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Canadian Review of American Smdies/Revue canadtemie d'etudes americaines Volume25, Number 2, Spring 1995, pp. 95-101 Charles Chesnutt: Crossing the Colour Line Karen Carmean 95 Richard H. Brodhead, ed. The Journals of Charles Chesnutt. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. Pp. 181 + illustrations. Richard H. Brodhead, ed. The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales: Charles W. Chesnutt. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. Pp. 207. Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932) is one of those small miracles of late-nineteenth-century American literature. Born into a free black family that returned to North Carolina from Ohio where they remained during the Civil War (Chesnutt's father fought for the Union Army), Chesnutt grew up in Fayetteville and came to adulthood as something of an intellectual anomaly .Ambitious, articulate, disciplined, gifted, and diligent, Chesnutt achieved the highest social and professional levels available to him in the South, becoming the principal of the State Colored Normal School in his early twenties. Rather than being satisfied, however, his very achievement seemed to spur ambition, and he eventually abandoned southern racial constraints to become a successful businessman and author in Ohio. Indeed, he was the first African-American writer to cross the colour line in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly. Professor Richard Brodhead of Yale University has recently edited two works by Chesnutt: his journals, kept between 1874-82, and Chesnutt's first 96 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes amencaines volume of short stories, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales. Both works will be valuable to readers and scholars for their original content and the useful introductions. With scant evidence linking Chesnutt's achievement to family encouragement, Brodhead maintains the singular importance of the Howard School, a free public grade school for black children, in Chesnutt's career. Established in 1867, this school was unique for its financial wellbeing and model educational program (grade levels were relatively recent inventions employed almost exclusively in the North). So successful was the school in educating its pupils that in 1877 the state legislature made it one of two normal (or teachers) colleges under the direction of its principal, Robert Harris. Chesnutt became Harris's assistant and assumed his position after his death. First, though, Chesnutt took on a series of teaching jobs, and volume 1 of his journal begins after a stint as an assistant teacher at the school of Harris's brother, in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the summer of 1874, Chesnutt found employment in upstate South Carolina, teaching at rural schools and living with his students' families. Like most journals, Chesnutt's is a miscellany -a record of his observations and responses, a receptacle of his rare confidential passions (generally expressed in German), a list of personal hygiene practices he intends to follow, a notebook of study, early drafts of poems and plot outlines, and copied quotations he has found significant. Brodhead has omitted some of the "immature creative writing" and shorthand exercises as well as some of the composition exercises Chesnutt practiced, but gives us sufficient evidence to show how this man was a model of self-improvement. This journal allows us a record of a very advanced boy of sixteen who is finding out that he does not fit into white society. Often taken for being white because of his pale skin colour, he is nevertheless a member of the black community, whose culture seems foreign. Chesnutt's culture is that of Western civilization; he identifies more closely with European writers than the families he lives with. His language is standard and formal English, not regional vernacular. But he remains open to possibilities. While he might explode in frustration about "uneducated people being the most bigoted, superstitious, hardest people in the world" (81), he also Karen Carmean I 97 perseveres, believing that education holds the key both for him and the people he serves. Volume 2 of his journal (beginning in the fall of 1877) opens with an announcement about purpose and outlines both criticism (of penmanship and composition) and his resolve to remedy these deficiencies. Here we find Chesnutt improving his algebra, reading the Iliad, labouring through a course of Latin, practicing both French...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 95-101
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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