Authors: Charles Waddell Chesnutt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

African American short-story writer, essayist, and novelist

June 20, 1858

Cleveland, Ohio

November 15, 1932

Cleveland, Ohio


Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, but spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He began teaching there at the age of sixteen, becoming principal of the State Normal School at Fayetteville when he was only twenty-three. In Fayetteville, he also learned the stenographic skills that enabled him to achieve financial security. He left North Carolina in 1883 and settled in Cleveland, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar, passing the exam in 1887. {$I[AN]9810001499} {$I[A]Chesnutt, Charles Waddell} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Chesnutt, Charles Waddell} {$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Chesnutt, Charles Waddell} {$I[tim]1858;Chesnutt, Charles Waddell}

Charles Waddell Chesnutt.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Although he was happy earning a living in the legal profession, his true passion was writing. His earliest successes were his sketches and short stories; his earliest significant publication was in 1885. Chesnutt’s two main interests were the customs, folklore, and superstitions of African Americans and the sociological and legal problems with which American civilization confronted blacks. He drew upon his early southern experience for the former and upon his legal training in the North for the latter. Frederick Douglass, whom Chesnutt made the subject of a book, was one of the first to see the value of African American folklore; Chesnutt expanded upon Douglass’s insight and made such material the focus of many of his stories. Chesnutt’s treatment of African American folklore is similar to that of the Uncle Remus stories.

His first published short-story collection is his best known; The Conjure Woman contains his most widely read story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” and five other stories that utilize dialect. The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line contains nine stories, including “The Sheriff’s Children.” Chesnutt was the first African American author to have a story published in a major literary magazine (Atlantic Monthly). His novels were less successful than his stories. Both The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition are concerned with African American social problems and with the newly emerging black middle class. The Marrow of Tradition is considered the best of Chesnutt's long fiction. For his groundbreaking literary depictions of black life, Chesnutt was honored with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 1928 Spingarn Medal.

New scholarly research has contributed to a growing understanding of the complexities of African American life and literature in the nineteenth century. This research has contradicted, or at the least has mitigated, previously held opinions that in his novels character and plot are often subordinated to propagandistic and didactic interests. His characterizations, in fact, can be unpredictable and intriguing. Chesnutt died in Cleveland in 1932.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, about a handful of previously unpublished Chesnutt novels were discovered and put into print, including Paul Marchand, F.M.C., The Quarry, A Business Career, and Evelyn's Husband. A few of them were notable, too, for being the first of Chesnutt's long fiction to focus on white characters.

Author Works Short Fiction: The Conjure Woman, 1899 The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line, 1899 Long Fiction: Mandy Oxendine, wr. 1897, pb. 1997 House Behind the Cedars, 1900 The Marrow of Tradition, 1901 The Colonel’s Dream, 1905 Paul Marchand, F.M.C., wr. 1921, pb. 1998 The Quarry, wr. 1928, pb. 1999 A Business Career, 2005 (Matthew Wilson and Marjan A. van Schaik, editors) Evelyn's Husband, 2005 (Matthew Wilson and Marjan A. van Schaik, editors) Nonfiction: The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1899 The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1993 To Be an Author: The Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905, 1997 Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, 1999 Selected Writings, 2001 (Sally Ann H. Ferguson, editor) Bibliography Andrews, William L. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt: An Essay in Bibliography.” Resources for American Literary Studies 6 (Spring, 1976): 3-22. A valuable guide to materials concerning Chesnutt. Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. A good, full-length study of the full range of Chesnutt’s writings. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell.“To Be an Author”: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz III. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. Collection of letters is organized into sections in a manner particularly useful to students of Chestnutt’s fiction and his career development: “Cable’s Protégé in 1889-1891,” “A Dream Deferred, 1891-1896,” “Page’s Protégé in 1897-1899,” “The Professional Novelist of 1899-1902,” “Discontent in 1903-1904,” “The Quest Renewed, 1904-1905.” Includes an informative introduction and a detailed index. Delma, P. Jay. “The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ and ‘The Passing of Grandison.’” American Literature 51 (1979): 364-375. Argues that the story exploits the theme of the mask: the need to hide one’s true personality and racial identity from self and others. Delma argues that because Chesnutt uses the mask theme, the story is not a run-of-the-mill treatment of the long-lost-son plot. Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. This informative volume includes bibliographical references and an index. Filetti, Jean. “The Goophered Grapevine.” Explicator 48 (Spring, 1990): 201-203. Discusses the use of master-slave relationships within the context of storytelling and explains how Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” relates to this tradition. Indicates that one of Chesnutt’s concerns was inhumanity among people, but the story is told from a humorous perspective with the newly freed slave outwitting the white capitalist. Gayle, Addison. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Examines Chesnutt’s literary and historical significance as one of the first black American novelists. Gleason, William. “Chesnutt’s Piazza Tales: Architecture, Race, and Memory in the Conjure Stories.” American Quarterly 51 (March, 1999): 33-77. Argues that in the second phase of the Conjure Tales, Chesnutt uses piazzas as a central imaginative space for African American memory. Argues that Chesnutt counters historical amnesia with concrete memories from the piazza that represents a simpler past. Heermance, Noel. Charles Chesnutt: America’s First Great Black Novelist. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1974. Provides a good introduction to Chesnutt’s life and to the themes of his fiction. Discusses Chesnutt’s novels, short fiction, and other writings. Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978. One of the most helpful and important biographical resources on Chesnutt. Describes how Chesnutt refused to accept the segregation of his time, choosing to participate in both the black and white worlds. Kulii, Elon A. “Poetic License and Chesnutt’s Use of Folklore.” CLA Journal 38 (December, 1994): 247-253. Discusses Chesnutt’s use of hoodoo in “The Goophered Grapevine.” Lehman, Cynthia L. “The Social and Political View of Charles Chesnutt: Reflections on His Major Writings.” Journal of Black Studies 26 (January, 1996). Speculates that the time in which Chesnutt lived significantly shaped his racial philosophy and literary style. McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. Broad compilation of materials includes reviews of Chesnutt’s works that appeared at the time of their initial publication as well as essays and articles, written between 1905 and 1997, analyzing his writings. Also contains overviews of his work and discussions of individual novels, including The Colonel’s Dream and The House Behind the Cedars. McFatter, Susan. “From Revenge to Resolution: The (R)evolution of Female Characters in Chesnutt’s Fiction.” CLA Journal 42(December, 1998): 194-211. Discusses female revenge in Chesnutt’s fiction. Argues that his women use intelligence and instinct for survival to manipulate their repressive environments. McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Examines Chesnutt’s novels and short stories, describing how his fiction changed Americans’ assumptions about race. Devotes separate chapters to analysis of the novels The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, The Colonel’s Dream, The Quarry, and Mandy Oxendine. Pickens, Ernestine Williams. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement. New York: Pace University Press, 1994. Provides both historical and literary analysis of two of Chesnutt’s novels: The Marrow of Tradition and The Colonel’s Dream. Chronicles Chesnutt’s involvement in the Progressive movement and points out elements of the movement’s philosophy in these works. Render, Sylvia. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Good general introduction to the life and writing of Chesnutt. Discusses Chesnutt’s major concerns with narrative technique, social justice, and the place of the African American in U.S. society. Render, Sylvia. The Short Fiction of Charles Chesnutt. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Discusses the collected short fiction of Chesnutt and indicates that it came out of the storytelling tradition of African Americans and was written within the conventions of local humor that were popular at the time. Simmons, Ryan. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. Defines Chesnutt as a realist and describes how he was influenced by the literary realist movement. Points out elements of literary realism in Chesnutt’s novels and explains how Chesnutt used the techniques and concepts of realism to depict race in his works. Sollers, Werner. “Thematics Today.” In Thematics Reconsidered: Essays in Honor of Horst S. Daemmrich, edited by Frank Trommler. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. A detailed discussion of the themes in “The Wife of His Youth.” Argues that contemporary thematic readings that stress race and gender are less likely to identify other themes such as marriage, fidelity, and age difference. Suggests that Chesnutt’s special way of treating the race and age themes needs more attention. Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Examines Chesnutt’s novels with the aim of understanding the peculiar problems the African American author confronted in writing books for a predominantly white readership. Analyzes how Chesnutt constructed novels that appealed to this white audience while also examining racial issues that were not traditionally addressed in mainstream American fiction. Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Wonham, Henry B. “Plenty of Room for Us All? Participation and Prejudice in Charles Chesnutt’s Dialect Tales.” Studies in American Fiction 26 (Autumn, 1998): 131-146. Argues that the dialect tales deal in a subtle way with the restriction of African American rights in post-Reconstruction South; asserts Chesnutt focuses on a historical moment between Reconstruction and the return of white racism.

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