Skip to main content

Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 18 February 1890

Textual Feature Appearance
alterations to base text (additions or deletions) added or deleted text
passage deleted with a strikethrough mark deleted passage
passage deleted by overwritten added text Deleted text Added text
position of added text (if not added inline) [right margin] text added in right margin; [above line] text added above the line
page number, repeated letterhead, etc. page number or repeated letterhead
supplied text [supplied text]
archivist note archivist note
  To G.W. Cable, Esq., Northampton, Mass. Dear Mr. Cable:

I send you by this mail copy of paper entitled "Family Fiction", containing story "How Dasdy Came Through. It is a poor sketchy sort of affair, and it is quite possiblye that the writer of "How Sal Came Through" never saw it, or having seen it forgot that he had seen it, and reproduced the plot unconsciously. However, if you will read my sketch first, you will perceive the correspondence. The Century story is dramatic, and evidently carefully studied—(mine is neither)—so carefully studied in fact that it almosts[sic] suggests an effort to disguisemake it as unlike mine as possible, assuming of course that the writer had read mine. The events of my story are laid since the war, in town, among yellow people, so to speak; the other seems to be laid before the war, in the country, among black people. In my sketch, the mother suggests religion as a solace for disappointed love; in the other the suggestion comes from the young mistress. The climax is varied a little. In my opinion, the latter story is as skillfully and effectually changed as it would be possible to vary a story without telling another. Or perhaps, less invidiously (over)   speaking, if I were going to adapt somebody else's story, I would vary it in just that way. I don't wish to charge the writer of "How Sal Came Through" with plagiarism; and yet I have enough of the literary instinct to resentplagiarismit in the abstract, and still more when it is from a contemporary writer, and that writer myself.

Kindly pursue the course you suggested, and tell me what you think. If you conclude it is a plagiarism, consider it your own discovery and do as you like about it. If you think it merely a coincidence, and perhaps hardly that, my lips are sealed on the subject. To say anything would be much ado about nothing, perhaps, in any event, for I don't think much of the story in either form.1

Has the Open Letter Club published another pamphlet? I must ask a little longer indulgence for my article on Southern schools;2 the subject is not likely to become untimely for some years to come.

Yours very respectfully, Chas. W. Chesnutt.

P.S. Absence from the city has prevented my sending you this paper sooner—

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 February 1890, The Century published a short story by Harry Edwards entitled "How Sal Came Through." Chesnutt noted the story's similarity to his story "How Dasdy Came Through," which had appeared three years earlier in Family Fiction. Chesnutt noted this possible plagiarism in a February 5, 1890, letter to George Washington Cable. Cable wrote to The Century editor, Richard Watson Gilder, about the matter. In April, the editor of Family Fiction also noted the similarity, writing to Chesnutt about the "close resemblance" (April 28, 1890). Edwards, in a reply to Gilder, denied any knowledge of Chesnutt's story. On May 9, Cable forwarded this reply to Chesnutt, and on May 15 Chesnutt wrote the Family Fiction editor that he did not want to charge Edwards with plagiarism. [back]

2. The idea for an article about Southern schools seems to have been first discussed when Cable met with Chesnutt in Cleveland in November 1889. Chesnutt mentions working on it in several letters to Cable: December 30, 1889; February 3, 1889; and February 18, 1890. He encloses it with his March 29, 1890, letter and describes some of what it includes. Neither a published nor manuscript version of the article has been located.[back]