- What Is a Black Author?:A Review of Recent Charles Chesnutt Studies
Anyone who has made a habit of roaming the book exhibits at MLA conferences during the last ten years has watched the quiet cottage industry that was Charles Chesnutt studies grow into a publishing juggernaut. Many formerly obscure writers enjoy sudden bursts of posthumous critical acclaim, of course, but Chesnutt's decade-long vogue is unusual in that recent additions to his rapidly expanding bibliography include more primary than secondary texts. Three of the novels left unpublished at his death, Mandy Oxendine, Paul Marchand, F.M.C., and The Quarry, appeared for the first time in print between 1997 and 1999. During the same period, Stanford University Press issued To Be an Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1898–1905 (1997) and Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches (1999), a 600-page tome that includes 38 works never before seen in print. The Stanford editorial team of Joseph McElrath, Robert Leitz, and Jesse Crisler produced a second volume of correspondence in 2002, An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906–1932, covering the largely unexplored final decades of the author's life. And in 2005 the University Press of Mississippi published two more of the novel manuscripts Chesnutt left behind, A Business Career and Evelyn's Husband.
In addition to this flood of previously unpublished material, Chesnutt scholars have devised new ways to organize and disseminate his more familiar work, such as Sally Ann Ferguson's Charles W. Chesnutt: Selected Writings (2001), Werner Sollors's Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays (2002), and Charles Duncan's The Northern Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt (2004). Meanwhile, competition for sales of the once neglected major titles becomes more heated every year, as trade publishers issue one after another classroom edition of The Conjure Woman (1899), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The House behind the Cedars (1900). [End Page 829]
It is not surprising that Chesnutt's critics have been unable to match the frantic pace of his posthumous literary production, but the last ten years have been unusually rich in critical commentary. Following Eric Sundquist's groundbreaking treatment in To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993), leading Americanists have repeatedly insisted on Chesnutt's centrality in accounts of late-nineteenth-century literary culture. Brook Thomas's engaging discussion of overlapping legal and literary discourses in The House behind the Cedars and The Colonel's Dream is only one notable indication of Chesnutt's prominent role in contemporary critical debates.1 A burgeoning list of dissertations and journal articles similarly attests to his rising critical stature, as do the recent appearances of three scholarly monographs devoted to his literary career: Charles Duncan's The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt (1998); Dean McWilliams's Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race (2002); and Matthew Wilson's Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt (2004).
I have provided this incomplete catalogue of recent developments in Chesnutt studies to suggest that the time has come to pause and reflect on exactly who and what Charles W. Chesnutt has become. With such vast new critical and textual resources available, the Chesnutt we read today is not the writer who appealed a generation ago to critics hoping to expand the canon of American literature. For scholars writing in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, Chesnutt was a forgotten black voice speaking from the nadir of African-American history, and his novels and stories provided the starting point for an unprecedented discussion of African-American creative fiction. This image of Chesnutt as "America's first great black novelist," to borrow a phrase from the title of Noel Heermance's 1974 biography, served an important purpose in American criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, but the image no longer accurately conveys Chesnutt's relevance to his own era or ours. Indeed, the Chesnutt we read today appeals to our attention less as a "great black novelist" than as what Ross Posnock would call a "black intellectual," a phrase meant to unsettle received opinions about both of these terms (5...