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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 30 December 1889

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  30 Blackstone Bld'g. Dear Mr. Cable:-

Your letter received. I am glad to learn that you are back at your desk,1 for one can confidently expect that under such circumstances something valuable will be added to literature, and to Open Letter Club work. I have noticed the handsome volume in which your "Strange True Stories" have been issued.2

My business has been so absorbing for the last two months that I have n't been able to touch either the story or the artcile[sic] on Southern school matters3 since I saw you; the leading man in the business I devote most of my time to, court reporting, has quit the business, and I have had a large part of his work, which with my own has given me all I have been able to do, even with the assistance of my sister.4 I mention this merely as an excuse for neglecting what I realize is higher work, and work which I would prefer to do. But I hope to get at both very soon, perhaps this week, and try to finish them up. I will make use of the clipping sent me, and return it to you in a few days; many thanks for it.

I see our Southern friends are very much worked up over the fact that you stopped with Mr. Napier at Nashville, and the Memphis Appeal solemnly declares that you are the most thoroughly despised man, among Southern people, in the United States;5 I presume you can stand it if they can. The horrible affair at Barnwell, S. C.,6 almost offsets the refusal of the legislature to repeal the civil rights bill and to pass the law requiring railroads to furnish separate accommodation for colored passengers. It is supposed that the railroad companies worked against the measures proposed by the Governor in his message, and defeated them. It is indeed a hopeful sign that the people of the South are beginning   to consider their pockets before their prejudices.

I hope you had a successful tour in the West. Mr. Kennan7 lectures here Thursday night, and I hope to hear him.

Very truly yours, Chas. W. Chesnutt.

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. Cable's December 27, 1889, letter mentions he is back in Northampton.[back]

2. George Washington Cable's collection of seven accounts of Louisiana life and history, Strange True Stories of Louisiana, was published by Scribners in 1889, and before that individually in The Century.[back]

3. In his December 27, 1889, letter Cable wrote that he was eager for Chesnutt's paper on the "distribution of Public School funds in the south" and he included a relevant clipping, which Chesnutt references later in this letter. He was also anxious to see the latest revisions to Chesnutt's story, a reference to "Rena Walden." Chesnutt first shared the manuscript with Cable September 9, 1889, and Cable returned it with comments on October 4, 1889 [insert link]. The short story became the novel The House Behind the Cedars (1900).[back]

4. Lillian Chesnutt Richardson (1871–1940), called "Lilly," was Chesnutt's youngest sister, the last of six siblings. Born in Fayetteville, NC, she came to join the Chesnutt family in Cleveland, OH, in 1888. She was employed by Chesnutt as a typist and stenographer until 1893.[back]

5. James Carroll Napier (1845-1940) was born in Tennessee, legally freed (along with the rest of his family) in 1848 and moved to Ohio. He studied at Wilberforce College in 1859, at Oberlin College in 1867, and earned a law degree from Howard University in 1872. He served on the Nashville city council (1878-1886), practiced law, and was a civil rights leader. The press in Tennessee were very critical of George Washington Cable's dinner with Napier. The Tennessean claimed the dinner signified Cable's "preference for the negro race over his own," while The Daily American reported that "Mr. Cable committed a crime when he became the guest of a colored citizen at a social entertainment" because of the divisiveness it created between the races ("Mr. George W. Cable," The Tennessean 15, no. 4 [6 December 1889], 4; "The Gossiper," The Daily American 15, no. 48 [10 December 1889], 4.). The article Chesnutt references, from the Memphis Appeal, has not been located.[back]

6. At the end of December 1889, reports of a duel between Edmund Stewart, an African American farm worker, and his White employer, James S. Brown, were published in multiple newspapers across America. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the two men dueled over "a settlement for work"; Brown was shot and killed, and Stewart fled. The previous day, another White citizen, Robert Martin, was also shot to death. These murders led to an "indignant resentment among the people." The New Orleans Daily Picayune collected several accounts and published a more complete narrative that detailed how, on December 28, a large mob overtook the jailer and lynched all eight of the African American prisoners. Afraid of further trouble, the governor dispatched troops to "preserve the peace" ("Killed his Employer," Cincinnati Enquirer 47, no. 361 [27 December 1889], 1; "Shot to Death," Daily Picayune [New Orleans, Louisiana], 29 December 1889, 2.).[back]

7. George Kennan (1845–1924) was a journalist and Russian specialist. His book on the Romanoff government, Siberia and the Exile System (1891), appeared first as a series of lectures published in the Century. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an announcement for George Kennan's lecture at the city's Music Hall on January 2, 1890.[back]