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George Washington Cable to Charles W. Chesnutt, 17 June 1890

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  My dear Mr Chesnutt:

While your letter is still warm and I have just finished reading, I hasten to say that in your own mind not to me or anyone else, but in your own resolution—you must take back your proposition "to drop the attempt at realism and try to make your characters like other folks." You must not let yourself for a moment consent "to please the editors" as publishers but only as faithful critics and never let anything go to the public—which is all too easily pleased—until you have pleased and satisfied yourself. This is the way to the top of the ladder, or at least the way for each man to reach the top of his own ladder and it is amazing how quickly that kind of faithfulness will carry one   (2) to it. I am delighted to see by your letter how much goold Gilder's lines have already done you.1 You will make an enormous improvement in Rena Walden2 if you will keep clearly in the reader's sight your own fully implied (rather than asserted) recognition of the "brutality, lack of mellowness, lack of spontaneous imaginative life, lack of outlook", of the people of the story, with the things you have named as having caused them.3

In other words you must make the story of Rena Walden very much more what it is already rather than less. You must charge through the smoke and slaughter not retreat.

Goodbye till next time.

Correspondent: George Washington Cable (1844–1925) was a reporter, novelist, and critic. He began his career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, writing nearly one hundred columns in two years. After working on a collection of journalistic essays based mostly on historical accounts, Cable turned to writing short stories, novellas, and novels, typically set in New Orleans. In the 1880s, Cable began lecturing, writing essays, and forming organizations focused on social reform, specifically in the areas of Black rights and prison conditions, and in 1885 he moved to Northampton, MA. Cable and Chesnutt met for the first time in Cleveland, on December 21, 1888, at the Congregational Club's Forefather's Day celebration, where Cable was the principal speaker. They began corresponding immediately, and in mid-1889 Cable offered to employ Chesnutt as his secretary in Northampton, MA; Chesnutt declined. Cable visited the Chesnutt home in the fall of 1889, and for two years, their correspondence was frequent, typically about Cable's political efforts on race issues, Chesnutt's writings, or recent publications. After 1891, they corresponded only occasionally.

1. George Washington Cable, on Chesnutt's behalf, had sent the manuscript of "Rena Walden" to Richard Watson Gilder, the editor of The Century in February 1890.[back]

2. "Rena Walden" was a short story Chesnutt worked on intermittently over ten years, ultimately becoming the novel The House Behind the Cedars (1900). In 1889 and 1890, Chesnutt shared several drafts with George Washington Cable. It was rejected by The Century and the Atlantic Monthly in 1890, and in 1891 by Houghton Mifflin as part of a collection Chesnutt proposed and wanted to title "Rena Walden and Other Stories."[back]

3. This quotation is from Richard Watson Gilder's response to "Rena Walden" in a letter to Cable. Cable had shared Gilder's letter with Chesnutt.[back]