One of the Leading Novelists of the Race
Of all the tragic and pitiful situations that this queer world can envelop, perhaps the most sorrowful is that of the person who aspires to a condition that he knows he can never reach. Indeed, is it not a blessed fact that most mortals are not beset by absorbing ambitions; are not bitten and stung by the desperate longing for a sphere of life beyond that in which Nature has started them; but can feel reasonably content if they get about so much food, about so much sleep, so much pleasure as is enjoyed by the class out of which they have sprung?
Yet, when that strange and mighty something enters the life of the human being, Ambition, Longing, Dissatisfaction. Sensitiveness, or call it whatever you will, Tragedy begins. The examples are ever about us. Here is one lad whose parents are poor, and who goes ill dressed to his school. But he doesn't worry much. Nature has given him excellent muscles and he thrashes all scoffers into profound re- /154 The Colored American Magazine./ spect. But his brother is of a different order. He has neither good clothes nor strong body, and in addition, there is perhaps a brain that can realize with doubly keen bitterness the advantages money can give, in the refinements and the polish for which the child has an uncontrollable longing. A news item which was recently floating around through the newspapers may be cited as an actual illustration.
A little eight-year-old fellow was sent off to Sunday school. His clothes were very shabby and he didn't want to go forth to meet the sly jests and the rough ridicule of his classmates. The father had been out of work and could not feed his family, not to mention new clothes.
The child tearfully begged and pleaded that he did not want to go to Sunday school because his clothes were ragged. But the father insisted that the lad be sent. The mother cried over him and besought him "to be a brave little man and may be he should soon have some nice new clothes as soon as papa got some work," This demonstration of mother courage worked its temporary reciprocal force on the offspring. He kissed mamma good bye and started away with not another word.
But the nearer he got to the church, the more dreadful grew the thought of the ridicule that would be heaped upon him. It grew in a few minutes to be a terror that consumed him, and made the thought of death very sweet, Straight to the river went this eight-year-old boy and ended his life!
And in the field of pathos and tragedy what volumes are yet to be written of the mental sufferings undergone by those whose mixture of blood makes them almost outcasts! Many and many are the beings who cover with all the carefulness and artfulness possible the fact that they have a touch of negro blood! They wouldn't have the truth known for worlds. Then, here are the thousands who are generally known as of hybrid blood. They are too "light" to be classed as black. Yet, not "light" enough to be accepted as "white." They go through life practically without kith or kin. They feel that they are accounted as not in harmony with the negro race. And the white race will not have them. What shall they do? Whither shall they go?
It is of this hybrid race, the "light-black" or the "black-light," its mental anguish, its pitiful life, its heart-rending experiences, that a subtle and powerful pen has come to treat. Charles W. Chesnutt has a field as a writer that is singularly his own and he is showing himself a master. His work is marked by feeling, understanding, grace and polish. As Mr. Chesnutt himself says of his work, "it lies along the line where the two races come together."
Chesnutt is practically the pioneer in his especial vocation. We have had much writing upon the lighter, the rollicking, not to say, coarser, phase of negro character.
But there is a phase that is too pitifully serious. It is found in the superstitions, in the negro view of religion, in those strange recesses where the black man seeks to commune with what he regards as the Fateful, Omnipotent, Awful, All-Powerful. Here he is most abjectly in earnest. He is groping for light. His superstitions, his prayers, his spiritual longings are not altogether comical, ridiculous, nor absurd, as so many writers have apparently thought.
It is the mission of Chesnutt to delineate this deeper and, as was once held, unbelievable, phase of negro character, the spiritual and ambitious element of his nature, and with such analysis and fidelity has he written that today. Charles W. Chesnutt undoubtedly holds the honor of being the Foremost Colored Novelist.
Of his book of nine short stories, entitled "The Wife of His Youth" (1899), a critic gave the following synopsis:
"To Mr. Chesnutt may be given credit of the first publication of a subtle psychology of the negro's spiritual nature, the first actual revelation of those secret depths of the dusky soul which no white writer might hope to approach through his own intuition."
It is but a few years ago that certain short stories began to appear in the Atlantic Monthly. No one in the literary world knew aught of the new comer who signed himself "Charles W. Chesnutt," but it was recognized that here was a writer of peculiar power. He was dealing with the weird superstitions, the ominous incantations, and the strange religious system that prevailed among the Southern negro before the Civil War. Much of this life has absolutely disappeared, and these stories were written with such unmistakable knowledge of the subject, with such skill and subtlety that they were conceded to be more than passing "short stories." They were bits of psychological history. Finally, under the title of "The Conjure Woman," seven of these short stories were put into a book (1899) and Charles W. Chesnutt was fairly before the literary public. Of this first volume of the new author, an able reviewer wrote as follows:
"Unlike many books with negro characters, 'The Conjure Woman' was not written expressly to display the author's knowledge of dialect. Nor is this series of sketches an attempt to portray modern negro life. The seven stories are told in dialect-for in what other tongue could Uncle Julius have spoken? Incidentally, too, they disclose the negro of to-day, his ways of living, and his ethical views. But all this is secondary to Mr. Chesnutt's chief aim, which is to make vivid some of the superstitions current in slavery times. Uncle Julius himself only half believes the wonderful tales that he tells. A smile lurks at the corners of his mouth as he narrates them to the Northern purchaser of the run-down North Carolina plantation on which he had been a slave 'befo de wah.'
"The humor of Julius is unconscious. There is no horseplay, nothing to raise a laugh. The humor really lies in his application. Pathos is the other strong element of these sketches, that pathos which is inseparable from a true mirroring of the-daily life of the slaves. This comes out strongly in 'Sis Becky's Pickaninny' and 'The Gray Wolf 's Ha'nt.'"
The writer kept sending his short stories to the Atlantic, the Century, Independent, Outlook and other standard publications, since the best magazines were eager for him now, and presently nine more short stories composed Chesnutt's second book, "The Wife of His Youth." The foremost critics were still favorable to him for the volume was characterized as:
"Remarkable for its literary skill and distinction, its dramatic quality, its tactful treatment of a delicate race problem, and above all, for its genuine human feeling.
"Mr. Chesnutt has not only an exceptional knowledge of the negro character and environment, but he has also marvelous subtlety and wisdom in the treatment of their difficulties."
People are now wanting to know about the personal history of the new author, and inquiry developed the following facts:
Charles W. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, June 20th, 1858. His parents were free people of North Carolina, who moved to Ohio in 1857. Mr. Chesnutt lived in Cleveland until 1866, in which year his father, who had served four years in the Civil war, returned to the South. He began at a very early age to teach in the public schools of North Carolina, and in 1881 became principle of the State Colored Normal School at Fayetteville. In the summer of 1883 Mr. Chesnutt left the South to seek his fortune in more northern latitudes. After several months spent in New York City, where he was employed as a news reporter in Wall Street, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, the city of his birth, where he has /156/ since made his home. At Cleveland he first obtained employment as accountant in the general office of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis railroad, and later as stenographer in the law department of the same corporation. He read law and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1887. Mr. Chesnutt is an expert stenographer having acquired the art from a text-book, without a teacher, while a boy in North Carolina, and attributes to his knowledge of this useful and beautiful art many of the opportunities which have opened up to him the path of success. He was for years the most popular reporter in the Cleveland courts, and the business he carefully built up is still in the hands of a relative. he has traveled extensively in the united States and Europe, and is a man of broad culture and versed in several modern languages.
Thus we find that all of Chesnutt's writing has been done in leisure hours, for his bread-earning profession, until recently at least, has been that of a lawyer. His success nowadays with the pen, however, brings very tidy financial returns.
Last year, Mr. Chesnutt published his first novel. It bears the picturesque and charming caption, "The House Behind the Cedars," and has had excellent fortune. The volume is a satisfactory realization of the literary advance the public was to expect from his "Conjure Woman" and "The Wife of His Youth." This novel is an effort to present in vivid colors the tragedy that invariably accompanies the "taint" of negro blood when he or she who bears it seeks to exchange "black" society for "white."
The events of the narrative arise in the South soon after the war for the Union, and the principal characters who participate in them are octoroons-a brother who had, in a community where he passed as a "white" man, married into a white family, and a sister whom the brother introduces into his new social sphere. The sister, transplanted from a "black" world into a "white" one (though she exhibited no trace of negro blood other than a wavy quality in her beautiful hair), becomes the object of a white man's devotion. Here is a mine needing-to spring it with terribly explosive effect-only an expose of the real "color" of the girl and her brother. This is what happens, and the romantic and sociological interest of the novel attaches thenceforth to the consequences of a "white" man's honorable love for a "colored" woman-for only a tragedy could such a love have been, or even now be, in the South.
Some months ago, Mr. Chesnutt came to the Eastern cities to give a series of platform readings from his own writings. The reception accorded him was thoroughly cordial. He was greeted by excellent audiences, and his modest and charming manner merely enhanced the interesting impression to the hundreds who had read his stories.
Now in the prime of his intellectual powers, Charles W. Chesnutt is undoubtedly destined to reach a prominent position in American literature.
Wright, John Livingston. "Charles W. Chesnutt: One of the Leading Novelists of the Race." Colored American Magazine. 4 (December 1901): 153-56.