles W. Chesnutt

Though born in Cleveland in 1858, the grandson of a white man and the son of free blacks, Charles W. Chesnutt grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina where his family, having left the South originally in 1856, returned after the Civil War. Chesnutt who had little formal education taught himself and also received tutoring from family members. Chesnutt is known as one of the great American novelist and short-story writers of the late 19th century.

Chesnutt lived most of his childhood in Fayetteville, NC where he

worked part time in a family grocery store and attended a school founded by

the Freedmen’s Bureau. By 14 he had published his first short story in a

Fayetteville newspaper. "I think I must write a book It has been my

cherished dream and I feel an influence that I cannot resist calling me to

the task."(1) At 15 Charles dropped out of school to support his family.

By the age of 16, he had come to Charlotte to teach the city’s

black schoolchildren and also to support his family. He had an

intense thirst for knowledge. At a time when few educational opportunities

existed for black Americans, he studied math, music, literature and

languages. He left Charlotte to take a job as assistant principal of the State

Normal School. By age 22, he was its principal. "There’s time enough, but

none to spare."(1)

Lack of opportunity to advance led him to go to New York City

to find work at Dow, Jones and Company and also writes a financial

news column for the New York Mail and Express. Later that year his

son Edwin J. Chesnutt is born. In November, he leaves New York for

Cleveland where he begins to work in the accounting department of

Nickel Plate Railroad Company. While in Cleveland Chesnutt studied


While in Cleveland Chesnutt supports his mother and father

while supporting his own family. Chesnutt begins to write for Family

Fiction. While working at Nickel Plate Railroad Company and

writing for Family Fiction he continues to study law. A year later, he

passes the Ohio Bar Exam and joins the law offices of Henderson,

Kline, and Tolles. Chesnutt published "The Goophered Grapevine" in

the Atlantic Monthly became the first work written by a black author.

The success of "The Goophered Grapevine" leads him to publish "Po?

Sandy" and "Dave?s neckliss" in the Atlantic Monthly.

Chesnutt decides to start his own firm of Attorneys, stenographers,

and court reporters. Employing a large number of minority who were

not hired by larger firms. Chesnutt starts to feel overwhelmed with

writing and being a full time attorney. Charles takes a two month

vacation to Europe. When he returns he decides to give up his firm

and become a full time writer.

As a full time writer Chesnutt he publishes "The Wife of His

Youth" in the Atlantic Monthly. Later in 1899 he publishes his best

known book "The Conjure Woman" which is a retelling of seven

African-American slave folk tales from the cape fear region of

North Carolina. Chesnutt?s use of irony and humors in his works

prevented the alienation of white readers.

The success of "The Conjure Woman" brought much attention and

praise to Chesnutt who accepted harsher criticism on his other works,

because many reviewers were bothered by Chesnutt’s excessive

concentration on issues such as segregation and miscegenation.

"Impossibilities are merely things of which we have not learned, or

which we do not wish to happen."(1) 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.

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.

During his own lifetime, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was recognized as

a pioneer in treating racial themes. Throughout the years 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.

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