Charles W. Chesnutt


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
Law.
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