The death of Charles W. Chesnutt on November 15th removes a figure from our midst who was as much a pioneer to our writers of fiction as was Dunbar to our poets.
Charles W. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland in 1858, and spent his childhood in that city. For a long time he lived in North Carolina, where he received his schooling, taught school, and stored up material he was later to use. After a brief journalistic career in New York, he returned to Cleveland in 1887, passing the bar and becoming a court stenographer. In 1927 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal for his "pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent."
Mr. Chesnutt was the author of six books and several uncollected stories. He wrote a short biography of Frederick Douglass; two volumes of short stories: The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line; and three novels: The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel's Dream. Of these the only easily available works are The Conjure Woman, recently issued by Houghton Mifflin (a story from which appeared in Calverton's Anthology) and the story The Wife of His Youth included in Cromwell, Dykes, and Turner: Readings From Negro Authors. The date of his last book is 1905.
As one who knows the vagaries of the critical mind might suspect, the name of Mr. Chesnutt is conspicuously absent from the books purporting to deal with American literature at the turn of the century. Professor Pattee's three comprehensive volumes on literature since 1870, the Newer American Literature, and the American Short Story, each of which has an index resembling a directory, do not mention Mr. Chesnutt, although Octavus Roy Cohen and Edgar Guest receive space. Even two other histories, noteworthy for their treatment of Negro authors as American, do not mention his name.
Against these omissions might be set the high critical, praise of Mr. Chesnutt from such estimable critics as William Dean Howells, Joel E. Spingarn, and John Chamberlain. Carl Van Vechten has his character Byron say of Chesnutt: "This man had surveyed the problems of his race from an Olympian height and had turned them into living and artistic drama. Nothing seemed to have escaped his attention. He had surveyed the entire field, calmly setting down what he saw, what he thought and felt about it." Professor Spingarn writes: "He was the first Negro novelist, and he is still the best."
The Conjure Woman., stories from which appeared in "The Atlantic Monthly" is a book of folklore, done in the vein of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, but with its own individual excellences. Mr. Chesnutt's more representative work is in his novels. Here he shows the turbulency of Reconstruction times, with Hydra-headed prejudice raising its head throughout the land. The wrongs of the "prostrate South," and the glories of Ku Kluxery were the themes of the melodramas of Thomas Page and Thomas Dixon. Chesnutt is one of the few novelists who protested against their propaganda, presenting, often melodramatically it must be admitted, but always powerfully, the wrongs suffered by the new freedmen. The position of the octoroon in the South is charted in The House Behind the Cedars, the relationships between a white girl and her mulatto sister in The Marrow of Tradition, and another reconstruction "fool's errand" to reform the South in The Colonel's Dream. Mr. Chesnutt revealed the color prejudice within the group in The Wife of His Youth.
His ultimate position is indicated in this comment of John Chamberlain: "He pressed on to more tragic materials, and handled them as no white novelist could have succeeded at the time in doing. And before be lapsed into silence all the materials of the Negro novel and short story as a vehicle for dramatizing racial problems bad made their appearance, either explicitly or through adumbration in his work."
He wrought well; and although his days of producing seemed already regrettably in the past, his death comes as a real loss to our literature. Another pioneer, and an able one, is gone.
Brown, Sterling A., "In Memoriam: Charles W. Chesnutt," Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life. 10 (December 1932): 387.