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Chesnutt and Realism

A Study of the Novels

Written by Ryan Simmons

Publication Year: 2006

An important examination of Charles Chesnutt as a practitioner of realism.
With the release of previously unpublished novels and a recent proliferation of critical studies on his life and work, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932) has emerged as a major American writer of his time—the age of Howells, Twain, and Wharton. In Chesnutt and Realism, Ryan Simmons breaks new ground by theorizing how understandings of literary realism have shaped, and can continue to shape, the reception of Chesnutt’s work.
Although Chesnutt is typically acknowledged as the most prominent African American writer of the realist period, little attention has been paid to the central question of this study: what does it mean to call Chesnutt a realist? A writer whose career was circumscribed by the dismal racial politics of his era, Chesnutt refused to conform to literary conventions for depicting race. Nor did he use his imaginative skills to evade the realities he and other African Americans faced. Rather, he experimented with ways of portraying reality that could elicit an appropriate, proportionate response to it, as Simmons demonstrates in extended readings of each of Chestnutt’s novels, including important unpublished works that have been overlooked by previous critics.
Chesnutt and Realism also addresses a curiously neglected subject in American literary studies—the relationship between American literary realism and race. By taking Chesnutt seriously as a contributor to realism, this book articulates the strategies by which one African American intellectual helped to define the discourses that influenced his fate.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This project would not have gotten off the ground without the generous support of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Utah Valley State College, which provided a reduced teaching load for research and writing during four semesters as well as a summer research grant that facilitated my...

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Introduction: Of Race and Realism

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pp. 1-22

In this book I propose to initiate a new line of discussion about the cultural work done by American literary realism, and about the pressures and possibilities surrounding racial discourse in this nation, by examining the novels of an author whose career neatly matches the period traditionally associated with...

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1. Learning to Be a Realist: Chesnutt’s Northern Novels

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pp. 23-55

One aspect of Charles Chesnutt’s career that makes it especially interesting is his frequent failure. His published writings had enough impact that he was among the most signi¤cant African American writers of the turn of the century; at the same time, his novels were rejected more often than they were...

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2. Time Passing: Chesnutt’s Revisions of the “Tragic Mulatta” Tale

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pp. 56-86

Debates about the “tragic mulatto” or “tragic mulatta” genre of fiction and its uses have centered on its realism, or lack thereof. Sterling Brown, identifying the genre as the source of a pervasive stereotype in his 1937 survey The Negro in American Fiction, pointed out that the genre tends to rely more on...

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3. Simple and Complex Discourse in The Marrow of Tradition

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pp. 87-112

Evidence of Chesnutt’s always tenuous but enduring faith in the power of literature can be found in a 1909 letter he wrote to William M. Brown, a Southern bishop who had the temerity to send him a copy of his white supremacist volume...

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4. The Colonel’s Dream: Reconsidering a Radical Text

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pp. 113-130

As a cultural and economic analysis in literary form, The Colonel’s Dream merits serious study alongside realist and naturalist works by writers like Wharton, Dreiser, and Norris. It also warrants attention as a precursor to calls for African American resistance voiced by writers like Du Bois, Wright, and...

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5. “The Category of Surreptitious Things”: Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and The Quarry

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pp. 131-163

Accounts of Charles W. Chesnutt’s writing career typically have taken the shape of a rather steep bell curve: after an apprenticeship of several years practicing the craft and achieving occasional publication, his stock quickly rose with two successful short-story collections and then, just as quickly, dropped...


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pp. 165-185

Works Cited

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pp. 187-193


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pp. 195-198

E-ISBN-13: 9780817382285
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817315207

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2006