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Charles W. Chesnutt: A Biographical Sketch

By Christy Hyman

Celebrated for his poignant portrayals of American life in the Reconstruction and Nadir periods, Charles Waddell Chesnutt chronicled with unparalleled insight the intimate and complex web of familial, social, and economic relationships that zigzag across the color line. Chesnutt drew upon his extensive relationships, travels, deep reading, and professional experience to publish across a range of genres, as well as lecturing to audiences both public and private. Early on, writing for Chesnutt became an outlet to negotiate life in the postbellum South, and his prodigious reading of literature both classic and modern influenced his novels and short stories, whose engagement of questions of race and class continue to speak to readers today.

Early Life

Charles W. Chesnutt was born to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Maria Sampson Chesnutt in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858. Both parents were free people of color from Fayetteville, North Carolina who had left Fayetteville in 1856 for better opportunities in Ohio. Andrew and Maria met while traveling in a wagon train of other free African Americans heading to the Midwest. The search for a place of racial tolerance, with the potential for social uplift, led the family briefly to Oberlin, Ohio, before returning to Cleveland and eventually back to Fayetteville after the Civil War. At that time, Charles's grandfather was ailing, and the family sought to provide aid as well as to raise their children in the place of their forebears.

Reconstruction had begun to have its effect on the southern social landscape, as the Freedmen's Bureau created schools all over the South for formerly enslaved people. Chesnutt would find his earliest supporters in the school for African Americans in Fayetteville, named after head of the Freedmen's Bureau Oliver O. Howard. The principal of the school, Robert Harris, took an interest in Chesnutt, finding him a precocious child and conscientious student. When not in school, Chesnutt worked at the family grocery store, which formed in him a deep impression of his southern surroundings and the character of its people. Chesnutt also spent time at a bookstore owned by George Haigh, who allowed the young reader to peruse the store's contents as he pleased.

At home, Chesnutt's mother's health began to fail. Maria had had three more children after the Chesnutts' return to Fayetteville, and her last pregnancy had proven difficult. Chesnutt helped his mother around the house, and when not doing chores spent much of his time reading. When his mother passed away in 1871, Chesnutt, as the oldest child, was left to look after his younger siblings. Despite the additional burdens, Chesnutt wrote his first published story a few years later (1875) in a small weekly newspaper run by an African American. His father expected Chesnutt to contribute to the family household, and Chesnutt's supporter Principal Harris suggested that the young man become a teacher. He first worked in Fayetteville at the Howard School, and then in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Life as a Young Educator

Chesnutt's time as an educator was occasionally marked by moments of inspiration, but more often marred by the precarious nature of post-Civil War country schools. As a teacher he experienced promises of employment that were later rescinded because of lack of funding, distrustful members of communities leery of outsiders, and frustration with teaching methods that did not take into account the realities of impoverished life in the American South. Chesnutt read extensively during this time to alleviate his loneliness. He taught briefly in Charlotte, a welcome change that allowed him to work with adequate resources but that ended in 1877 when Chesnutt was offered the opportunity to return to Fayetteville and work for the newly established Normal School for African Americans. A year later he married Susan Perry, a young woman who came from a respected African American family. Chesnutt's life as an educator committed to community uplift was in full swing.

As principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes, Chesnutt was aware of the beneficial impact that his educational leadership had on the African American community and wider southern social landscape. Still, despite the special calling of this work he yearned for "wider fields," as his daughter wrote, "and he chafed constantly under the hampering restrictions of life in the American south."[1] He assuaged his dissatisfaction through additional efforts at community outreach. Chesnutt provided instruction to students outside of school through private courses in instrumental and vocal music. He also continued to read extensively and deepened his studies in classics, languages and stenography. Yet he realized that he would not remain in the South, lacking as it was in contemporaries with whom to discuss matters of intellectual interest. "I get more and more tired of the South," Chesnutt wrote in his journal of 1882; "I pine for civilization and companionship."[2] The racial prejudice Chesnutt and his ancestors experienced compelled him to work hard to assure that his two daughters and then-unborn son would never have to experience the same. He began to prepare for a trip north to explore economic opportunities utilizing his stenography and shorthand skills. "I shall depend principally upon my knowledge of stenography," he wrote, "which I hope will enable me to secure a position on the staff of some good newspaper, and then—work, work, work!"[3]

From the South to New York City and Cleveland

Chesnutt did indeed find work in New York. Working as a reporter for Dow, Jones, and Company, he contributed a daily column of Wall Street gossip to the New York Mail and Express. It seemed that Chesnutt had satisfied his primary goals after leaving Fayetteville, securing employment in a cosmopolitan city, and making inroads in the field of literature through his position as a reporter. But New York City, as Chesnutt saw it, was no place to raise a family. He moved to his childhood home of Cleveland, securing a job in the accounting department of the Nickel Plate Railroad Company, writing letters and footing ledgers. Chesnutt, ever industrious, began to prepare to take the state bar examination. He was determined to provide for his family and improve their social standing, but also to lay in store for a time in the future when he could devote all his energies to writing. For Chesnutt, literature was a pathway to both a more enriching intellectual life and a moral revolution in race relations. He eventually passed the state bar examination and established his own court reporting firm. The financial self-sufficiency necessary to support a full-time writing life was coming into view.

The Writer Arrives

Chesnutt's pursuits in stenography and law provided his family with a comfortable life. By 1898, he and Susan had three daughters—Helen, Ethel, and Dorothy—and a son, Edwin. Chesnutt's work began appearing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1887, which brought his writing to a wide and influential audience and attracted the attention of many authors and cultural leaders. George Washington Cable was one of them; their correspondence would grow into an important friendship. Cable read many of Chesnutt's works, offering feedback as well as opinions on and leads about publishing opportunities. Critics were impressed. James Lane Allen, a gatekeeper "of the genteel tradition," upon finishing the story, dashed off a letter to the magazine's editor: "Who—in the name of the Lord!—is Charles W. Chesnutt?"[4]

Chesnutt had arrived. Atlantic Monthly would, over his career, go on to publish seven of Chesnutt's stories. His book-length collections of short stories, The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line were issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1899. His literary repute landed him the opportunity to write the first biography of Frederick Douglass authored by an African American, Frederick Douglass, published by Small, Maynard in the same year. The House Behind the Cedars, a full-length novel, was published in 1900, and Chesnutt's devastating fictionalized account of the Wilmington Coup and massacre of 1898 appeared as The Marrow of Tradition, in 1901. Though he kept working on novels in manuscript, Chesnutt's final published long fiction appearing during his lifetime was The Colonel's Dream, issued by Doubleday, Page in 1905.

Later Years

Chesnutt's later years provided him with opportunities to write, travel, and continue his work for racial uplift. He was a member of Twelve for the Advancement of the Interests of the Negro Race together with Booker T. Washington, Kelly Miller, T. Thomas Fortune, and other formidable Black leaders. As Helen Chesnutt described it, their work centered on "constructive progressive efforts to turn the attention of the country to Negro successes, to correct the errors and misstatements concerning the progress of the race and make known the truth regarding acts of the white race affecting the black race all with a view of perfecting a larger and more systematic effort in the unification of the races."[5] By 1910, he was asked to coordinate the Cleveland meeting for a new organization: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Despite bouts of ill-health which he and the family remedied by travel to gentler climes, Chesnutt continued to pursue his public role in the uplift of African Americans. Exemplary of these efforts, in June 1913, Chesnutt delivered an address entitled "Race Ideals and Examples," on the occasion of receiving an honorary LL.D. at Wilberforce University. The speech was published in the African Methodist Episcopal Review later that year.

Chesnutt's writing and involvement in organizations for racial uplift and cooperation provided him with continued opportunities for civic leadership in Cleveland, including service as chair of the Committee on Colored Organizations. Chesnutt's reflections on race relations had evolved over the years, however. As a young educator in Fayetteville, Chesnutt had remarked on the "subtle feeling of repulsion toward the Negro common to most Americans"; and yet he concluded that "the Negro's part is to prepare himself for recognition and equality." By 1903, in a letter to Booker T. Washington, Chesnutt indicated that he had "no faith in the Southern people's sense of justice so far as the Negro rights were concerned." Speaking in 1910 to representatives from other states of the Committee on Colored Organizations of his hometown, Cleveland, he was resigned, admitting that "racial conditions there were peculiar" and that not many white citizens would support the interests of the NAACP.

Chesnutt continued to write and publish occasional short stories in his later years, but the political and social moment had taken on currents more receptive to a new movement in the interpretation of race matters and black life. What is now known as the Harlem Renaissance by the 1920s had begun a new awakening for Black writers, impacting readerly tastes at the time.[6] Dated though it might have been aesthetically, Charles Chesnutt's work remained integral to African American literary life. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1928 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "for his pioneering literary work on behalf of the Afro-American struggle." The award influenced the sales of many of his titles, and his short story "The Sheriff's Children" was included as the first story in Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes's influential 1967 edited collection The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present.

"You ask about my family and myself," Chesnutt once said, offering an illuminating picture of his values: "I have enjoyed for many years an ample income, from the standpoint of a moderately successful professional man . . . of my four children, all are college graduates, two of my daughters from Smith College, one from the College for Women of Western Reserve University, and my son from Harvard. I am a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Cleveland Bar Association, the City Club and others."[7] Although he had not been able to make a living writing fiction, Charles Chesnutt had surely achieved much of what he had hoped for many years earlier upon leaving Fayetteville, North Carolina. By the time he passed in Cleveland in 1932, his legacy as a public opponent of racism was still strong, while his literary legacy was still in its youth, as witnessed by adaptations of his works for film and stage, the surge in reprintings of his works after the 1960s, and the widespread teaching of his fiction in American Literature classrooms today.

  1. Helen Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952), 31.

  2. Chesnutt, 16.

  3. Chesnutt, 17.

  4. Michael Flusche, "On the Color Line: Charles Waddell Chesnutt," The North Carolina Historical Review 53.1 (1976): 1.

  5. Chesnutt, 197.

  6. William Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).

  7. Chesnutt, 267-268.