- Out of the Kitchen of the House of Fiction
It comes as no surprise that the scholarly hierarchies and professional marginalization that Nellie McKay, Barbara Christian, Ann duCille, and Frances Smith Foster exposed in the 1990s and that Gabrielle Foreman addresses eloquently in the present have insidious equivalents in the realm of textual analysis and interpretation—insidious because the hierarchization and the marginalization are produced (and reproduced) not through any overt devaluation of the subject but through less visible mechanisms, such as the seemingly disinterested frame of methodological practice itself. That is, I am concerned with actual critical praxis, the reading of specific texts, the aesthetic models implicitly applied, the racialized hierarchies of literary value one (re)produces, and the amount of time, research, and intellectual effort one invests in problematizing “common conclusion[s]” about the literature of historically marginalized groups (Foster xxiii).
These concerns are particularly relevant for nineteenth-century African American literature, often still considered “more valuable as artifact than artistry” (Foster xx). Here I will focus on a specific, but not singular, case study: Charles W. Chesnutt. Despite his relatively established status, critical and editorial interest in his work coexists with old, problematic interpretive frameworks fraught with ambivalence. My examination will focus on editors’ introductions to anthologies of Chesnutt’s work and to critical essay collections, where implicitly low literary expectations and white-centered cultural hierarchies reduce Chesnutt to a second-class dweller in the Jamesian house of fiction without due critical process.
Privileging normative white standards of comparison and, more marginally, evoking the rich context of black literature, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler praise Chesnutt for his acceptance by the contemporaneous mainstream publishing establishment and also blame [End Page 66] him for “wield[ing] the tar brush” so vigorously as to “alienat[e] one of the most distinguished white advocates of the African American”: William Dean Howells (xxiv).1 Evoking binary critical categories of earlier decades (art versus protest), they describe Chesnutt as a protest writer (and a “decidedly minor player” at that) who “barks” his disapproval, a wording that reveals how intrinsically flawed such a literary category is in the editors’ estimation (xxix, xxxii). In ostensibly contrasting but equally problematic ways, they also portray him as a participant “in a western humanistic tradition” whose 1899 speech made the black “Bethel Association … almost indistinguishable from white America’s Chautauqua Assembly” (xxiii). The less-than-flattering connotations of this seeming praise are reiterated when they conclude that Chesnutt was a “talented amateur” and marvel that “he was at all able to do the reading he did and fashion these speeches in such a competent manner” (xxxvi).
It comes, then, as no surprise that, with such blunt tools for literary analysis, the editors end up confirming the limited literariness that their very definition of protest (elsewhere less euphemistically described by McElrath as “literary invective”) presupposed (“W. D. Howells and Race” 499). This assessment apparently entitles them, for instance, to reduce Chesnutt’s essays on “The Negro Problem” to a list of “themes … easily identified, given how frequently they recur” (McElrath, Leitz, and Crisler xxx).2 As the critics project onto the writer the limitations of their own analytic approach, protest functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy of literary mediocrity, leading the editors to legitimize Howells’s (in)famous 1901 accusation of bitterness: since Chesnutt was “far from a detached observer of the 1898 race riot in Wilmington,” Howells “had to lament the ‘bitter, bitter’ tone” of The Marrow of Tradition (xxiv). Now, as then, the critic(s)’ disagreement with the author is cloaked under summary aesthetic evaluations.
Similarly problematic statements also appear in critical essays like that by McElrath where readers are told, rather than shown, that in “Chesnutt’s canon … content is often as problematic as form” or that the supposed “failure of … [Chesnutt’s] major flirtation with Realism” is not to “be perceived as an indictment,” because Chesnutt “did not care one bit that such was the case” (“Why Charles W. Chesnutt Is Not a Realist” 92, 106). Underestimating Chesnutt’s knowledge of his literary times, McElrath notes how, “serendipitously, his African Americans in both 1899...