African American Studies Charles W. Chesnutt
Charles Duncan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0037


Subsequent to an African American literary tradition built almost entirely on slave narratives—nonfiction autobiographical accounts of life in slavery—Charles W. Chesnutt (b. 1858–d. 1932) became the first major black fiction writer. Although he wrote a few powerful essays, usually regarding race in the United States, his reputation rests primarily on his novels and short stories, written during what he termed the “post-bellum, pre-Harlem” era of African American literature. The scope of those fictionalized accounts of mostly, but not exclusively, African American lives varies widely: dialect stories chronicling antebellum life on plantations; nondialect stories detailing the lives of economically mobile African Americans in the post–Civil War North; novels depicting various adaptations, including passing, to racial and social reimaginations of an evolving country. Chesnutt’s biography, too, reflects a varied life, one that engendered in him a range of perspectives on an evolving cultural and social country. He grew up in the Reconstruction South and worked as a teacher and administrator in a Normal School in North Carolina. Later, he lived briefly in New York (working at a newspaper) before settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where he became a successful businessman with a court reporting business. With some striking literary successes—he published short fiction in the Atlantic Monthly and was praised by William Dean Howells and others—Chesnutt committed fully, but briefly, to his writing career, and his output during that time is impressive: two collections of short fiction, three novels, a biography (of Frederick Douglass), and some compelling essays. Ultimately disappointed with both the financial return—his novel based on the Wilmington Riots sold about 1,000 copies while Thomas Dixon’s racist account of the same events sold nearly 100,000—and the reviews, he returned reluctantly to his business career, continuing to write but with far less professional devotion. Chesnutt published a handful of stories after 1905, but the most significant addendums to his literary career are the five novels published posthumously. Because all five reached print since 1997, an entire new thread of Chesnutt scholarship has emerged. Taken together, Chesnutt’s works—whether published during his lifetime or subsequently—describe an author wrestling not only with race issues, but also with the rapid, complex (and ongoing) evolution of a new “America.”

Primary Texts

Chesnutt’s primary texts provide an interesting set of data in that, while his short fiction appeared either in collections or magazines during his lifetime, much of the rest of his work— five novels and many essays and speeches—did not reach publication until after his death in 1932.

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