Charles Chesnutt's Capitalist Conjurings
Every time I read a good novel, I want to write one. It is the dream of my life—to be an author! It is not so much the monstrari digito. . . . It is not altogether the money. It is a mixture of motives. I want fame; I want money; I want to raise my children in a different rank of life from that I sprang from. In my present vocation, I would never accumulate a competency, with all the economy and prudence, and parsimony in the world. In law or medicine, I would be compelled to wait half a life-time to accomplish anything. But literature pays—the successful. There is a fascination about this calling that draws a scribbler irresistibly toward his doom. He knows that the chance of success is hardly one out of a hundred; but he is foolish enough to believe, or sanguine enough to hope, that he will be the successful one.
I am confident that I can succeed, in some degree, at any rate. It is the only thing I can do without capital. . . . I shall strike for an entering wedge in the literary world, which I can drive in further afterwards.1
So writes Charles Chesnutt in 1881 upon finishing William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. His response to Thackeray's fictional indictment of worldly vanity highlights Chesnutt's belief that authorship is a vocation that, far from transcending economics, is chosen in large measure because it can serve as a unique means by which to secure both fame and fortune. Although authorship does not require capital, Chesnutt proposes that it can produce it. Further, although the "scribbler" will "strike" and "drive," his labor is clearly not akin to that of the hireling, since it will provide for his children's social ascent. In these terms, then, Chesnutt understands authorship as vocationally similar to his other chosen careers of stenography and law, insofar as all are forms of labor for which he receives compensation sufficient to accumulate capital.2
This essay will focus on Chesnutt's fiction most explicitly devoted to economic topics: the conjure tales and his unpublished novel, written in 1899, A Business Career. Each testifies to a very different moment in Chesnutt's own writing career, as the former were largely responsible for his literary reputation during the 1890s, while the latter has [End Page 931] been taken as evidence of his inability to successfully speculate in the literary marketplace. And yet both fictional projects indicate Chesnutt's abiding interest in the intersection between literature and economics. For Chesnutt, as we will see, the nature of the intersection involved not only a consideration of the economic realities of authorship, but also of the aesthetic qualities of American capitalism. In many ways, then, despite their apparent dissimilarities, we can read both the conjure stories and A Business Career as allegories for Chesnutt's own business career as literary artist.
Much of Chesnutt's correspondence with literary men, like George Washington Cable and Albion W. Tourgée, deliberates about whether authorship is a wise vocational choice, and the principle standard on which this determination is based is fiscal. In an early letter to Cable, for example, Chesnutt ruminates on whether or not literature might prove to be as remunerative a "field of labor" as his stenography business.3 His primary question to Cable is remarkably utilitarian: he asks "as to the wisdom or rashness of my adopting literature as a means of support" (L, 36). This letter dramatizes a recurrent refrain, as Chesnutt imagines his various businesses (as stenographer, as lawyer, as author) as different forms of labor whose purpose is to provide income for himself and his family. Chesnutt seems to believe that writing is a kind of labor that pays relatively well in proportion to the amount of work exerted. Asserting his stylistic range, Chesnutt highlights the potential profitability of writing: "I can turn my hand at several kinds of literary work—can write a story, a funny skit, can turn a verse, or write a serious essay, and I have heretofore been able to dispose of most that I have written, at prices which fairly compensated me for the time spent in writing them, as compared with what I could have earned in the same time at something else" (L, 36). As such, Chesnutt proposes to Cable that "If I could earn twelve or fifteen hundred dollars a year at literature, or in some collateral pursuit which would allow me some time to devote to letters, I think I should be willing to undertake it" (L, 37). Authorship here is a business decision—a risky but potentially sound career move.
Chesnutt's early correspondence with Tourgée likewise focuses on business, and when Chesnutt asks about the possibility of publishing a collection of stories (in 1889, ten years before his first volume is finally published), his primary concern is financial viability: would "such a book . . . be likely to pay for itself, or whether it would be of sufficient value as an advertisement to justify me in paying for it?" (L, 45). A few years later, in 1893, after a series of disappointing rejections (including [End Page 932] the news in 1891 that Houghton, Mifflin & Co. were not interested in publishing a collection of his stories), Chesnutt interrogates Tourgée on the viability of moving to Europe so as "command a better market, for the kind of matter I could produce most readily and willingly" (L, 78).4 Here he announces what is implicit in all his correspondence, his desire to apply his business acumen to his literary production: "For when I go into literature, I propose to apply to the financial side of it the same business principles I have applied to my other affairs, and to seek the best and most profitable market" (L, 78).
If authorship is like stenography insofar as it is a means towards turning a writing hand into a mechanism for income, Chesnutt nonetheless also sees the two as mutually exclusive calls on his time. Thus, despite his early anticipation that writing would be the means towards socioeconomic advancement, Chesnutt's acquisition of capital came primarily through his ownership of a profitable stenography firm; and as this business prospered and afforded him a substantial income, Chesnutt characterizes this success as interfering with his authorial ambitions. For example, when he writes Houghton, Mifflin & Co. (upon their rejection of his initial book proposal in 1891), he explicitly states, "the money returns from literature are so small and so uncertain, that I have not had the time to spare from an absorbing and profitable business" (L, 77).5 This representation of himself as a literary author whose time is constrained by financial success is repeated in Tourgée's public celebration of Chesnutt in 1893: characterizing him as an exceptional African American artist, he also notes that Chesnutt's "prosperity in other fields [had] smothered his rare gift."6 Chesnutt's critics have embraced the conventional logic of Tourgée's assessment, which is that authorship and business were mutually exclusive vocations. This is not, however, Chesnutt's assumption. Although Chesnutt recognizes that he has limited labor hours in his day and, thus, he must choose the vocation that will compensate him best, he does not conceive of authorship as antidote to commerce.7 Chesnutt desires an authorial career not because it is a vocation removed from the taint of both wage labor and capitalist avarice; instead, Chesnutt represents authorship as an exceptional vocation in that it is associated with free labor (which is to say, not wages) and capital accumulation.
The tendency among Chesnutt scholars has been to argue either that his writing was an ethical and political choice that transcended economics, or, conversely, that his primary motivation was selfish cupidity. And in almost every case, his critics have presumed that his desire for capital advancement ultimately conflicted with, or at very [End Page 933] least contaminated, his artistic and political aspirations. Thus, on one hand, Chesnutt is depicted as an "indefatigable advocate for those victimized by racism," but on the other he is a self-interested man whose primary motivation was the pursuit of individual wealth and prestige at the expense of others.8 Indeed, one standard biographical narrative is that because of Chesnutt's selfish desire for the "superior career, as a self-supporting, professional man of letters, a velvet-jacketed gentleman who lived by the more dignified labor of words," he ultimately is willing to sell his "people" out (L, 8). These are in fact precisely the terms that Richard Brodhead uses to describe Chesnutt's willingness to continue to write the dialect stories that initially brought him literary fame: "Like a long line of black show business successes in American white culture [Chesnutt] wins an enhanced social place for himself by making African American expressive forms and 'soul' available to others' imaginative participation and consumption."9
This suggestion, however, is premised on the assumption that Chesnutt's conjure tales constitute an appropriation of an African American cultural form—and that his relationship to the stories is merely one of distribution. In other words, if we argue that Chesnutt sells out other black Americans, then we necessarily presume that Chesnutt understands the conjure tales as a commodity produced by others (namely a southern African American community) and not as the product of his own labor. Such a reading has the curious effect of translating Chesnutt's authorship of the conjure tales back into something approaching stenography—as if his work is merely to copy and distribute the words of others. On the other hand, the somewhat different argument that Chesnutt sells himself out requires us to understand Chesnutt as a producer forced by the marketplace into making and selling a good from which he is entirely alienated—to sell his labor at whatever prices command. In both cases, critics assume uncompensated appropriation: either Chesnutt exploits the labor of others or his northern white elite audience exploits Chesnutt's labor.
This assumption about uncompensated appropriation largely relies on the conventional wisdom that Chesnutt's ultimate decision to write black dialect tales in a plantation setting was a capitulation to white literary tastes for plantation tales popularized by Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page. And because we know that soon after the publication of "Dave's Neckliss" in the Atlantic Monthly in 1889, Chesnutt describes his desire to "drop" the "old Negro who serves as mouthpiece" (L, 44–45) from his writing, almost all Chesnutt's biographers understand that his conjure tales were conceived by Chesnutt [End Page 934] as merely the means or tool by which he could first wedge his way into the literary world. In "The South as Field for Fiction," Tourgée proposes that that while the "Negro has of late developed a capacity as a stock character," such status as "stock character" is absolutely distinct from his former status as "merchantable commodity."10 In other words, in his praise of Chesnutt's plantation tales, Tourgée insists that the trading in men has changed significantly: stock characters are not chattel. Chesnutt's twentieth-century readers, however, refuse the distinction that Tourgée makes, and have long read the conjure tales as submission to white bourgeois exploitation of black labor and African American culture.11 Alternatively, they propose that Chesnutt's portrait of conjure is a repudiation of economic exploitation—that what the tales reveal is a radical dismissal of the economic logic of both capitalism and slavery.12 But Chesnutt's analysis of labor and capital, far from proposing southern African American culture as an alternative to the realities of economic exploitation, displays an almost obsessive concern for the economics of compensation and labor value, and it depicts conjure as deeply implicated in both.13 The conjure tales and his first so-called "white novel," A Business Career, exemplify Chesnutt's attempts to craft his fiction in such a way that authorial labor is aligned with capital ownership and not compensated labor.
Committed to the efficacy of capitalism, Chesnutt is also astute in his recognition of the ways that this power is secured through the dispossession of labor. This recognition, it seems, is largely a consequence of Chesnutt's analysis of the material continuities between American slavery and American capitalism. Chesnutt, however, reverses the familiar nineteenth-century logic of the analogy—one that compared wage laborers to chattel slaves because the hireling was no more able to resist a compulsion to labor than the slave. While Chesnutt's portrait of free labor is likewise be complicated by his analysis of the essentially pecuniary compulsion to labor (one cannot live if one cannot eat, and one cannot eat if one does not labor), Chesnutt's emphasis in the conjure tales is not to show the ways that the southern freeperson remains enslaved, as if he were still chattel, but rather to describe the ways that the institution of chattel slavery was fundamentally predicated on the logic of modern capitalism.14
Chesnutt's first published conjure tale is "The Goophered Grapevine" (1887), and it introduces the cast of characters and setting of all his subsequent conjure stories. From the very beginning, Chesnutt emphasizes the importance of economic motivation, since it is the ambition to become "a pioneer" and "start a new industry" that brings [End Page 935] the white Ohioan John to North Carolina to begin his new career in grape-culture.15 John's decision is made for almost entirely pecuniary reasons: "labor was cheap, and land could be bought for a mere song" (C, 32). Because he already has capital resources (having previously been "engaged in grape-culture" in Northern Ohio), John is able to bring his ample resources to North Carolina, which because of "the blight of war . . . had fallen into desuetude." In particular, the plantation land John purchases had been neglected (by "disputing heirs" and "shiftless cultivation"), thereby allowing John to buy it "for a mere song" and begin the improvements that will render the "luscious scuppernong" profitable (C, 32–33). Chesnutt therefore uses this abandoned and ruined plantation to symbolize the generalized economic ruin of the postbellum South (a theme to which he'll return in A Colonel's Dream ). And from the start, he emphasizes his framing narrator as the Northern capitalist who can profit from such ruin. John, in fact, points to his purchases as a "striking illustration of the opportunities open to Northern capital in the development of Southern industries" (C, 43).16 Indeed, most of the conjure tales begin with John speculating on new entrepreneurial ventures: in "'Po' Sandy," he wants to enlarge his house and build his wife a kitchen; in "The Conjurer's Revenge," he plans to harvest watermelons and ship them North, where he can "get a good price for them" (C, 71); in "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," he wants to clear a swamp that lies on his land so as to cultivate it; "Lonesome Ben" begins with John's participation in the "talk among local capitalists" (C, 146) to build a new cotton mill; and even in "Hot-Foot Hannibal," John and Annie are engaged in something of a fiscal plan as they cultivate the promising marriage between Annie's sister and the heir of an old southern planter family.
John's initial purchase, then, initiates an economic conflict that provides the basic plot for all the stories that follow. Once he buys the property, John effectively divests the freeperson, Julius, of the land on which he had received his own income.17 Julius, we learn, had been a property owner—or rather, he had "occupied" the land and (as John himself explains) had "derived a respectable revenue from the product of the neglected grapevines" (C, 43). According to John, Julius's dispossession justifies the tale Julius tells: because Julius had received revenue from this land, he attempts to persuade John out of the purchase by telling him the story of the economic risks of the goophered, or conjured, grapevine. And sure enough this seems a plausible theory: Julius's storytelling is almost always a commercial strategy—in this case a strategy to try to convince John that what he [End Page 936] imagines he is buying for a "song" is in fact worthless.18 But clearly Chesnutt means to emphasize what John does not acknowledge, which is that this purchase radically changes Julius's economic position. John's sale transforms Julius from an individual who secures his livelihood from what we assume to be independent production decisions (even if Julius had no legal title to the land) to a hireling who is paid a wage to drive horses and tell stories.
And so Julius begins by attempting to stop what Chesnutt knows to be an inevitable future: "'f I 'uz in yo' place, I wouldn' buy dis vimya'd" (C, 35). Julius explains that the vineyard has been "goophered," and the story he proceeds to tell is John's (and Chesnutt's audience's) introduction to conjure. This conjure story, like almost all the others Chesnutt writes, is explicitly about the economics of chattel slavery; but even more crucially, it begins a pattern that continues throughout the tales, which is both to interrogate the relationship between the businesses of conjure and slavery and to show the essentially capitalist foundation of each. Hence, Julius explains that the vineyard is goophered because the slaveowner, Dugal' (like John) wanted to increase the revenue on his capital investment. Although Dugal's profits were substantial (he "made a thousan' gallon er scuppernon' wine eve'y year" [C, 35]), he felt that his investment could be improved by reducing the losses caused by the fact that his laborers (slaves) ate grapes. It is for this reason that he hired Aun' Peggy, the conjure woman, to goopher the grapevine. This proves to be a sound financial decision as he pays the conjure woman ten dollars and reduces his losses substantially: we learn that the following year "he made fifteen hund'ed gallon er wine" (C, 37). As Julius relays in his story, Dugal' says, "dem fifteen hund'ed gallon er wine wuz monst'us good intrus' on de ten dollars" (C, 37).
Dugal' pays ten dollars to the conjure woman to add value to his capital by decreasing the cost of his labor. Conjuring the vineyard effectively conjures more surplus value (since his laborers consume fewer grapes). It is that surplus (which he calls "intrus'") that he pockets. Notably, then, Chesnutt's portrait of Dugal's economic motivations emphasizes capital accumulation, echoing Karl Marx's own analysis of southern chattel slavery as an institution in which "[i]t was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself."19 But, to use the term "intrus'" is to suggest, precisely as does Marx, not that he is gaining more products from the labor of his slaves, but that this added labor is value itself. Additionally, Chesnutt's use of the term "intrus'" to describe Dugal's appreciation allows Chesnutt to emphasize the ways [End Page 937] that chattel slavery is essentially a capitalistic enterprise—one that yields profit by extracting ever-increasing labor value with decreasing capital expenditure. While the tendency in Chesnutt scholarship has been to argue that Chesnutt shows the ways that the legacy of slavery, American racism, disrupts the logic of capitalism, it is clear that Chesnutt understands chattel slavery as firmly grounded in capitalist principles.20
Goopher, as it turns out, provides even more "intrus'" for the avaricious Dugal' when Peggy uses it to save the new slave Henry from the effects of his mistaken eating of the grapes. This time hired by Henry, Peggy fixes the goopher such that he can eat as many grapes as he wants. It seems at first that Peggy reverses her initial conjure since Henry is transformed into what would appear to be a liability, capable as he is of literally eating all Dugal's profits. But the goopher also causes both Henry and the grapes in tandem to become even more bountiful and productive: in the spring both the vineyard and the slave that works it thrive, but after the harvest, when the vines begin to wither and die, so too does Henry. Although Dugal' could have decided to realize all the surplus value that would come from Henry's increased productivity, he instead opts to profit from his slave's status as commodity. Dugal' determines that "he could make mo' money out'n Henry dan by wukkin' him in de cotton-fiel" (C, 40), and he chooses to sell him for $1500. Dugal' sells Henry not because he wants to give him up, but because he can sell him when his value is high (when, like the vineyard, he is healthy and productive), knowing that as soon as autumn comes Henry will decline with the grapes. Having this inside tip, he approaches Henry's new owner and generously volunteers to buy him back for five hundred dollars and "take my chances on his livin'" (C, 40). The trade, of course, is a profitable one. Dugal' continues to buy and sell Henry, eventually netting him enough money from this churning that he can afford to purchase another plantation.
Soon after the purchase of his new plantation, Dugal' is approached by a Northerner salesman who has come to peddle a new wine press that he promises "would make mo' d'n twice't ez many gallons er wine" (C, 41). Dugal' predictably is intrigued by the proposition—indeed, he is just as taken by this Northern industrialist and his new technologies as he was with the conjure woman, since just like Peggy, the salesman is offering to sell him something through which Dugal' can extract even more "intrus." Julius's depiction of Dugal's response to the salesman emphasizes the similarity between the northern huckster and the conjure woman: "[Dugal'] 'peared ter be bewitch' wid dat Yankee." [End Page 938] Unfortunately for Dugal', this particular form of capitalist conjure ends up costing him "mo'n a thousan' dollars," and the plantation falls into ruin with the interruption of the Civil War (C, 41).
Julius optimistically offers his story as a homily for the precariousness of investment strategies: goopher has as much a chance of causing ruin as it does riches. Unfortunately, as it turns out, John is willing to take risks (after all, he has a fair amount of capital), and he buys the vineyard, rendering Julius literally dispossessed. In this way, as Henry Wonham argues, Julius tells a tale in which conjure has "accomplished nothing except to enrich the owner of the grapevine."21 Wonham asks why Julius tells a tale that seems to work against his own interests, which shows John how much potential profit is to be found in the vineyard. Appealing to Eric Sundquist's reading of the vineyard as metaphor for cultural hybridization, Wonham proposes:
Chesnutt implies through his master trope of the hopelessly knotted and twined grapevine that the grapes must be shared between black and white, old and new Southerners. . . . Julius's tale is . . . a warning to John . . . about the dangers of repeating an old mistake, that of bisecting the local culture . . . to gratify an unregulated appetite for profit.22
This reading is typical of the critical tendency to read Chesnutt's portrait of African Americans as either the victims of economic exploitation or as entirely outside the capitalist system. Brodhead, for example, argues that John and Julius are of entirely different economic orders:
[Julius] has a different understanding of property, based not on the alienable ownership of buying and selling but on possession through personal contiguity and association, and aimed not toward maximized return on investment but the maintenance of traditional uses. In this, Julius is linked to the historical populations of blacks who stayed on their former plantations after slavery but strove to work them to their own interests and in their own ways, according to the precapitalist ethic of their distinctive group culture.23
Such arguments, however, do a disservice to Chesnutt's portrait of Julius (not to mention conjure itself) as an economic agent that is likewise invested in revenue generation. We might instead more profitably attempt to secure the nature of both Chesnutt and Julius's economic investments in a system that would exclude them.
In the first of the series of narrative and economic competitions between the two men, Julius loses. John rationalizes Julius's dispossession by explaining that "the wages I paid him for his services as [End Page 939] coachman . . . were more than an equivalent for anything he lost by the sale of the vineyard" (C, 43). John, in short, justifies his purchase by explaining that the wages he pays Julius are commensurate to the profit he had received in selling the grapes. John's explanation, however, obscures a very significant fact, which is that Julius begins the tale as an owner (who generates a revenue from selling a commodity) and he concludes the story as a wage laborer (who sells his labor power to John). That John can make these equivalent by emphasizing the similar remuneration that Julius receives in both cases actually points to a crucial shift in the understanding of "free labor" in postbellum United States.24
As many economic historians have argued, the relationship between economic independence and the political concept of freedom became even more fraught in the aftermath of emancipation because freedom was paradoxically more closely associated with economic autonomy, even as the realities of a growing pool of industrial laborers meant that the vast majority of American workers were paid wages. Leon Fink explains: "The fact that by 1870 two-thirds of the American workforce were hirelings posed a stark ideological dilemma for a culture in which the lack of property and independence was associated with slavery or 'wage slavery.'"25 For Chesnutt, then, to depict Julius as wage earner is to describe Julius as no longer exercising the economic autonomy that he once did: his labor is once again unfree (even as John attempts to justify this by pointing to the salary). As Amy Dru Stanley writes, "By defining the alternative as either wage labor or unlawful dependence, the northern architects of freedom invalidated ex-slaves' efforts to construct livelihoods based on independent property ownership and self-employment."26 And since it is as wage laborer that Julius tells the conjure stories that follow, we might presume there is something essentially coercive in the fact that Julius continues to tell stories to his new employer. Thus, while it may be the case that John understands Julius's proprietary interest in the vineyards as pre- (or even anti-) capitalist, it does not necessarily follow that Chesnutt depicts him in these same terms. For example, John declares that Julius's relationship to property is functionally different than his own—"predial rather than proprietary" (C, 56). John's use of the term "predial" to describe Julius's position on the land translates Julius into something attached to the land that John has purchased. That is, John's language effectively extends his ownership over Julius into not merely the payment of his wages, but possession of property to which Julius is intrinsically associated. But while John's rhetoric covers over the fact that Julius has [End Page 940] been converted into a wage earner, it is important to recognize that nothing in Julius's (or Chesnutt's) own language does so.
Chesnutt's depiction of Julius's substantial vocational shift suggests an analogy between Julius and Chesnutt himself, who likewise turns to storytelling as remunerative, and this analogy is especially suggestive given Chesnutt's understanding of authorship as an economic position without capital. Yet, if Chesnutt makes his first "strike" into the literary marketplace by telling a story of the inevitability of white capital domination, then the second published conjure tale, "Po' Sandy," revises the standing of Julius's labor as storyteller insofar as Chesnutt depicts Julius's tale as his strategic attempt to maintain some labor that is free. And this is why Julius's stories are so frequently the means by which he tries to secure his own proprietary interests (which might, if successful, make him economically autonomous from John). Chesnutt is deeply interested in the mechanics of capital transformation—an alchemy he wants to achieve through fiction. The author can transform raw material into value much as businessmen (like John and Dugal') generate profit from waste. In this way, the economic competition between Julius and John figures a central concern for Chesnutt: is the author a hireling or an owner?
Such considerations occupied other writers of the time, and considerable ink was spilled discussing what constituted fair material compensation for authors as well as the more theoretical question of the relationship between the author and his product. Moreover, in the 1880s and 1890s, there was increased discussion as to whether or not authors might organize into labor consortiums, as were many other industrial workers of the time. In a widely circulated essay, Andrew Lang, the literary editor of the British Longman's Magazine, described the "underpaid" worker whose labor satisfies the consumer's desire for books and magazines as a "literary sweater," suggesting, "if any capitalists are really making fortunes out of this employment of penmen at starvation wages, why it is high time that a literary trades union was started by the oppressed class."27
Similar discussions occupy American periodicals of the same period. For example, disparaging the current tribe of authors as "cunning craftsmen" who dedicate themselves to producing whatever the market demands, one writer nonetheless asks in 1896 why authors ought "to be less well treated than boot-makers or tailors, butchers or bakers, or candlestick makers? Why should they not get as much as possible for their labors? Why should they not, like every other kind of working man, found a Labor Union?"28 The problem with authorial unions, [End Page 941] however, is that there are too many "who are willing to work literally for nothing."29 Consequentially, the economic paradox of publishing is that although authors are obviously essential to the industry, they are the last of its producers to be compensated. In this way, although the author is positioned with the capitalist as a "speculator in the enterprise," and although he has to "share with the investment of the capitalist the risk of not being paid for at all," he is unlike the publisher in that his compensation is not tied to the profit secured by the sales of the product. Indeed, because "the author's labor is the last to be paid for . . . [it] even runs the risk of being thrown away."30 Chesnutt's compensation from his own literary labors bears out this bleak portrait, as his publishers always owned his copyright.31 Yet, his own fictional portrait of authorial labor strives to secure a very different economic status to the writer—one that is akin to capital ownership—and his fiction relentlessly interrogates the mechanics of capital economies, the alchemy by which capital, labor and land are joined to produce new capital.
The essential economic conflict at the heart of the conjure tales is Julius's narrative effort to restore his economic autonomy. Although he is unambiguously defeated in the first story, he does somewhat better in at least some of the subsequent tales. So, for example, in "'Po' Sandy" (1888), Julius foils John's economizing plan "to save expense" (C, 45) by building his wife's new kitchen out of the lumber from an old schoolhouse. Julius is thus able to use the old schoolhouse (that John owns since it lies on his property) as his church. Other tales similarly secure Julius's own pecuniary interests: he sells John a blind horse, he keeps possession of his honey monopoly, he convinces John to take relatives under his employ, and so on. But John, as the framing narrator, always insists that he is not being had and that he remains the economic victor (if only because he can see through Julius's motives). Thus the tales almost always conclude with John's recognition of Julius's manipulation and an assertion that the payments that Julius receives are commensurate to the usefulness and interest that he and his wife secure from the stories themselves. In other words, if Julius is depicted as using the stories to secure his own financial interests, then John depicts these very same stories as a service that he pays for not only with wages, but through the losses he bears by Julius's machinations. John works overtime to translate Julius from competitor (and fellow entrepreneur) into wage earner. John likewise insists that Julius himself understands the stories he tells according to such a wage economy: "[I]f . . . his stories might turn out to have a purpose [End Page 942] apart from any esthetic or didatic end, he probably reasoned . . . that the laborer was worthy of his hire" (C, 185).
Here, then, is the real competition between our two protagonists: while John wants to convert Julius's stories into a labor for which he pays (effectively owning all of his employee's labor power), Julius attempts to use these same stories as a means of revenue that is discrete from and independent of his wages. This conflict perhaps explains the relatively angry tone that characterizes the conclusion to "The Conjurer's Revenge," where John notes with surprise that Julius had made a purchase of new suit from a store. Here is a rare moment where Julius is depicted as a consumer—even a consumer of the same kinds of goods that John himself might purchase, since John remarks that he too had seen the suit "displayed in the window of Mr. Solomon Cohen's store" and had even "remarked on their striking originality of cut and pattern" (C, 80). John wonders not only how Julius was able to afford the new clothing, but also seems annoyed that the funds Julius secured for the purchase were independent of his knowledge: "As I had not recently paid Julius any money, and as he had no property to mortgage, I was driven to conjecture to account for his possession of the means to buy the clothes" (C, 80–81). In this way we see that Chesnutt means not only to magnify their respective competition for limited resources (like the original vineyard that John purchases), but even more importantly to describe their competition for the economic roles in which Julius resists the attempts of capital to turn him into hireling. In this way, Julius's economic autonomy is found not in his capacity for self-ownership (he is still paid a wage), but rather in his purchase power. Indeed, as the American economy shifted towards industrial capitalism, and more and more Americans became wage earners, even the labor movement put their energies on "a new doctrine of labor rights less explicitly oriented to the process and control of work itself than to the social distribution of work's economic rewards."32 One's freedom was found not in possession of productivity, but in the ability to consume the goods manufactured by American capitalism.
John has two primary tactics whereby he attempts to own the value of Julius's storytelling. The first, as we saw above, is to resolutely maintain that he can see through Julius's pecuniary motivations (thereby rendering Julius a poor businessman). The other is to take "interest" in Julius's stories—an interest that finds its manifestation in the tales' tendency to captivate his wife and frequently to restore her flagging energy. In "Po' Sandy," for example, Julius secures Annie's "interest" so [End Page 943] deeply that she demands John purchase new lumber for her kitchen. Thus, by securing Annie's emotional investments, Julius can secure his own property rights. Nonetheless, in later stories, when John is incapable of rousing his wife's spirits, he turns to Julius, whose tales (unlike the novels and Presbyterian tracts she peruses) can compel her from lethargy. In "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," he allows Julius to proceed with his story about a rabbit's foot because "I thought perhaps the story might interest my wife as much or more than the novel I had meant to read from" (C, 84). Julius's story, like the others, begins with an economic problem: because the profligate slave owner wishes to purchase a horse but has nothing to trade (and the seller refuses to accept his note), he trades the only thing the seller wants, his slave, Becky. When she is taken away, her child, Mose, begins to decline, and so Aun' Nancy travels to the conjure woman, Aun' Peggy, who (after she receives payment) transforms the child into a hummingbird who can fly to see his mother. While mother and child are aided, Julius's story focuses on Aun' Nancy, who is depicted as engaged in an unprofitable economic system: "dis yer totin' little Mose down ter ole Aun' Peggy, en dis yer gittin' things fer ter pay de cunjuh 'oman, use' up a lot er Aun' Nancy's time, en she begun ter git kinder ti'ed" (C, 89). Like Annie, she has no energy, but for very different reasons. While Annie has no energy because she has no interest, Nancy has too much interest (too much energy is expended in paying for the reunion of mother and child) and therefore she threatens literally to run down. Consequentially, she asks the conjure woman if she can use her skills not to transform the boy, but instead to bring the mother back home to the child. Again, the conjure woman insists that she must receive ample compensation, "it'll take a monst'us heap er wuk, en I can't was'e my time fer nuffin. Ef you'll fetch me sump'n ter pay me fer my trouble, I reckon we kin fix it" (C, 89). Unlike Nancy, Peggy is economically independent and will not allow herself to be exhausted: for her "mons'us heap er wuk," she will receive ample compensation. Thus by insisting that she won't work "fer nuffin," the conjure woman asserts that hers is free labor.
Once paid, Peggy conjures the valuable racehorse into a lame horse and makes Becky worthless by making her sick. Again, as was the case in "Goophered Grapevine," conjure works like capitalism insofar as it magically changes the value of property, and the power of both conjure and capitalism is that they allow financial gains (and losses) based on speculation on this changing value. John's own business plans are premised on precisely the same strategy: he can purchase North [End Page 944] Carolina land when it is cheap and then cultivate it, conjuring it into real estate with a much higher value. In the story, Peggy's goopher causes both men to undo their original exchange since they each feel as if they were shorted in the transaction, and this returns Becky home to her child. But the profit doesn't end there, since Julius explains that another consequence of the initial conjure (which transformed the little boy into a bird) is that when Mose grew up "he could sing en whistle des lack a mawkin'-bird" (C, 91). His talent serves the boy well since the "w'ite folks useter hab 'im come up ter de big house at night, en whistle en sing fer 'em, en uster gib 'im money en vittles en one thing er ernudder" (C, 91–92). As it turns out, this economic independence rendered from conjure makes for the somewhat ambiguously happy ending, as the child also learns the blacksmithing trade and, thus, is able to "hire his time," ultimately using his wages to buy "his mammy en sot her free" (C, 92).
"Sis' Becky's Pickaninny" is unique since it is the only tale in which conjure works in the service of emancipation: Mose is transformed from chattel into hireling. Notably this change happens through a coupling of conjure and song, which is emblematic of Chesnutt's own position as he writes this story as the means by which to make a name for himself by publishing his first collection, Conjure Tales. This story is written in 1898 in response to Houghton, Mifflin & Co.'s proposal that Chesnutt submit enough conjure stories "to make a book" (L, 105). Like Julius, he aims to secure the interest of readers so as to make his own "dream of [his] life" come true. It is, however, also the case that in the portrait of Mose and Julius as singers for hire, Chesnutt is implicitly associating his own authorial labor with wages (and not capital). That he is potentially working "fer nuffin" (since he has no guarantee the volume will be published), and he is likewise dependent on women's interest to promote his fiction, makes the analogy between the three artists apparent.33 Although Annie loves the tale, perhaps anticipating its fate at the hands of the editors at Houghton, Mifflin & Co. (who rejected the story), Chesnutt describes John dismissing Julius's story as an "ingenious fairy tale."34
Despite these assessments, John largely submits to Julius's superior talents at storytelling, yet he still attempts to contain the economic agency of Julius's narrative prowess. According to John, the product Julius makes is superabundant: "Of tales of the old slavery days he seemed indeed to possess an exhaustless store" (C, 96). In John's calculation, unlike land, grapes or labor power, Julius's tales are infinite; John and Annie purchase a good (the tales) and a service (the telling) [End Page 945] that is not (and cannot become) scarce. Early on, contemplating his possible authorial career, Chesnutt depicts his own supply in similar terms. In his 1880 Journal, he writes "Fifteen years of life in the South, in one of the most eventful eras of its history; among a people whose life is rich in the elements of romance; under conditions calculated to stir one's soul to the very depths: —I think there is here a fund of experience, a supply of material, which a skillful pers[on] could work up with tremendous effect."35 And only two months later, after writing up a "Plan of a Novel," Chesnutt ruminates that "the Cleveland Herald would pay me for Southern Correspondence. I have a vast fund of raw material on hand for stories and sketches, and I ought to be able to work some of it up."36 John assumes, therefore, what Chesnutt early on assumed, which is that fiction is a product of which there is no scarcity since the author can always conjure more. But by the time Chesnutt is collecting his conjure tales for the solicited volume with Houghton, Mifflin & Co., he recognizes that writing is not an effortless product—that storytelling may be no different than other forms of production, which can exhaust all resources (labor and raw material).
That Chesnutt has changed his understanding of his product is evidenced by the conjure tale Julius tells, which insists on scarcity as a problem as it laboriously documents numerous cases of limited resources and goods. Even as John claims that Julius is trafficking from an exhaustless store, Julius is motivated to tell his story in an effort to stop John from encroaching on his increasingly limited resources. John wants to clear some of his uncultivated property so he can increase its value, and Julius advises against it—first by insisting that neither grapes, nor cotton, nor corn will grow on the soil. When John asserts that he is willing to "risk it" (C, 96) for the potential profits that might come, Julius changes his tactic and tells the story of "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt." This conjure tale is all about competition for limited resources, including the limited marketplace of consumers of conjure. Chronologically earlier than any of the other stories Julius tells, this one is set at the beginning of Aun' Peggy's career as conjure woman. We are introduced to her predecessor: "He had be'n de only cunjuh doctor in de naberhood fer lo! dese many yeahs, 'tel old Aun' Peggy so up in de bizness down by de Wim'l'ton Road" (C, 97). The tale therefore explicitly concerns the economic competition between two conjurers and the eradication of the conjure man's monopoly. The story also details the struggle between two men for another kind of property—a woman named Mahaly. The protagonist of the story, Dan, is married to Mahaly, but the conjure man's son also wants her, and their contest [End Page 946] over her results in the son's death. Fearful that the conjure man will avenge his son's death, Dan hires Aun' Peggy. Peggy's goopher is strong enough to protect Dan, and so the conjure man ingeniously persuades Dan to distrust her. Through a series of transformations in which Dan becomes a wolf and Mahaly becomes a cat, Dan is tricked into killing his wife, and, although Dan retaliates by killing the conjure man (clearing a way for Aun' Peggy's monopoly), Dan remains a grey wolf forever haunted by the murder of his wife.
The story predictably concludes with John's assertion that there was an ulterior motivation: that Julius did not want to see the land cultivated because it would have threatened his "monopoly" over a bee-tree located on the tract of land (C, 106). Julius may have an exhaustless store of conjure tales, but his proprietary interest in the honey is much more tenuous. Of course there is no small degree of contradiction between John's desire to render Julius's storytelling as extra-economic even as he also maintains that it is something for which he pays Julius; or between his insistence that Julius's tales are effortless and abundant productions, even as he claims that Julius only generates the story in an effort to secure his possession over a decidedly scarce product. For all of John's confidence in his investment prowess, Chesnutt's stories clearly emphasize his remarkable lack of perspicacity surrounding his and Julius's respective economic conditions.
Julius's stories, conversely, enumerate with remarkable precision the ways that labor is converted into capital: if we understand his stories as an attempt to conjure himself into economic autonomy, then the tales he tells seem to show the ways that conjure itself is likewise dedicated to capital accumulation. Chesnutt's "A Victim of Heredity" is the tale that most explicitly outlines the ways that conjure is used in the service of capitalism. Chesnutt wrote the story as he was laboriously producing more conjure tales in response to Page's suggestion that Houghton, Mifflin & Co. might be willing to publish a volume of the tales. Following the generic convention of most of the stories, it begins with a crisis of property, when John discovers an African American man attempting to steal chickens from his henhouse. John obviously does not imagine an exhaustless supply of chickens. Meditating on the effects of slavery on the emancipated slaves, John fatuously declares his commitment to freepersons learning the "responsibilities of citizenship" (C, 172); but he also asserts that thievery must be punished lest there be "no incentive to industry and thrift" (C, 173). Chesnutt here is fairly heavy-handed in his depiction of John as a self-satisfied Northerner who imagines that he can make sense of slavery and its [End Page 947] aftermath—who can effortlessly rationalize his desire to punish those who take his property not as self-interest, but as part of a larger commitment to capitalism.
At John's request, Julius explains the hereditary disposition of "cullud folks" towards chicken. The story begins with a poor white man who becomes wealthy—a tale, therefore, that would seem to detail a commitment to the industry and thrift that John so admires. This particular rags-to-riches tale also necessarily involves slave labor since, as Julius explains, the white man, McDonal', can only become "one er de riches' men in de county" by buying and raising slaves to work his plantation (C, 174). But like Dugal' in "The Goophered Grapevine," McDonal' is not satisfied with his riches, and so like Dugal' he turns to the conjure woman, Aun' Peggy, to see if he can improve his profits:
He wuz a'ready wukkin' his niggers ez ha'd ez dey could stan', but he got his 'count-book out one day en 'mence' ter cackilate w'at it cos' 'im ter feed his niggers, en it 'peared ter be a monst'us sum. En he 'lowed ter hiss'f date f he could feed his niggers fer 'bout half er wa'at it had be'n costin' 'im, he'd save a heap er money ev'y yeah.(C, 176)
Although McDonal' recognizes that he already feeds his slaves only "so much meal and so much merlasses . . . ter make 'im fittin' ter do his wuk," he imagines that he can use conjure to "fool" his slaves into giving him more labor on less food (C, 176). This particular trick, of course, is at the heart of capitalism. Although McDonal' is exploiting the labor of slaves, he means to do so according to a standard calculus in which he will be able to extract the surplus value that comes by reducing what it costs him to reproduce his slaves' labor power.
Always ready to sell her services to anyone who is willing to pay for them, Aun' Peggy agrees to make a goopher that will allow McDonal' to cut rations by one half and the slaves "won' know de diffe'nce" (C , 176). She charges him two silver dollars for the service, but McDonal' attempts to short her by trying to pass off a counterfeit coin. She easily defeats him, however, when she transforms the counterfeit coin into a twenty-dollar gold piece and gets him to change it for her. This business with McDonal' becomes part of a larger scheme she initiates with the nephew McDonal' has disinherited, Tom. Because he had earlier saved her life, she comes to Tom with a plan to restore his lost property. Notably this plan does not make use of conjure in the usual way: she does not use goopher or roots, but instead schemes such that Tom will be able to profit from the conjure that she is doing for McDonal'. And the story emphasizes the ways that this new enterprise involves [End Page 948] all the negotiations typical of business. Thus, when Tom abjures the proposal, because he has no money, she insists that Tom must find a way to get the venture capital necessary to participate in the scheme: "You borry all de money you kin rake en scrape, en you git all de credit you kin" (C, 178). Moreover, she confesses that she "ain' be'n cunj'in' all dese yeahs fer nuffin" and that she'll lend him money so long as he follows her instructions to the letter (C, 178). In short, she becomes the venture capitalist to set up Tom as new entrepreneur.
Her ingenious plan depends on a (very unrisky) speculation on McDonal's avarice: that once he discovers how much more profit can be secured when he reduces his expenditure on slave rations, he will overuse the goopher: "he had sabe' so much money dat he 'mence' ter wonder ef he couldn' sabe some mo.'" Sure enough he decides to sprinkle more of the goopher on the food and "den cut de rashuns in two once mo'" (C, 178). This proves to be a bad decision as he soon discovers that the slaves "wuz so weak en feeble dat dey couldn ha'dly git 'roun' de plantation" (C, 178). Even with goopher, there is a limit to how much surplus value can be extracted: it "'peared ez ef dey had des use' up all de strenk dey had, en den des all gun out at once" (C, 178). Terrified that his property will die, he runs to Peggy and asks her to take the goopher off. Her solution is to convince McDonal' to feed his slaves better and more food, and she advises he try roast pork, beef, and finally chicken. This advice works not only to improve substantially the diet of his slaves, but also to improve Tom's fortunes, as Tom has used the borrowed capital to purchase all the chickens in the town and surrounding counties. Consequentially, when the frantic McDonal' has exhausted his own chicken supply, he learns that he'll have to pay "'bout twicet ez much ez chick'ns had be'n fetchin' in de market befo" (C, 180). Because Tom possesses the monopoly, and because Peggy instructed McDonal' that only chicken would save his slaves, he pays twice the going rate. Eventually he exhausts not only the profit he had saved from the initial goopher, but also his savings, and finally he was forced to borrow "all de money he could on his notes" and mortgage his plantation (C, 181).
Chesnutt's portrait of Aun' Peggy, far from depicting her as innocent of the economics of either slavery or capitalism, reveals her as a shrewd market player. As she does in other stories, here too she alters the value of property, but it is her knowledge of capitalism (that manipulating supply and demand changes price) and not conjure that causes McDonal's ruin and Tom's triumph as he makes so much money selling chickens that he earns enough money to "buy a big plantation [End Page 949] en a lot er niggers" (C, 182). This is a striking moment in the story, since it means that Peggy's machinations have worked not only in the service of a white man, but in order to allow this white man to purchase slaves, and this property comprises both economic and social capital, since Julius announces that owning such a plantation would allow Tom to "ho' up his head 'mongs' de big w'ite folks des lak he oughter" (C, 182). Although Tom promises that in gratitude he will provide a comfortable retirement for Peggy, this does little to mitigate the strong sense that conjure, capitalism, and slavery work hand in hand.
Chesnutt's tale makes clear that conjure and capitalism are techniques for the production and reconfiguration of value—and so too is storytelling. And yet, Chesnutt's own career proves the difficulty of aligning authorship with either capital ownership or even free labor; after his success of the mid-1890s, where he was able to place several stories in the leading magazines of the day, he met with over ten years of rejection letters from these same publishing houses. As Chesnutt dedicates himself to editorial and market demands in an effort to publish a book, which could potentially provide him a form of compensation closer to capital ownership—since he could receive a percentage of profits and not merely a piecemeal price—his conjure tales increasingly depict storytelling as labor for hire. In 1897, Chesnutt does receive the good news that the Atlantic Monthly has agreed to publish two of the three recently submitted stories, "The Wife of his Youth" and "The March of Progress."37 Energized by the acceptance, as well as his new correspondence with Walter Hines Page (then editor at Houghton, Mifflin & Co., the publishing house of the Atlantic), Chesnutt writes at a fever pitch, and within the year he is ready to send Page several more stories, as well as the manuscripts of "Rena Walden" and "Mandy Oxendine."38 He writes Page that he feels his opportunity to "devote my whole time to the literary life" has at last come, and he agrees to send a collection of stories, to be followed by a novel, A Business Career, which Chesnutt proposes will "strike a considerable class of people in large cities" (L, 104). This new novel appears to be diametrically opposed to his conjure tales in that it is not set in the South, it does not concern the color line, and it is not domestic fiction. Indeed, almost the entire novel takes place in the business offices of a midwestern city skyscraper—almost as if Chesnutt wanted to situate the novel literally as far away from southern agrarian economies as was possible.
Largely because A Business Career was rejected and not published until 2005, the novel is understood as a poor business decision on [End Page 950] Chesnutt's part. Matthew Wilson, who has edited the recent publication of the novel, argues that Chesnutt made a mistake in imagining that white audiences would be willing to buy white-life fiction from an African American author.39 This understanding echoes William L. Andrews's earlier assessment that Chesnutt failed to gauge the American literary appetite in his longstanding efforts "to tailor a long work of fiction to the tastes of genteel readers."40 Whether the failure of the novel is framed as a foolish mercenary project to secure his status as literary gentleman (Andrews), or as misguided optimism that he could transcend the color line (Wilson), the assumption is that the novel marked Chesnutt's failed attempt to write something of a bestseller. The generic choices Chesnutt makes in this novel seem to confirm that he intended to capitalize on a successful reckoning of literary tastes: first, he writes a romantic melodrama (complete with kidnapping, espionage, and robbery); and second, he writes a working-girl novel. This second choice evidences Chesnutt's strategy to enter into a profitable literary niche market, but it is also significant that this decision affords him a narrative that is surprisingly similar in theme to that found in his conjure tales. As in those tales, this novel offers an explicit meditation on the relationship between labor and capital. And this relationship, as was the case in the conjure tales, is significantly aligned with Chesnutt's own conception of authorial labor, given that the wage laborer he represents within the novel is a stenographer. Indeed one of the major themes of the novel directly involves the changing landscape of Chesnutt's own chosen career—the explosion of female stenographers entering the workforce at the turn of the twentieth century.
My desire to read A Business Career in terms of Chesnutt's own career is vindicated when the novel opens with a scene of authorship requiring the steadying hand of a stenographer: our protagonist, the wealthy capitalist, Mr. Truscott, is attempting to respond to his correspondence.41 But because he has recently fired his stenographer, he is forced to take on the task himself, and finds himself unable to control the mechanics of writing. The ink needs filling, the pen is unwieldy, and each attempt is aborted: "A third time Mr. Truscott essayed to write, but the new pen, because of its smoothness, did not retain the ink, and before he had finished a line a large black drop slipped down to the point and settled upon the paper" (B, 5). Consequentially, Truscott calls for "an experienced male stenographer" (B, 5). As it happens, however, Truscott cannot hire a stenographer like Chesnutt, since we learn that "women have almost monopolized the business" (B, 23). Chesnutt's [End Page 951] novel records a sweeping change in which female workers came to dominate an occupation that had only recently employed almost no women. Numerous magazines from the late 1880s and 1890s express the radical shift in the demographics of the profession:
You may count almost on the fingers of one hand the number of years that have elapsed since the women clerks appeared. Yet so prevalent have they become in all our large cities, that one might say they have entirely superseded the men in this particular department. Nine employers out of ten prefer women as clerks . . . verified by the fact that the demand for women as clerical workers is steadily on the increase, while men stand a comparatively poor chance of securing positions.42
Against these changing conditions, Truscott is forced to settle for a female typewriter and stenographer, Stella Merwin.
In this way, the relationship between capital and labor in A Business Career is sited on a different plot than in the conjure tales. While John is depicted as easily vanquishing Julius in "The Goophered Grapevine," Truscott finds himself all but immobilized by the loss of his paid hand. Consequentially, the novel's opening seems to offer Chesnutt's subtle suggestion that American capitalism doesn't advance unless the paid labor of stenography is secured. It is also probably worth noting that Chesnutt's own considerable abilities at stenography effectively rendered his authorial work more self-sufficient (and more profitable) than those of an author required to hire (and pay) an amanuensis. Additionally, while Julius and Jim were perpetual economic antagonists, the relationship between Truscott and Stella not only resolves into a romance (what better way than marriage to secure profit-sharing), but also begins on what appears to be more even footing since Stella identifies herself as fundamentally different from other hirelings. Stella, for example, has learned shorthand not because she planned to enter into the vocation of typewriter or stenographer, but because she thought the craft would be useful for taking notes, corresponding with friends, and keeping her diary. Thus, although she has learned a trade for which she is paid a wage, she explicitly disavows her allegiance with the class of working girls who make their livelihood by way of stenography. Later in the novel, when Stella surveys another young woman applying for the position, she experiences "something like disgust"; indeed, her revulsion becomes part of her motivation to remain Truscott's employee: "She could almost stay, to keep such a creature out" (B, 46). Moreover, as she scrutinizes the other, Stella [End Page 952] "felt glad that she was not compelled by necessity to pursue a calling in which she would come into competition with people of that stamp" (B, 47). Her fellow workers similarly distinguish her from the laboring classes, and when she initially enters into Truscott's offices she is met with misrecognition: the other employees cannot believe that she is the newly hired stenographer as she "[l]ooks like a lady off the avenoo" (B, 21). We later learn that Stella's innate gentility is a product of her only newly changed economic circumstances. Her recently deceased and financially ruined father had been a wealthy businessman and, in fact, the owner of the company to which Stella's new employer, Truscott, himself had once been mere hireling. Consequentially, if Stella imagines herself as socially (if not financially) better than those who join her high above the city of Groveland (modeled on Cleveland), then the novel nonetheless wants to emphasize the turbulent change in her social class.43
Indeed, in many ways, the novel is decidedly ambivalent about how it wants to categorize Stella's status as economic subordinate. While Stella may begin her business career as a "lady off the avenoo," the novel patently announces that Stella is paid a wage. When, for example, Stella initially entertains the possibility of the job, she is reluctant to receive compensation from Truscott, the man she assumes was responsible for her father's ruin. Her mentor, Mrs. Paxton, insists however that "[m]oney is money," instructing her on the logic of currency—that because it is merely a vehicle for the storage of value, it can involve no ethical entanglements: "I've learned enough of law in my business to know that you cannot follow stolen money, after it has once passed from the thief to an innocent party who gave value for it. Never sneer at money, Stella, and get all that you can honestly" (B, 43). This is the last mention of Stella's wages (until she later receives a raise), but the exchange does secure the fact that Stella is a paid employee.44 Stella even repeats Mrs. Paxton's doctrine when she justifies her decision to not reveal to Truscott that she is the daughter of his late employer: "My name can be of no possible concern to Mr. Truscott. He wishes to buy my services, at the market price, and I'm willing to dispose of them on these same terms" (B, 100). And yet when Truscott later tries to negotiate with her for an increase in salary, she insists that the matter of compensation is irrelevant since she is "not self-supporting" (B, 69).
Yet, despite her avowals of "amateur" status (even as we learn that this amateurish knowledge takes five years training to acquire), as Stella grows more accustomed to her daily work, her self-identification [End Page 953] is increasingly as wage laborer. In one of the first moments that Stella takes dictation, she becomes anxious lest Truscott not appreciate her unique social standing, and she speculates on whether Truscott will "perceive she was a lady and entitled to the courtesy due to one, unless . . . life in an office involved a different standard of manners from that of ordinary social intercourse" (B, 79). But while Stella initially presumes Truscott's social inferiority because his manners are abased by business, she is soon chastened when his correspondence proves superior. Stella confidently proposes a suggestion when Truscott stumbles for a word while giving dictation. He thanks her for the gesture, but schools her in business: "that would ordinarily be the proper expression. But this man would not understand it in the right way." Stella records the word, forced to admit Truscott as the superior author since his choice "conveyed the idea exactly and beyond any possibility of misunderstanding" (B, 59). Here Stella learns that the business world allows for a specialization of social manners and vocabulary and not an adulteration of them. This scene, of course, completely revises the relationship between capital and labor portrayed in the novel's opening. There, Truscott was unable to wield his pen, requiring the labor of another; but here his laborer (even as she is a "lady") is forced to reckon his superior skills at original authorship.
As Stella learns more about Truscott's work, she becomes both increasingly enamored of him and increasingly willing to adopt the role of his socio-economic inferior. Indeed, she even begins to worry about the tendency for the business world to view its clerks, its hired hands, as merely tools. She frets that Truscott himself might only "regard her as a mere piece of office furniture—a modern business appliance, like the telephone or the telegraph" (B, 139). And she likewise notes the metonymy by which both operator and machine are denoted with the same word—that the machines and the operators were called "typewriters'" indiscriminately (B, 139). This anxiety is born out when we learn that Truscott indeed does view Stella as mere business machine: "she was no more in his eyes than a telegram, or a business letter . . . she was simple a source of knowledge, a medium of communication" (B, 168).
In this way, although the novel begins by asserting capitalist and laborer as mutually dependent, it increasingly focuses on the superior status of capital. Indeed, halfway through the novel the "career" of the novel's title seems a reference to Truscott's new business and not Stella's. This shift is crucial to Chesnutt's association of capitalism with authorship. Thus, while the conjure tales had the inevitable effect of [End Page 954] associating writing with both wage and chattel slavery (even as it attempted to establish an analogy between conjure, authorship, and free labor), in A Business Career, Chesnutt allegorizes the businessman as author. Notably, then, Chesnutt aestheticizes Truscott's superiority. That is, the novel's appreciation for Truscott's capital is not that it renders him a wealthy man; nor is it even found in the portrait of Truscott as industrious and frugal. Instead, his capacity for capital amalgamation is itself beautiful. Truscott's business involves a new venture in oil: he discovers a "new process for treating low-grade oils, by which, at a very slightly increased expense over the cost of refining the higher grade crude oils, a product equally fine in quality resulted" (B, 116). Once again, Chesnutt portrays his capitalist as a kind of conjurer: Truscott will conjure the low-grade oil into profitable commodity. The difference is that this time, his capital owner is the artist.
That Chesnutt means for us to read Truscott's skill at capitalism as an art is highlighted by the terms Stella uses to marvel at the business plan: "It was as though he were parceling out to various workmen the different parts of a vast and complicated machine, which parts when assembled at the place of erection would form a perfect whole" (B, 116). Stella is enchanted by his ability to manipulate and negotiate multiple bodies and personae through the written word. That is, Truscott's work in this enterprise is all orchestrated through correspondence dictated to Stella. His business acumen makes him comparable to a novelist—with such remarkable "knowledge of character" that he can "parcel out . . . a vast and complicated machine . . . to form a perfect whole."45 Whereas in the earlier conjure stories, the author is aligned with Julius as hireling, and John, conversely, is depicted as an aesthetic inferior (Annie never wants to listen to John's tales), here Truscott's business is represented as something akin to novelistic artistry.
As successful as Truscott is, however, the novel shows that the difficulty with such sweeping capitalist projects (unlike the small-scale enterprises of John), which is that they involve contingencies that lie outside the purview of individual authors. Thus, although Truscott is absolutely confident in the venture, feeling "too secure in his position to be embarrassed by anything short of a financial earthquake" (B, 187), the collapse of a British bank brings down his vast machinery (of which Stella is only the tiniest of cogs). Unable to secure his anticipated credit, Truscott is "forced to face the alternative of ruin." In response, Truscott laments that it is "almost ridiculous" that his elaborate and beautiful plan should fail "from mere want of money": "It was as though an artist's dream of beauty should perish for lack [End Page 955] of oil to mix his paints" (B, 188). In the comparison of oil to capital, Chesnutt represents capital as necessary, but necessary only insofar as it is the medium to financial and artistic brilliance. Of course, the fact that the very essence of Truscott's project is found in the refinement of oil only serves to highlight how important the capital is (even when rendered secondary to artistic vision). Capital may be just so much lubricant, but it is still necessary to the endeavor.
Stella realizes the same as she works through the paper trail of her father's earlier financial collapse. Both she and her mother have presumed that Truscott was responsible for the bankruptcy of her late father's company, and so even as Stella becomes increasingly attracted to her employer and more committed to fashioning herself as his dedicated typewriter, her mother has charged her to discover the secret documents that will restore the family's fortune.46 As Stella immerses herself in the documents that comprise her father's projected financial scheme, she is similarly awe-struck by her father's capacity at capital authorship—virtually staggering at the amount of capital he secured through incorporation, she remarks that Truscott's own enterprise was "a mere tallow dip by the side of this brilliant conception of her father's genius" (B, 192). Her assessments are echoed in her father's correspondence, which chides his clerk for his fiscal timidity as Truscott chooses instead to locate his money in savings accounts that yield a mere four percent interest. As Stella continues, her treasure hunt reveals stock certificates for her father's company, "The Universal Subterranean Development Company" (B, 193–94). Gazing at the certificates in all their "green-and-gold glory," it appears as if the very name of the company "was a spell to conjure with—an open sesame to unlock all the treasure of the earth, and pour them out into the lap of the beautiful and chastely draped goddess who posed in the center of the handsomely engraved certificate" (B, 194).
Here Chesnutt once again renders capitalism's power to conjure value. Although Stella should know that the certificate is worthless (since the company has long been bankrupt—this is, of course, why she is digging through the files), it charms her into confidence in her father's wealth. In many ways, however, her susceptibility to the certificate's power is precisely how she is supposed to react. That is, perhaps even more so than other media of value (promissory notes, paper currency or specie), stock certificates depend on intricate and elaborate plots to secure their representation of value. The value of each share, after all, is determined not by the company's assets, nor by its revenue (either past or anticipated), but rather through the [End Page 956] stories that circulate between buyers and sellers as to what it might be worth. As long as these representations of value sustain credulity, they shore up credit, and the value of individual certificates remains likewise secure. Corporations conjure capital through stories of valuation. It is no coincidence that Chesnutt began his writing career as a reporter for the first journalistic enterprise designed to monitor the stories that corporations told, the Customer's Afternoon Letter.47 This daily paper was formed in 1893 by Dow, Jones & Co., and it reported stock tables as well as publishing other company financials (information that had been only available to insiders before). Dow Jones's famous index was a product of this initial newsletter. Stella's submission to the stock certificate's allegorical representation of wealth only means that she retains her confidence in the paper's credit long after others have failed to believe.
Stella's mystification ends fairly quickly, however, when (because she has been training herself in accounting) she discovers that her father had not been defrauded, but merely suffered the caprices of a financial panic much like the one presently set out to ruin Truscott. With this recognition comes her full embrace of herself as laborer: "She was only a working girl, and henceforth could look forward to no other career" (B, 196). She proceeds to write Truscott a letter confessing her real identity, signing herself as "Your unworthy but penitent 'typewriter'," voluntarily submitting to the metonymy wherein she becomes business apparatus (B, 208). Nonetheless, Stella receives better compensation than most, when Truscott offers a combined marriage proposal and job promotion, and it is on this romantic note that the novel concludes. Yet, the romance of Chesnutt's novel is not just the resolution of all financial and personal acrimony, nor is it merely the last-minute financial bailout of Truscott by the woman who had hitherto assumed she would become Truscott's wife. The romance of A Business Career is also found in the novel's portrait of the marvels of capital—the volatile substance that, like goopher, is capable of causing incredible transformations of value.
This transformative possibility is, for Chesnutt, the purpose of fiction. In this way, he proposes that the author's career is not really distinct from that of the businessman, and that his own literary career might also be his business career (even as the realities of his workload meant that the two were frequently mutually exclusive). The continuities between authorship and capitalism, for Chesnutt, are based not only on the ways that economic realities are crucial to his consideration of writing (hence his emphasis on writing as a vocation that yields an [End Page 957] income), but also an idealization of capitalism itself as a kind of art form. The artist must be a businessman, and the businessman is an artist. Unfortunately, the material realities of authorship at the turn of the century failed to yield the economic position he most desired, in which the author could retain economic autonomy. And, yet, Chesnutt nonetheless retains his commitment to the metaphoric association of author with capital holder—and both with conjure. Whatever the financial realities of Chesnutt's own authorial career, he continued to fancy himself both conjurer and capitalist.
1. Charles Chesnutt, The Journals of Charles Chesnutt, ed. Richard Brodhead (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), 154.
2. One of the few critics to engage directly the importance of economics to Chesnutt's fiction, Richard Brodhead argues that while for Chesnutt a literary career is "interchangeable with other careers—law, medicine—in its social attractions, it is distinguished from them principally in the lower-entry requirements that it sets for aspirants" (Cultures of Reading: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992], 191). Given, however, that Chesnutt would train for professions that didn't set especially low entry requirements (as he studied both stenography and the law, and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1887), it does not seem that writing was preferable because it required minimal training. What is more, the journal entry makes clear that Chesnutt early on recognizes the improbability of securing financial success through writing. Also significant is that Chesnutt did not require authorship as the means towards this ascension, since by 1888 he already had his own stenography and legal business.
3. Chesnutt, "To be an author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889–1905, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Robert C. Leitz, III (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997), 36. Hereafter abbreviated L and cited parenthetically by page number. In this same letter, Chesnutt painstakingly explains to Cable how a proposed state bill that would yield him a potential salary of $1500 might make a turn to writing impossible because it would be financially unsound to risk the uncertainty of remuneration on the basis of writing to the certitude of a state salary.
4. Interestingly, Chesnutt considers publishing abroad after the passage of the Chace Act, the International Copyright Act in 1891.
5. Chesnutt had assessed the conflict between his stenography business and his literary aspirations much earlier when George Washington Cable had proposed that Chesnutt join him in Northampton, Massachusetts and help him edit the Open Letter Club in 1891. Chesnutt felt financially obliged to turn him down: "even $1200.00 or $1500.00 a year would, in comparison, be a sacrifice of half my income" (L, 39).
6. Albion W. Tourgée, "A Bystander's Notes," Chicago Inter Ocean (April 1893), 4. Also cited in Chesnutt, "To be an author," 5.
7. We might think similarly about William Dean Howells's claim that the business of letters is the "opprobrium" of the economic world of business, even as the rest of Howells's essay explains how the field of letters is run according to very calculated [End Page 958] financial decisions ("The Man of Letters as a Man of Business," in his Literature and Life [1902; Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2008], 16). See Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987) for a discussion of Howells.
8. This is certainly the suggestion in McElrath and Leitz's introduction to their collection of Chesnutt correspondence. See Chesnutt, "To be an author", 9.
9. Brodhead, "Introduction," in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales, by Charles Chesnutt, ed. Brodhead (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), 12. See also Ben Slote, "Listening to 'The Goophered Grapevine' and Hearing Raisins Sing," American Literary History 6 (1994): 684–94. In his essay, "Chesnutt's Piazza Tales: Architecture, Race, and Memory in the Conjure Stories" (American Quarterly 51 : 33–77), William Gleason argues that we can see Chesnutt increasingly writing to appease a white audience.
10. Tourgée, "The South as a Field for Fiction," Forum (December 1888), 404.
11. The most extreme of these claims is probably that of LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka] who writes in Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: William Morrow, 1963) that Chesnutt's middle-class pretensions necessarily imply a rejection of any connection "with the poor black man or the slave" (132). This position is likewise articulated by Slote (689n39), who in similar terms argues that Chesnutt's conjure tales "end up serving the same exploitative purpose" of trivializing the postbellum African American experience. Heather Tirado Gilligan disputes such critical assumptions in her suggestive analysis of Chesnutt's investments in the plantation tale genre. See Gilligan, "Reading, Race, and Charles Chesnutt's 'Julius Tales,'" ELH 74 (2007): 194–215.
12. See, for example, Houston Baker, who argues that Chesnutt's stories detail "African transformations that can not be comprehended or controlled by Western philosophy" (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987], 42). In similar terms Eric Sundquist argues that Chesnutt "adopt[s] the isolating voice of contemporary ethnography while working inside it in order to preserve African American cultural forms and to make them instruments of his own gain, much as his character Uncle Julius does in the tales" (To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993], 296).
13. I use the term postbellum because there is some imprecision as to whether Chesnutt sets his tales in the reconstruction period, or whether the setting of the tales is contemporaneous with Chesnutt's writing of the stories.
14. It is as if Chesnutt literalizes Karl Marx's famously whimsical speculation, "If commodities could speak, they would say this" (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, intro. Ernest Mandel, trans. Ben Fowkes [New York: Penguin, 1976], 176). The conjure tales allow his commodities to speak and to say that "what does belong to us as objects is our value."
15. Chesnutt, "The Goophered Grapevine," in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales, 31. This collection hereafter abbreviated C and cited parenthetically by page number.
16. Again, this will be the scenario of A Colonel's Dream, save for the fact that unlike John, the protagonist in this later novel, Colonel French, was born in the South.
17. When John first spots Julius, as he surveys his potential real estate purchase, the ex-slave is seated on a log. He moves away, however, when he sees John and his wife approaching, to which John calls out "Don't let us disturb you. . . . There is plenty of room for us all" (C, 34). Of course, while John imagines plentitude, Julius knows that scarcity is always a problem.
18. In a much later essay (published in The Colophon in 1931), Chesnutt explains that "the wind-up of each story reveals the old man's ulterior purpose, which, as a [End Page 959] general thing, is accomplished" ("Post-Bellum—Pre-Harlem," in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, ed. McElrath, Leitz, and Jesse S. Crisler [Stanford Univ. Press, 2002], 544).
19. Marx, 345.
20. Brook Thomas and Ellen J. Goldner each focus on Chesnutt's interrogation of the relationship between slavery and capitalism. For Goldner, Chesnutt shows how the management of labor under chattel slavery works according to capitalist principles, but she reads the conjure woman as attempting to "disrupt the premise of simple linear progress that supported the expanding capitalist discourse of the postbellum decades, as it sought to set aside the past and its claims in order to facilitate the appropriation of regional materials and histories" ("Other(ed) Ghosts: Gothicism and the Bonds of Reason in Melville, Chesnutt, and Morrison," MELUS 24.1 : 69). Focusing on A Colonel's Dream, Brook Thomas argues that Chesnutt believes that southern racism and the legacy of chattel slavery thwarts laissez-faire capitalism: "racial prejudice . . . block[s] the natural circulation of capital, which contributes to the free trade of ideas necessary to overcome unenlightened prejudice" (American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract [Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1997], 187). Although Thomas's argument grants Chesnutt's commitment to capitalism, he frames his argument in terms of Chesnutt's commitment to progressive politics, thereby continuing the scholarly tradition of the reluctance to acknowledge Chesnutt's capitalist sympathies.
21. Wonham, 16.
22. Wonham, 17.
23. Brodhead, Cultures of Reading, 201–2.
24. The understanding of wages as essentially a relationship of economic dependence is one of the primary reasons for the idiosyncratic pattern of southern economic development after the war. Indeed, some argue that the sharecropping system emerged in part because of the desire by freepersons to retain some degree of independence, even as their submission was effectively secured by tenant status. Notably, however, sharecropping gradually changed such that tenants increasingly resembled agrarian wage laborers. For a very useful analysis of capitalist development in North Carolina, see Phillip J. Wood, Southern Capitalism: The Political Economy of North Carolina, 1880–1980 (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1986). For Wood, the uneven development of southern industry is not a consequence of its racism (since this allowed almost all agricultural production to follow a capitalist model), but rather a shortage of southern capital and a shortage of southern industrial labor.
25. Leon Fink, "From Autonomy to Abundance: Changing Beliefs About the Free Labor System in Nineteenth-Century America," in Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor, ed. Stanley L. Engerman (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), 128.
26. Amy Dru Stanley, "'We did Not Separate Man and Wife, But All Had to Work': Freedom and Dependence in the Aftermath of Slave Emancipation, in Terms of Labor, 189.
27. My citation is from "Literary Sweaters," New York Times (4 November 1888): 13; original publication Andrew Lang, "At the Sign of the ship," Longman's Magazine (September 1888): 555. The piece was also published in The Critic.
28. "The Author Craftsman," The Critic: a Weekly Review of Literature and Arts (15 February 1896): 120.
29. Helen Evertson Smith, "The Business of Writing for Periodicals," The Independent (30 June 1892): 44. According to Smith, the only authors who get to play the role of property owners are those whose names are themselves "a species of capital" (44). [End Page 960] Although his focus is on the period before the war, Ronald Zboray's A Fictive People outlines the substantial changes to the publishing industry—in which it became increasing industrialized and "the wage system, the manager, and the consequent intensification of labor" profoundly changed the culture of letters in antebellum United States (A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993], 9).
30. George Haven Putnam, "The Ownership of Literary Property," The Chautauquan (March 1892): 691.
31. The early acceptances Chesnutt receives from Puck exemplify the tenuous status of authorial compensation. The receipts indicate that his stories "will appear as soon as we can find room for it," also indicating that a "[c]heck will be sent you by mail, on publication." Chesnutt receives checks for $5 dollars a month later after publication (The Charles W. Chesnutt Papers in the Western Reserve Historical Society, ed. Olivia J. Martin [Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1972]).
32. Fink, 133–34.
33. Chesnutt recognizes the special power of women (like Annie) to promote his fiction, as he writes Page about the importance of "ladies" in the "making [of] literary reputations" (L, 119).
34. John's dismissal of the tale doesn't sound much different from Chesnutt's own dismissals of his aerial architecture.
35. Chesnutt, The Journals of Charles Chesnutt, 139.
36. Chesnutt, The Journals of Charles Chesnutt, 149.
37. They reject "Lonesome Ben," which is later published in Southern Workman 29 (March 1900), 137–45.
38. These novels were not all written within the year, since Chesnutt had been sending out drafts of "Rena Walden" for almost ten years. Unfortunately, despite Chesnutt's interest in having Houghton, Mifflin & Co. read "Rena Walden," Page instructs him not to send any of the longer works. The letter from Page is cited in Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles W. Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1952), 91.
39. See Charles Chesnutt, A Business Career, ed. Matthew Wilson and Marjan A. Van Schaik (Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2005), viii. Hereafter abbreviated B and cited parenthetically by page number. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. cast their rejection as an economic one: that the novel market is "over-crowded" (cited in Helen M. Chesnutt, 91) and, consequentially, they do not imagine it will find buyers.
40. William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 131.
41. Interestingly, this correspondence is both business and personal. Thus, even as we are located in ostensibly the most masculine of buildings (an urban skyscraper), Truscott's first letter is a "daintily scented note on tinted paper, in a feminine hand" (B, 3).
42. The Marquise Clara Lanza, "Women Clerks in New York," The Cosmopolitan (February 1891): 487.
43. Chesnutt's decision to call Cleveland Groveland also had the effect of alluding to President Grover Cleveland, whose term coincides with the period in which the novel is probably set. Although Chesnutt doesn't give us any specific timeframe, it would seem that the portrait of financial ruin implies that the novel is set in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893.
44. In the Cosmopolitan essay, "Women Clerks in New York," there is a suggestion that the best-trained female stenographers can make anywhere between $8–12 per week. [End Page 961] The essay also maintains that the reason many employees initially hire female workers is they presume women "will work for lower wages." Although the author admits "this is true," she also explains that "efficient women can command as high salaries as men, particularly if they refuse to work for less, which is usually the case." And yet, if here there is a suggestion that the newly trained clerks are capable of controlling the market by refusing their labor, then she also confesses that the task involves relentless drudgery: "I find . . . that many clerks complain of the enormous amount of work they are compelled to perform in law offices, to say nothing of the dry and uninteresting character of the labor itself" (450).
45. The aestheticizing of commerce is also rendered by Chesnutt's depiction of the mural, "Commerce Conquering the World," which decorates the building where Truscott and Stella work, the El Dorado. The portrait, the narrator explains, "carried the mind away from rum and oil and tobacco and hides and tallow to the ideal of a beautiful spirit emptying a horn of plenty over a smiling landscape" (B, 153). As Stella observes the painting, she feels as if she has discovered "her proper environment, to live surrounded by works of art, and the fruits of culture"—but significantly, at this moment of self-realization, Stella feels as if these "fruits of culture" are best situated in the entryways to the halls of capital. This scene, after all, occurs when Stella decides to make a weekend trip to her office place so as to scrutinize the accounting books, since she fears that one of Truscott's employees may be fixing the books.
46. This portrait of Stella's mother ought to remind us of a very similar depiction of Malcolm in both "The Mute Witness" and The Colonel's Dream, who likewise imagines that the family fortune could be restored by effortlessly uncovering buried treasure.
47. Given that Chesnutt was employed by Dow in 1883, he likely was a reporter for the Customer's Afternoon Letter. The newsletter became the Wall Street Journal in 1889. [End Page 962]