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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 6 May 1890

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  Chas. W. Chesnutt, 30 Blackstone Bld'g, Cleveland, O.

A Peculiar Political Issue in Georgia.

AUGUSTA, GA., May 5.—There is an issue now before the people of Georgia that will supplant all others in the contest for Representatives and Senators. The issue is, "Will you, if elected, promise to vote for a bill amending the State constitution so as to give the taxes paid by the whites to the whites to educate their children and let the Negroes rely upon their own money to send their offspring to school?" The people claim that it is entirely within the power of Georgia to separate the school funds.

My Dear Mr. Cable:—

I enclose you a copy of a communication from the editor of "Family Fiction", with a newspaper clipping attached, from which you will see that I am not the only person to whom the idea of plagiarism has occurred in connection with Mr. Edwards's story in the Century.1 This editor asks me for my opinion in regard to it. My opinion is that it was a deliberate plagiarism. You did not tell me in your letter what you thought about it, but I gathered from reading between the lines that your opinion does not differ very much from mine; correct me if I am wrong. At the same time, for obvious reasons, I would not wish to write anything to this editor which would lead him to make any editorial utterance reflecting on the character of a Century contributor, if thereby I would run the remotest risk of offending or antagonizing the editor of the Century. Taking the worst view of this case, there is an implied compliment to me involved in the fact that my plot was considered worth plagiarizing.

If it is not trespassing too much upon your time and good nature, may I ask your advice as to whether I had better discourage this editor from further action in this matter, or tell him my opinion of it and let him take what course he likes? His paper has a wide circulation, and while comparatively obscure, the story of the mouse and the elephant might not be without application.

Please let me know whether you have sent "Rena Walden"2 to the Century; also whether you received the paper, etc., with regard to Southern schools.3 The enclosed clipping from the Cleveland Leader,—I presume it is an Ass'. Press despatch[sic]—has some bearing on the subject; and you have probably read of the action taken by the Virginia legislature in affecting injuriously the Virginia Collegiate and Normal Institute.4

P.S. Please return enclosure. Very respectfully yours, Chas. W Chesnutt. G. W. Cable, Esq., 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 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. This story would eventually become the novel House Behind the Cedars (1900).[back]

3. George W. Cable, through his secretary Mary Moffat, asked Chesnutt to write an essay on a topic that may have been discussed in person during Chesnutt's visit to Northampton in March 1889. This paper has not been located.[back]

4. According to the Cleveland Gazette, Virginia Governor Philip W. McKinney appointed "one of the brainiest colored men in Virginia," Hon. R. G. L. Paige, as the Curator of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Chesnutt may be referring here to the Virginia legislature's action to "[kill] the college part" of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia; see "Some Race Doings," Cleveland Gazette (April 5, 1890): 1.[back]