American Literature Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Henry B. Wonham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0090


Charles Waddell Chesnutt, a prominent author, lawyer, and civil-rights activist, was born 20 June 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of middle-class parents of mixed-race ancestry. In 1866, immediately after the Civil War, the family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Chesnutt spent most of his youth in the charged atmosphere of Reconstruction. He flourished as a student at the Freedmen’s Bureau school in Fayetteville and then at the State Colored Normal School, of which he became the principal at the age of twenty-two. In 1878 he married Susan Perry, a Fayetteville schoolteacher, and five years later the couple relocated to Cleveland, where Chesnutt completed his law degree and opened a lucrative court stenography business. Throughout his early years as a student, a teacher, and a young lawyer, Chesnutt harbored a passion for literature, and his keenest ambition was to write fiction. He confided to his journal that he felt called to a literary occupation, and he described the goal of his prospective career in clear terms: “The object of my writing would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites—for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people: and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it” (The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt, edited by Richard H. Brodhead [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993], pp. 139–140). His first major success as a writer occurred in 1887, when the prestigious Atlantic Monthly published “The Goophered Grapevine,” the first of several frame stories introduced by a white northern character, John, and narrated by the dialect-speaking former slave, Uncle Julius. Many of Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius tales were published in book form by Houghton, Mifflin in 1899 as The Conjure Woman, which was followed later that year by a second collection of nondialect stories, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Also in that remarkable year, Chesnutt published a biography of Frederick Douglass, and in 1900 he realized his long-held dream of becoming a novelist, with the appearance of The House behind the Cedars. He followed House with a strident appeal for racial justice in his most ambitious novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which chronicles the 1898 race riot and white supremacist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. That novel’s disappointing sales and harsh reviews were a major blow to Chesnutt’s literary aspirations, and in 1902 he resumed his stenography business. He published one more novel in 1905, The Colonel’s Dream, which also received lukewarm reviews and convinced Chesnutt to abandon his dream of a literary career. He continued to write occasional stories, but after 1905 his attention shifted to business affairs, family life, and vocal opposition to racial inequality. In 1928 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in recognition of his lifelong efforts on behalf of civil rights and racial justice for Americans. Although he endured more disappointment than celebrity during his relatively brief authorial career, Chesnutt is now justly regarded as a founder of the African American literary tradition and one of the most important American writers of his era. He died 15 November 1932, at the age of seventy-four.

General Overviews

The best overview of Chesnutt’s literary career is Andrews 1980, although McWilliams 2002 covers the journals and unpublished novels more thoroughly. Sundquist 1993 is another indispensable overview of Chesnutt’s accomplishments as a writer, although Sundquist moves selectively, rather than comprehensively, through the published oeuvre. Duncan 2005 is the first book-length critical study of Chesnutt’s entire literary career. Wilson 2004 and Simmons 2006 survey the novels: Wilson, with an emphasis on Chesnutt’s thinking about racial identity; Simmons, with particular attention to Chesnutt’s attitudes toward literary realism. Wonham 1998 discusses most of the short fiction and reproduces major critical statements about Chesnutt’s art as well as a selection of nonfiction primary texts.

  • Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Southern Literary Studies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

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    Andrews’s account of Chesnutt’s literary career is the foundational text in Chesnutt criticism, and it remains, despite its 1980 publication date, the most comprehensive and insightful single piece of scholarship on the author. Andrews explains how Chesnutt became the first African American writer to use the white-controlled mass media to disseminate fiction on issues concerning the black community.

  • Duncan, Charles. Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.

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    Duncan takes what he calls a narratological approach to “the polyglossia of Chesnutt’s writing” (p. 25). Although the book contains many interesting readings, the narratological approach serves more as a method of grouping stories into “clusters” than as an effective interpretive or theoretical tool.

  • McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

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    McWilliams examines Chesnutt’s entire oeuvre “from the perspective of recent theories of language and the construction of racial identity” (p. x). This excellent book is especially insightful concerning Chesnutt’s complicated attitude toward the racial vocabulary of his time.

  • Simmons, Ryan. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Studies in American Literary Realism and Naturalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

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    Simmons explores Chesnutt’s relation to realism as a literary mode and speculates on the larger relationship between American literary realism and the concept of race.

  • Sundquist, Eric J. “Charles Chesnutt’s Cakewalk.” In To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. By Eric J. Sundquist, 271–454. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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    Sundquist’s nearly two-hundred-page chapter argues persuasively that Chesnutt is “one of the most important—and least understood or appreciated—American writers of the early modern period” (p. 276).

  • Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

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    This is the first book-length study to examine all of Chesnutt’s novels (including posthumously published and unpublished manuscripts) and to assess his achievement specifically as a novelist.

  • Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.

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    Wonham provides an overview of Chesnutt’s dialect and nondialect stories and reproduces representative primary texts related to Chesnutt’s career as a writer, including “What Is a White Man?” “The Future American,” “Superstitions and Folklore of the South,” and “Post-Bellum–Pre-Harlem,” as well as excerpts from Chesnutt’s major critics, including Andrews, Sundquist, William Dean Howells, and Ben Slote.

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