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  • Charles Chesnutt's Capitalist Conjurings
  • Elizabeth Hewitt

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This essay will focus on Chesnutt's fiction most explicitly devoted to economic topics: the conjure tales and his unpublished novel, written in 1899, A Business Career.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...


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