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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 29 March 1890

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  Chas. W. Chesnut,t, 30 Blackstone Bldg. Cleveland, O. My Dear Mr. Cable:-

Yours of the 21st received. I have not yet been able to elaborate as careful a paper as I would wish, but I send you herewith the result of my labors.1 It takes time and deliberation to do statistical work, and I have not been in a position to give this paper the necessary attention without neglecting something else. My paper is brief and by no means exhaustive. You can make use of it in its present shape under my name, if you think it worthy, or you can use it in any way you see fit. I also send you by express to-day the rather meager memoranda from which I have prepared it, including the latest report of the Com'r of Education; if you can use them in adding to what I have written, I shall be glad to have you do so.2 In any event, kindly return me all except the Commissioner's Report, which please keep, as by some chance my congressman has sent me two of them.

I received a copy of your address to the Massachusetts Club. It is a clear and able presentation of the Southern question in a new light—the hopeless struggle for pure government without free government.3

I do not comprehend how a fair-minded opponent, however radically he might differ from you, could find anything harsh to say in reply to so fair and courteous an argument; if any one can lift the race question out of the mire of prejudice and partisanship into the clear light of reason and patriotism, I think you are the man. I don't agree with you, however, in the plea for one more chance for the Southern Democrats to deal fairly with their political opponents; it is true that something would be gained by a delay of Federal interference, and if the delay were long enough continued no Federal interference would be necessary to protect the Negroes in their rights. It is easy enough to temporize with the bull when you are on the other side of the fence, but when you are in the pasture with him, as the colored people of the South are, the case is different. I take it that every citizen is entitled to such protection as the government can extend to him in the enjoyment of his rights, and that he is entitled to that protection now, and whenever his rights are invaded. I sincerely hope the present Congress will pass a wise and practicable federal election law, and that the President will have brain enough and backbone enough to enforce it. The ever lengthening record of Southern wrongs and insults, both lawless and under the form of law, calls for whatever there is of patriotism, of justice, of fair play in the American people, to cry hands off and give the Negro a show, not five years hence or ten years hence, or a generation hence, but now, while he is alive, and can appreciate it; posthumous fame is a glorious thing, even if it is only posthumous; posthumous liberty   is not, in the homely language of the rural Southerner, "w'u'th shucks."

I was wondering what had become of "Rena Walden"; I hope the Century people will look with favor upon it.4 I should experience much satisfaction in seeing it in print. I presume from what you say about the Edwards matter that the Century story was open at least to suspicion of plagianrism; I only wish that my story had been told as well as Mr. Edwards told it;5 I am afraid that a comparison of the two will give the Century people such a poor opinion of my literary skill that they will consider it too great a loss of time to read "Rena".

Yours very Truly, Chas. W. Chesnutt.


Will you kindly send me another copy of your speech to the Reform Club? I want it for a gentleman of character and influence who is very much interested in the Race question.

Yours &c CWC

PS. I have written a title in pencil; perhaps you can think of a better?


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. 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. Neither a published nor manuscript version of the article has been located.[back]

2. It seems likely that Chesnutt refers to "Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina for the Scholastic Year 1887 and 1888" (Raleigh: Josephus Daniels, State Printer and Binder, Presses of Edwards and Broughton, 1889).[back]

3. On February 22, 1890, George Washington Cable spoke before the Massachusetts Club, and the speech was published in the Boston Journal on February 24, 1890. It was also published in pamphlet form as The Southern Struggle for Pure Government (1890).[back]

4. "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]

5. 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]