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  • Charles W. Chesnutt, Houghton Mifflin, and the Racial Paratext
  • Lucas Dietrich (bio)

Gérard Genette’s concept of the “paratext” has remarkable traction for the study of African American literature. Introduced to describe materials that frame the literary text—prefaces, title pages, book covers, and advertisements—the paratext, in Genette’s formulation, remains auxiliary. It is “always subordinate to ‘its’ text” (12). Yet for US writers of color, especially those hoping to influence a predominantly white audience, the paratext has often become a crucial point of tension. As Beth A. McCoy argues in a 2006 issue of PMLA, the paratext has functioned centrally for African American literature “as a zone transacting ever-changing modes of white domination and of resistance to that domination” (156). For example, one might consider the African American slave narrative, where frontispiece portraits and white-authored prefaces have served to authenticate the text for a mainstream audience, “white envelopes” for the “black message,” as John Sekora describes.1 In a reversal that Genette did not anticipate, paratextual materials vie for status over and against the text itself.2

Critics of African American literature have at times been reluctant to focus on these bibliographic materials at the risk of further subordinating the text to its exterior. As Leon Jackson argues, “Scholars of slave culture and print culture have rarely shared agendas, nor have, more broadly, African American social, cultural, and literary historians, and those within the community of book historians” (252). Nevertheless, attention to the paratext reveals how this literature was framed and presented to its audience. Indeed, because the paratext is an especially fraught space for African American literature, these framing materials can point to important tensions and disconnections in what Robert Darnton calls the “communications circuit” between author, publisher, and reader (68). As book historians increasingly turn their attention to ethnic literatures, and as critics of US ethnic literature draw on the methods of critical bibliography,3 they consider what Jerome J. McGann calls the “bibliographic codes” and the “linguistic codes” of the text and the relationship between the two (13). This essay contributes to such scholarly developments by examining Charles W. Chesnutt’s interactions with his book publisher, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, and the production of materials that framed and marketed Chesnutt’s writing at the height of his literary career. [End Page 166]

Chesnutt’s relationship to the publishing industry has been a common theme in his critical revival. William L. Andrews’s 1980 biography, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, pays significant attention both to Chesnutt’s popular reception and to his correspondence with publishers. Andrews describes Chesnutt as “the first Afro-American writer to use the white-controlled mass media in the service of serious social fiction on behalf of the black community” (274). Richard H. Brodhead’s work throughout the 1990s—in Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (1993) and as editor of Chesnutt’s journals and conjure stories—not only places Chesnutt in the context of literary regionalism but also emphasizes the cross-racial production of The Conjure Woman (1899) as it was solicited by Houghton Mifflin editor Walter Hines Page. In these examinations and others, Chesnutt’s literary career and his professional relationship with publishers have remained a central topic of discussion.4 Indeed, it is the support of this publishing apparatus that sets Chesnutt apart from predecessors such as Hannah Crafts, William Wells Brown, Harriet Wilson, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.5

Despite the attention given to Chesnutt’s interaction with the mainstream publishing industry, few critics have examined the material traces of this relationship, which extend beyond the prestige of publication with Houghton Mifflin. In addition to securing this imprimatur, Chesnutt worked with Houghton Mifflin to negotiate how his work would be manufactured and advertised, where it would be distributed, and the extent to which his racial background would be known to readers. Chesnutt’s literary career is remarkable not only for the extent that he allowed Houghton Mifflin to direct his own writing but also for the influence Chesnutt exerted on Houghton Mifflin. In the years that he attempted to launch a popular literary career...


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