- The Portable Charles W. Chesnutt, and: Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays
The sesquicentennial of Charles W. Chesnutt's birth, June 20, 1858, has spawned a second anthology of Chesnutt writings in the past six years. Each has its strengths and should appeal to different readers. William L. Andrews says his book is part of the Penguin series of classics that are good sellers in airports where we have grown accustomed to long waits and need interesting paperbacks to pacify us during the ordeal. The Penguin classics are designed to present the highlights of a particular author in the literary canon of books all well read persons should read during their lifetime.
The book presents a dozen short stories, a novel, The Marrow of Tradition, and three essays that are arguably Chesnutt's best examples of his narrative craft. In addition [End Page 506] to harried travelers, the book should appeal to high school teachers wishing to explore the essential Chesnutt with advanced students, but I would have wished for the inclusion of two or three other stories that might allow the book's appeal to extend to the budding undergraduate scholar in college. Although Andrews has asserted here, and in several other writings, that Chesnutt's conjure stories were influenced by Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, that assertion tends to cut off the probability of other sources. A close reading of "A Roman Antique," one of Chesnutt's early New York stories presents the basis for considering independent older sources.
In "A Roman Antique," an early 1889 tale, an old Negro joins the white narrator on a park bench. The old man tells a fabulous tale of being born a slave and serving in the army of Julius Caesar before the war, and during the war having saved Caesar's life by taking an arrow aimed at Caesar. In this story, Chesnutt uses one of his first noticeable allusions to an earlier text. In Thomas Southerne's play Oroonoko: A Tragedy, we find a similar, but inverted, description: a white general in the service of an African king's army steps in front of the black prince Oroonoko and trades his life for the future South American slave who will be renamed Caesar (Oroonoko II.ii.71-80). A similar raconteur appears as Uncle Julius in the conjure stories. In this short, 530-word tale are all the elements of Chesnutt's Conjure Woman tales in miniature. At least five small-town newspapers found it engaging enough to reprint this story from Puck.
I am also partial to "Her Virginia Mammy." That story is the first Chesnutt story in which I discovered an allusion to Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, Acts IV and V. Chesnutt's version differs from the Bard's by eliminating the dual climax of the play. He does not include the reintroduction of King Leontes' wife Hermione, who he assumes has been dead these past fifteen years. Chesnutt reuses that ending as the climax in his most famous story, "The Wife of his Youth."
A smaller disappointment I found in both books was their exclusion of the previously uncollected stories that were not readily available when Sylvia Lyons Render first published The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt (1974): "A Doubtful Success," "Two Wives," and "A Fatal Restriction." I rank "A Doubtful Success" as the best of Chesnutt's New York stories. Stylistically, it seems to be the last story Chesnutt wrote before "The Goophered Grapevine." It too has all the elements of a framed conjure story except that the outer-frame narrator is anonymous.
Werner Sollors does not provide an introduction to Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays. Instead, he includes all the stories in The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, the nine uncollected stories, seven essays, and the novels The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition. Sollors's book appears to be aimed at the...