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Reviewed by:
  • Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Stephen K. Knadler
Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2004. ix + 256 pp.

Few writers have been such a foster child of slow time as Charles Chesnutt. A moderately successful magazine writer of short stories and three published novels after the turn of the century, Chesnutt was forced to return in 1905 to more lucrative employment as a displaced Southern stenographer in Cleveland. By the 1920s he was already the Old Negro in the Harlem Renaissance, finally venerated as a forerunner, but little read, and his last two novels failed to find a publisher. Until the 1990s a nationalist-based early African-American literary history found little to recover except his conjure tales for a resistant countertradition, dismissing his work as too assimilationist [End Page 213] and elitist, or less kindly damning the author as a light-skinned bougie sell-out pandering to the Howellsian Big House with racial (stereo)types and distancing himself from an "authentic" black folk at a time when the community needed a strong voice of protest and affirming black pride. But with a Faulknerian literalness, Chesnutt has endured. Contemporary critical race theory and historically contextualized reading practices over the last decade have integrated Chesnutt at the multicultural table as a proleptic social constructivist who unglued foundational notions of race and as a subtle "signifying monkey" who was more double-voiced than submissive. Dusting off the Fisk manuscripts, moreover, scholars have brought into print three previously unpublished novels (Mandy Oxendine, Paul Marchand, FMC, and The Quarry) as well as Chesnutt's journals and letters, accumulating evidence to re-try and re-make the man for twenty-first-century audiences. Matthew Wilson's Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt stands as one of the more perceptive and extensive reevaluations of Chesnutt's literary career, drawing particularly on the insights of whiteness studies and reception theory to reexamine the strategies of his racial protest. It well deserves to be read among the best of Chesnutt criticism, and it raises as well important methodological questions regarding our approaches to early African-American fiction.

Wilson's study starts with the obvious, but only half acknowledged, burden of African-American writers at the turn of the century—that they wrote with at least half an eye cocked on their white audience—and draws out its implications: that Chesnutt sought to do racial protest work by disturbing these white readers' unexamined values and assumptions, which they universalized as unraced sets of laws, reason, and norms. Now one might quibble slightly with Wilson's suggestion that Chesnutt made a virtue out of necessity, since this publication history itself reflected a clear political choice. Certainly Pauline Hopkins, who serialized her novels in the Colored American, or Sutton Griggs, who founded the church-based Orion press, did not feel so circumscribed by an absent black readership. But although some advocates of a distinctive black aesthetics will, therefore, insist that Chesnutt's comparative neglect of working-class black expressive styles betrays a residual blue veined elitism, Wilson begins his study by retrieving late-nineteenth-century anxieties about racial indeterminacy to make a compelling case for why Chesnutt saw a challenge to whiteness as an imperative duty. In an analysis of Chesnutt's "What is a White Man" (1899), "The Future American" (1900), and "Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Cures" (1905), Wilson demonstrates how Chesnutt played upon his readers' insecurity about the historical contingency of definitions of whiteness, especially as [End Page 214] reflected in the growing number of intermarriage laws, prerequisite cases, and even State Constitutional Conventions, such as that in South Carolina in 1895, which sought to redefine and clarify that anyone with one-eighth ancestry was "black." At a time when such contentious legal debates in the face of mounting scientific evidence were disclosing the tenuousness of "common knowledge" about the biological and morphological distinctions of race, Chesnutt similarly sought to expose the unstable assumptions of whiteness. In "Future American," for example, Chensutt, found an instrumental value in futuristic visions of racial fusion. While such ideas of mestizo-ness have at times served...


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