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Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race

Dean McWilliams

Publication Year: 2002

Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) was the first African American writer of fiction to win the attention and approval of America's literary establishment. Looking anew at Chesnutt's public and private writings, his fiction and nonfiction, and his well-known and recently rediscovered works, Dean McWilliams explores Chesnutt's distinctive contribution to American culture: how his stories and novels challenge our dominant cultural narratives--particularly their underlying assumptions about race.

The published canon of Chesnutt's work has doubled in the last decade: three novels completed but unpublished in Chesnutt's life have appeared, as have scholarly editions of Chesnutt's journals, his letters, and his essays. This book is the first to offer chapter-length analyses of each of Chesnutt's six novels. It also devotes three chapters to his short fiction. Previous critics have read Chesnutt's nonfiction as biographical background for his fiction. McWilliams is the first to analyze these nonfiction texts as complex verbal artifacts embodying many of the same tensions and ambiguities found in Chesnutt's stories and novels. The book includes separate chapters on Chesnutt's journal and on his important essay "The Future American." Moreover, Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race approaches Chesnutt's writings from the perspective of recent literary theory. To a greater extent than any previous study of Chesnutt, it explores the way his texts interrogate and deconstruct the language and the intellectual constructs we use to organize reality.

The full effect of this new study is to show us how much more of a twentieth-century writer Chesnutt is than has been previously acknowledged. This accomplishment can only hasten his reemergence as one of our most important observers of race in American culture.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. vii-xii

Charles Chesnutt is a writer whose literary fortunes have prospered in the years when one century ends and another begins. Chesnutt emerged as the preeminent African American writer of fiction—he first to be published and praised by the American literary establishment—at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. His earliest stories came out in...

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1. Chesnutt's Language / Language's Chesnutt

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pp. 1-22

At an earlier stage, this book bore the working title "Chesnutt's Language / Language's Chesnutt." I subsequently changed the title to the designation on the cover for reasons I will soon explain. Nonetheless, I feel sufficient attachment to the phrase by which I first identified this project to place it here at the head of the first chapter. The attachment is due partly to the shape...

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2. Chesnutt in His Journals: "Nigger" under Erasure

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pp. 23-42

Chesnutt, during the winter an assistant teacher at Charlotte's Peabody School, had passed the examination for a first-grade teaching certificate in North Carolina; thus he was entitled to a salary of up to forty dollars a month. He was, however, obliged to take part of his salary in board and to negotiate terms directly with the families of his pupils. These tenant...

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3. "The Future American" and "Chas. Chesnutt"

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pp. 43-56

The year 1900 marks the midpoint in Charles Chesnutt's sequence of booklength compositions. He had completed one novel and two short story collections before this date, and he published another novel in that year; three more novels would follow later in his career. As the new century dawned, Chesnutt was at the peak of his reputation. In his forties, he was a respected...

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4. Black Vernacular in Chesnutt's Short Fiction: "A New School of Literature"

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pp. 57-75

Charles Chesnutt used the dialect tale to become the first African American to win a national white audience for his fiction. Chesnutt's choice of this genre was, of course, the product of a shrewd calculation of the literary market. But there was more: Chesnutt understood that the popularity of stories featuring rural black speech offered an opportunity to introduce...

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5. The Julius and John Stories: "The Luscious Scuppernong"

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pp. 76-99

Chesnutt's best-known fictions are the stories based on North Carolina folk culture and narrated by an illiterate ex-slave named Julius McAdoo. Chesnutt collected seven of these stories in The Conjure Woman (1899), and between 1889 and 1904, he completed another seven stories, featuring the same characters, that were not included in the collection. Critics refer...

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6. Race in Chesnutt's Short Fiction: The "Line" and the "Web"

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pp. 100-121

In 1887 when Chesnutt introduced Julius McAdoo to the readers of the Atlantic Monthly, he described him simply as a "venerable looking colored man." However, in 1899 when he revised "The Goophered Grapevine" for inclusion in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt added to this description. Julius, we are told in the revised version, "was not entirely black, and this...

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7. Mandy Oxendine: "Is You a Rale Black Man?"

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pp. 122-132

Mandy Oxendine begins with the arrival of a man and woman at a rural rail station. Both are well dressed, and both descend from the same firstclass coach. The man and the woman boarded the train at the same point, and both now leave at the same terminus. There is no apparent social difference between them. The narrator describes a sign outside the station waiting...

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8. The House behind the Cedars: "Creatures of Our Creation"

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pp. 133-146

The House behind the Cedars, like Mandy Oxendine, begins with a young man's arrival in a rural North Carolina town. The visitor is, despite appearances, an African American, and he has come to retrieve a light-colored mulatto female. Despite these echoes of the earlier narrative, The House behind the Cedars is, thematically and technically, a significantly different...

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9. The Marrow of Tradition: "The Very Breath of His Nostrils"

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pp. 147-165

The railroad is a potent American symbol, so readers should not be surprised to find that Chesnutt begins three of his novels with his protagonists aboard or descending from a train. But Chesnutt's trains bear a different thematic weight than do other, more familiar appearances of the iron horse. This is not the machine whose shrill whistle disturbs Thoreau's pastoral...

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10. The Colonel's Dream: "Sho Would 'a' Be'n a 'Ristocrat"

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pp. 166-182

The Colonel's Dream, the last novel that Chesnutt saw into print, is by critical consensus the least successful of the long fictions published during his lifetime. It is also judged to be the most overtly didactic work. The novel, it is true, does strain toward a moral lesson, and yet, at the same time, the actual nature of that lesson remains obscure or contradictory. For...

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11. Paul Marchand, F.M.C.: "F.M.C." and "C.W.C."

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pp. 183-207

Paul Marchand, F.M.C., the novel with which Chesnutt sought to break a sixteen-year literary silence, is a geographic, historical, and generic anomaly in Chesnutt 5s canon. Chesnutt's previous novels and many of his stories are set in North Carolina during the i88os through the first years of the twentieth century. With Paul Marchand., F.M.C.., however, Chesnutt moved his...

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12. The Quarry: "And Not the Hawk"

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pp. 208-227

Charles Chesnutt's writings span the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. We first meet him as a teenage diarist in 1874 and we find him still active in his seventies, completing The Quarry in 1928. Surveying this half-century of activity, we are struck, first of all, by Chesnutt's determination; for it must be admitted that Chesnutt's literary...


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pp. 229-245


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pp. 247-254


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pp. 255-261

E-ISBN-13: 9780820327242
E-ISBN-10: 0820327247
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820324357
Print-ISBN-10: 0820324353

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 656841475
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Group identity in literature.
  • African Americans in literature.
  • Identity (Psychology) in literature.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. -- (Charles Waddell), -- 1858-1932 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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