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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 4 March 1889

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  My dear Mr. Cable:-

Permit me to trouble you long enough to read this letter, in regard to a personal matter.

I have been chiefly employed, during the past two years, as a stenographic reporter in the courts of this county, intending to use this business as a means of support while awaiting the growth of a law practice, there being reasons why this process might be a little slower in my case than in some others. But by a very natural process, the thing I have given most time to has hindered instead of helping that which it was intended to assist. As a consequence I have built up a business, almost entirely as a stenographer, which brought me in last year an income of two thousand dollars.

But there is a bill pending in the legislature of this State (it has already passed one house) for the appointment of two official stenographers for this county.1 There are five or six men now engaged in doing this court work, and probably all of these will be applicants for these positions. I have perhaps more than a fighting chance—certainly that—for one of them. If I should secure it, it would pay a salary of $1500 a year, with fees to the probable amount of $1000 or $1500 more; and it would in all probability occupy fully all my time.

In the event of a failure on my part to apply for or to secure one of these appointments, I shall be compelled to turn my attention to other fields of labor. And my object in writing to you is to inquire your opinion as to the wisdom or rashness of my adopting literature as a means of support.

I am aware that I am perhaps asking you a question, an answer to which you have very meager data to base upon; and I realize that I am perhaps presuming on a very slight acquaintance with a busy man. But I will risk the latter, and say as to the former, that I can turn my hand to several kinds of literary work—can write a story, a funny skid, can turn a verse, or write a serious essay, and I have heretofore been able to dispose of most that I have written, at prices which fairly compensated me for the time spent in writing them, as compared with what I could have earned in the same time at something else. I have even written a novel,2 though I have never had time to revise it for publication, nor temerity enough to submit it to a publisher. I have a student's knowledge of German and French, can speak the former, and could translate either into grammatical English, and I trust into better English than many of the translations which are dumped upon the market.

I am also impelled to this step by a deep and growing interest in the discussion and settlement of the Southern question, and   all other questions which affect the happiness of the millions of colored people in this country. But life is short, and any active part that one would take in this matter ought to be begun, it seems to me, while something of the vigor and hopefulness of youth remains. I am only 31, but time flies rapidly. It seems to me that there is a growing demand for literature dealing with the Negro, and for information concerning subjects with which he is in any manner connected; his progress in the United States, in Brazil, in the West Indies, in South America, and in other lands, the opening up of Africa—it seems to me that in these subjects there is a vast field for literary work, and that the time is propitious for it; and it seems to me a field in which a writer who was connected with these people by ties of blood and still stronger ties of sympathy, could be facile princeps, other things being equal; or in which, or in which such a writer of very ordinary powers could at least earn a livelihood.

If I could earn twelve or fifteen hundred dollars a year at literature, or in some collateral pursuit which would allow me some time to devote to letters, I think I should be willing to undertake it in any event, and certainly in the event of my failure to apply for or to secure one of the appointments above referred to. If from your own experience and knowledge of the literary life you think it likely that I could make a success in it, or if you know or hear of any such employment as I have suggested, and will take the trouble to write to me upon the subject, I will be under greater obligations to you than I am already.

Yours very truly, Chas. W. Chesnutt. Mr. G. W. Cable, Northampton, Mass.

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. In early 1889, a stenographers bill was brought to the Cuyahoga County, Ohio delegation, and at the end of February, it was passed. The bill allowed for two official stenographers with a salary of $1,500 each per annum. While the original bill was meant to establish three stenographers, there was much debate regarding the salary, so an additional revision allowed for only two positions ("Quiet at the Capital," Cleveland Plain Dealer, 23 February 1889, 4.).[back]

2. It is unclear which work Chesnutt references, though it is not a reference to his first published novel, The House Behind the Cedars, which was initially a short story and not revised to a longer work until 1895.[back]