- Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels
In the last decade, several novels by Charles W. Chesnutt have been released posthumously, resulting in a wealth of scholarship that analyzes them in the context of Chesnutt’s previously known body of work and attempts to locate his place in American literary history. In Chesnutt and Realism, Ryan Simmons advances both of these scholarly projects, reading Chesnutt’s most recently published novels alongside his better-known work to argue that Chesnutt was not a marginal figure in American [End Page 377] realism but rather a significant practitioner of realist methods. Scholars of realism will engage with–and perhaps be challenged by–Simmons’s inclusion of race in defining the genre’s parameters while Chesnutt scholars will appreciate this study’s insights into Chesnutt’s politics as well as his narrative techniques.
In the introduction, Simmons describes the centrality of race to Chesnutt’s practice of realism. For Chesnutt, writing as a realist demanded a careful balance between objectivity and political advocacy. As a committed realist, Chesnutt wanted to represent human experience factually and objectively, yet he also recognized that the racial bigotry of his time was so culturally entrenched that, as Simmons puts it, “convention was blinding readers to the truth” (11). In order to perceive African American experiences accurately, Chesnutt would need to train his mostly-white audience to read against its own interests. Because Chesnutt believed that exposure to the realities of black experience could motivate his readers to act for social justice, their failure to see these truths would have not only artistic consequences but political ones as well. The subsequent chapters of Chesnutt and Realism give examples of how Chesnutt linked realism with action by creating emotionally compelling characters, employing familiar literary tropes–such as the “tragic mulatta”–and exposing the deep contradictions in the period’s racial norms in order to move readers to think beyond their own racialized perceptions and to act accordingly.
In Chesnutt’s lifetime–and, indeed, at any time–what constituted “truth” or “reality” was very much contested. Simmons accounts for the slippery nature of these terms by showing how Chesnutt situated racial inequality in the context of uneven power relations, racist discourse, and economic disparity in order to illustrate the myriad ways that individual realities are circumscribed by race. Likewise, Simmons urges that literary scholars adopt a similar practice of contextualization by considering how an author’s racial identity may shape his or her use of realism. Treating white male representatives of the realist canon such as Twain or Howells as models for what constitutes literary “reality” limits our understanding of the tradition by excluding authors whose lived experiences inevitably yield alternative perspectives.
The chapters in Chesnutt and Realism proceed chronologically, tracing the evolution of Chesnutt’s use of realism to expose racial disparities during his time. The first chapter focuses on Rainbow Chasers (c. 1900), A Business Career (c. 1898), and Evelyn’s Husband (c. 1903), three novels that Chesnutt failed to publish in his lifetime though the latter two were published in 2005. While not obviously realist on the surface, these early novels reveal Chesnutt’s experimentation with the realist techniques that would become more recognizable in his later work, such as examining the meaning of race, maintaining an objective narrative perspective, and carefully documenting the facts of social realities. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter, however, is the reading of these supposedly nonracial novels as containing white characters described in terms that imply secret African American ancestry. Although the hints about unnoticed racial mixing may be too covert for easy detection, this interpretation exposes the deep roots of Chesnutt’s desire to play with racial categories, a practice that becomes more explicit and effective in his novels about passing and switched children.
Subsequent chapters examine Chesnutt’s most well-known novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), as well as The Colonel’s Dream (1905), Paul Marchand, FMC (c. 1921, published in 1998) and...