The Work and Presonality of Charles W. Chesnutt
It was Coquelin, the great French actor, who said once in epitomizing the art of acting: "Coquelin the man must stand behind and match Coquelin the actor."
Sometimes in literary art the detachment of the personality of the writer from the personality of his created people seems as distinct as though the reader saw the dual process of the man standing behind the author and directing the work step by step.
This ability to eliminate oneself, for the time being, from the actual conditions of personal environment is an evidence of creative power, the first element of that rare force, genius. Now to entirely appreciate how much or how little of personal experience is transcribed in a work of fiction, it is necessary to know something about the writer and his life, so after reading a man's book there is a natural desire to read the man himself.
Some months ago there appeared in the Atlantic Monthly a short story, entitled "The Wife of His Youth," which was signed Charles W Chesnutt.
The story, which touches upon a new phase of American life in fiction-the phase of the cultured "colored" man-was a strong one, possessing ethical and dramatic qualities, and showing the development of a distinct social system among us--a system of educational and social culture among that class of American citizens who belong in varying degrees of shade and color, to both the white and black races. In reading of the educated man's struggle, when, just on the eve of proposing marriage to a woman of his own strain of blood, and who, like himself, had received the illumination of knowledge, an old negress comes to the village, and making her way to the "colored gentleman's" house, asks him to help her in her search for her husband, who was lost in slavery days by a change of ownership. The old woman has searched for the husband, in whose faith and loyalty to herself she has no shadow of doubt, for nearly thirty years. The man of property and position hears her story and knows that the crucial moment of his life has come. He is bound by no legal obligation to this old negress, for with freedom came a new dispensation of the law regarding slave marriage; she would never guess his identity, hidden under a new name and totally different conditions. He thought of the other woman, the woman who was so fitted to be his helpmate and companion, and then he looked at the bent form of the woman before him, who had spent so much of life in search of him, she believed to be as faithful as herself-and there was a battle in his soul.
Out from the strife he comes the victor, and the following night he bids his friends come to an entertainment, where he tells the story of the faithful soul, puts the vital question of the husband's duty to his guests, and then, while there is a confused murmuring of sympathy among his audience he rushes in and presents to them, the half-dazed, half--frightened old black woman as "The Wife of his Youth."
Hearing afterward that Mr. Chesnutt was comparatively a young man and that a slight strain of negro blood flowed in his veins, the writer of this article was gratified recently to meet this new author.
Mr. Chesnutt's keen gray eyes had at times the grave, severe expression that is seen in certain portraits of Gray Eagle and Sitting Bull, and it was when discussing certain conditions of Southern life that this look of calm, but concentrated bitterness was most noticeable. After watching these gray eyes it does not seem strange when the author speaks of the traditionary Indian blood he inherits from an aboriginal ancestor, for Mr. Chesnutt is a descendant of three races, and owes, perhaps, a great deal of his mental and temperamental personality to this triple mixture of bloods.
Although the percentage of Caucasian blood is overwhelming, still, there are certain mental qualities belonging to him that may be attributed to the admixture of tropical and aboriginal race traits.
One cannot read "The Conjure Woman" without appreciating the humor of the author of these tales, and if one knows anything of the Southern negro, the distinctively negro humor is recognized, for the Afro-American invariably possesses humor-sometimes of the subtlest sort. To this same sixteenth, or thirty-second degree of "colored" blood much of the dramatic quality of his work is due, for the negro is naturally dramatic as well as humorous.
Looking at this man it would be quite impossible to detect that little drop of African blood if he himself did not claim it with a quiet dignity, that had the royalty of truth in its simple candor.
"You know my connection with the race," he said, speaking of his pictures of slave life. "For many generations there has been no slave, but the pressure against free negroes, as all who had a trace of African blood were called, became very great in 1858-9, and my mother's family moved to the West. My father, who was of the same strain as my mother, followed her and married her in the West, where I was born. I went back to Georgia when I was ten years old, and stayed there until I was twenty-five, so that I know the life there in all of its aspects."
A shadow crossed his face as he spoke, and for a moment he was silent.
"You see," he continued, a bitter smile playing about his lips, "the words of the negro song, 'All Coons Look Alike to Me' express the sentiment of the whole people of that section. The educated man or woman, no matter what his character and ability may be, who has one-sixteenth, or one-thirty-second, or one sixty-fourth part of African blood is counted a negro and is debarred from the privileges of a white man or woman."
"Of course, Mr. Chesnutt," suggested his hostess, "wherever the race that has been for generations dominant suddenly finds the dominated race, whether fit or unfit for the promotion, put upon the same basis with it, there will be friction. Don't you think that a good deal of the hostility between the races in the South is due to the too sudden change in the conditions of both?"
Mr. Chesnutt reflected before he answered slowly: "Yes, that change was too sudden. It is natural enough that there should be a struggle for social supremacy-that would adjust itself-but there should be no legislation providing different coaches on the car lines for the colored passenger, if he be clean and decent; different places for him everywhere."
"That seemed hard, certainly; and yet in certain sections where the colored population greatly outnumbers the white it is not altogether unnatural for the minority to take extreme measures against the encroachments of the majority, especially when that majority is, considered collectively, inferior in intelligence. In some instances this knowledge of superiority of numbers breeds an aggressiveness of manner that is hard to bear."
"I know that," replied Mr. Chesnutt to some such consideration. "I am a Southern man and I have felt with the Southern white man. I have his blood too, and one of the pleasantest recollections of my life in Georgia is the expressions of regret that I heard when I gave up teaching there. One white man told me he regretted my departure because he believed that I had been and would be the means of establishing a clearer understanding and a better relation between the black man and the white man, but the conditions there do not tempt a man of intellectual aspirations to stay."
When Mr. Chesnutt was asked what he thought would be the ultimate result of the situation, he answered gravely: "It is hard to tell; but there is already a 'race war' begun-spasmodic and intermittent, but in progress-but the victory will come only through education and enlightenment. Looking at the general masses of my people, the case seems almost hopeless, but when a great movement once begins, it may halt, but it does not retrograde."
The expression, "my people," sounded oddly from the lips of this man, but one was reminded of Booker Washington's words, "It takes 100 per cent of Caucasian blood to make a white American. The minute it is proved that a man possess one-hundredth part of negro blood in his veins it makes him a black man; he falls to our side. We claim the 99 per cent of white blood counts for nothing when weighed against 1 per cent of negro blood." Only in this case the 99 per cent of white blood was claiming the 1 per cent of negro blood.
Another question led to an interesting talk about his literary work. "I wrote my first story when I was an impressionable lad of fourteen years old, and it was published in Georgia by a colored man who had a paper there. That was the beginning of my great desire to write, but I had to get my living and so I became a stenographer-but always I had the hope of some day turning to a literary life. I thought, too, that perhaps I would write better when I was older, so I was content to plod on."
As court stenographer, Mr. Chesnutt earns a very large salary in Cleveland, 0., where he lives, and his quiet, patient pursuit of a business life, when his tastes and abilities made the field of letters appear so alluring, is not only an example to a host less gifted aspirants to literary fame, but is evidence of the possession of sound judgment and that uncommon gift of "common" sense.
"I'll tell you how I happened to write the first story in 'The Conjure Woman' series," he said. "My father-in-law had made enough to buy one of the old Southern houses-a town house it was-but there was a great garden around it. One day an old colored man came to work in this garden, and as he leaned on his hoe he told me of an old man who had anointed his bald head with scuppernong grape-juice, which had the remarkable effect of producing a luxuriant crop of hair. This hair grew with the rising sap of the scuppernong vines and fell away periodically with the shrivelling of the grapes, occasioning a yearly repetition of the anointing process. That was the foundation of 'The Goophered Grapevine.' With the exception of 'The Wife of His Youth,' for which I had a slight basis in reality, as far as the hero of the story went, and 'The Goophered Grapevine,' all of my stories have been works of the imagination."
It is this purely imaginative quality of his work that makes Coquelin's words recur to the mind. Here is an educated, cultivated man, able to thoroughly project himself into the experiences and feelings of the most unlettered, superstitious old negro men and women of the slave regime. Portraying with the effect of actuality a period of which he can have no personal knowledge, he is Chesnutt the man, behind Chesnutt the author. The genius of the conception of these stories is directed by the skill of judgment, and when these two work together they produce art.
Take, for example, the story of "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny. "There is humor and pathos and imagination in that story, and it, like all the tales in which the "Conjure Woman" figures, is hung on the thread of old John's diplomacy and shrewdness, for each one of his stories is told with a distinctly personal end in view.
This is a bit of characterization that is both strong and subtle: "Julius," I observed, half to him and half to my wife, "your people will never rise in the world until they throw off these childish superstitions and learn to live by the life of reason and common-sense! How absurd to imagine that the forefoot of a poor, dead rabbit, with which he timorously felt his way along through a life surrounded by snares and pitfalls, beset by enemies on every hand, can promote happiness or success, or ward off failure of misfortune!"
And Princess rises to the occasion: "Dat's w'at I tells dese niggers roun' heah. De fo'-foot am got no power. It has to be de hin'-foot, suh-de lef' hin'-foot er a grabe-ya'd rabbit, kilt by a cross-eyed nigger on a da'k night in de full er de moon." The pathos of little Moses, who, when his mother "wuz tuk' 'way 'mence ter git res'-less, en bimeby w'en his mammy didn' come he sta'ted ter cry for her, en finally he des cried an' cried 'tel he cried hisself ter sleep," is infinite, when one knows that the mammy was sold and could never come back. But the "Conjure Woman" is at hand with her conjurings, and she effects "Sis' Becky's" return by sending a hornet to sting the legs of the master's horse, for which "Sis Becky" had been traded, and by causing "Sis Becky" to fall sick, by which means the horse and the woman were traded back again, and little Moses had his mammy once more.
"I have another lot of stories," confided the author at last, "and I want to find a title for them. 'The Wife of His Youth' is to be the leader, and I want a sub-title that will show that these stories touch upon the contact of the two races in many ways as parent and child, teacher and pupil, and other relations. And I have just signed a contract with Small, Maynard & Co., for another book-'The Life of Frederick Douglass,' for the Beacon Biography Series," he added. "I have promised it this fall." The life of Douglass by one who belongs to his race will be an interesting book apart from its value as a biography, for in this work Mr. Chesnutt will unconsciously set the mark not only of his ability in a new line of literary effort, but of his present and future attitude toward the two races to which he belongs. Despite the fact that Mr. Chesnutt shows a bitterness sometimes toward the white people of the South, he is evidently a man who has a broad vision of things, and his book on Frederick Douglass will be one of the most significant ones to be issued by Small, Maynard & Co. Together with "The Future of the American Negro," by Booker T. Washington, to be issued by the same firm this fall, it will inaugurate a new line of thought among colored men of letters. These two books, like these two men, may be regarded as "signs of the times," and they and their works deserve very careful consideration.
That there are evils in the South and terrible evils, too, cannot be denied, but both races have had much to bear. The remedy for such evils lies in following the advice of the wisest man of his race: "Christianize the white man, christianize the black man!"
Bouvé, Pauline Carrington. "An Aboriginal Author." Boston Evening Transcript. (Aug. 23, 1899): 16.