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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 13 June 1890

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  30 Blackstone Bldg. Dear Mr. Cable:—

An absence of several days from the city has interfered with my answering your letter returning the MS. of "Rena Walden",1 which came duly to hand. I thank you very much for sending me Mr. Gilder's letter which I do accept as a "faithful, wise word of friendly counsel." Its faithfulness is obvious, its wisdom I cannot question, though I shall have to study both the letter and the story to avail myself of it, for while there is something lacking, Mr. Gilder only very vaguely intimates what it may be. I do not think I am deficient in humor, though I dare say the sentiment of the story is a little bit "amorphous". It was written under the ever-present consciousness, so hard for me to get rid of, that a very large class of people consider the class the story treats of as "amorphous," I fear there is too much of this sentiment to make mulattoes good magazine characters, and I notice that all of the good negroes (excepting your own creations) whose virtues have been given to the world through the columns of the Century,2 have been blacks, full-blooded, and their chief virtues have been their dog-like fidelity and devotion to their old masters. Such characters exist; not six months ago a negro in Raleigh N.C. wrote to the Governor of the State offering to serve out the sentence of seven in the penitentary years just imposed upon his old master for some crime.3 But I don't care to write about these people; I do not think these virtues by any mead[?]smeans the crown of manhood. I have read a number of English and French novels during the past few   2 months dealing largely with colored characters, either in principal or subordinate parts. They figure as lawyers, as judges, as doctors, botanists, musicians, as people of wealth and station. They love and they marry without reference to their race, or with only such reference to it as to other personal disabilities, like poverty or ugliness for instance. These writers seem to find nothing extraordinary in a talented, well-bred colored man, nothing amorphous in a pretty, gentle-spirited colored girl.

But our American writers are different. Maurice Thompson's characters are generally an old, vulgar master, who, when not drunk or asleep, is amusing himself by beating an old negro.4 Thos. N. Page5 and H.S. Edwards6and Joel C. Harris7 give us the sentimental and devoted negro who prefers kicks to half-pence. Judge Tourgee's cultivated white negroes are always bewailing their fate, and cursing the drop of black blood that "taints"—I hate the word, it implies corruption—their otherwise pure blood.8 An English writer would not hesitate to say that race prejudice was mean and narrow and provincial and UnChristian—something to which a free-born Briton was entirely superior; he would not make his colored characters think no less of themselves because of their color but infinitely less of those whos despise them on account of it.

But I am wandering. Mr. Gilder finds that I either lack humor, or that my characters have "a brutality, a lack of mellowness, a lack of spontaneous imaginative life, lack of outlook."9 I fear, alas! that those are exactly the things that do characterize them, and just   3. about the things that might be expected in them—the very qualities which government and society had for 300 years or so labored faithfully, zealously, and successfully to produce, the only qualities which would have rendered life at all endurable to them in the 19th Century. But I suppose I shall have to drop the attempt at realism, and try to make my characters like other folks, for uninteresting people are not good subjects for fiction.

I cannot find words to thank you for your expressions of kindness and confidence in my as yet almost untried powers, I have felt the same thing obscurely. Self-confidence is a good thing, but recognition is a better; and next to an accepted MS. there is nothing so encouraging as the recognition of those who have proved their right to criticise. I will endeavor to show that your judgment is not at fault and that it is based on something more than a sentimental sympathy with a would-be writer circumscribed in a manner so peculiar. Mr. Gilder shall see more of my work, and better. I shall write to please the editors, and the public, and who knows but that perhaps at some future day I may be best able to please others by pleasing myself?

I will go right to work on Rena Walden, and send you a draft when completed. I would not personally send the same story twice to an editor, unless so requested by him; but I will follow your advice in regard to the disposition of this one. I am grateful to Mr. Gilder for his interest in me, which the letter sufficiently attests. I fear I cannot acquire his fine discernment of all ingenuinenesses; that is perhaps the quality of genuine or of genius which gives his genius its individuality; but I will do my best.


Is the authorship of "Justice & Jurisprudence"10 a secret? I have read the book, and infer that it is written by a colored man, as it really purports to be. It shows a great deal of research and industry; I have not yet had time to read it so thoroughly as to criticise it justly, but it strikes me as rather wordy and long drawn out. But there is much valuable information in it, which is worth to me a great deal more than the price of the book, which by the way is rather high for a book designed for popular reading.

Yours very truly, Chas. W. Chesnutt.

P.S. I enclose Mr. Gilder's letter, of which I have taken a copy.

CWC 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. "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]

2. Century Magazine was edited from 1881 to 1909 by Richard Watson Gilder. Chesnutt corresponded with Gilder and then-assistant editor Robert Underwood Johnson. The magazine published articles and stories by Black writers and their White allies (including Chesnutt's story "The March of Progess" and work by his correspondents George W. Cable, Booker T. Washington, and W. E .B. Du Bois), but also by writers criticized by Chesnutt for their racism, like Thomas Nelson Page and Harry S. Edwards.[back]

3. Chesnutt refers to Charles E. Cross, the president of North Carolina State National Bank, who was charged with forgery and falsifying financial documents, a case that was brought to the Supreme Court in October 1889. He was sentenced to seven years of labor in the Wake County work house. On March 11, 1890, The Raleigh News and Observer reported, "An old family servant of Cross has arrived here and went to see his old master Sunday [Mar. 9] at the work house. He said that if an arrangement could be made to that effect that he would serve out the seven years' sentence in his stead" ("Wants to Take His Place." News and Observer 28, no. 77 [11 March 1890], 4; "Cross v. The State of North Carolina." United States Supreme Court Reports 33 [October 1889], 287–290).[back]

4. James Maurice Thompson (1844-1901) was a White writer with ties to the North (Indiana) and the South (Georgia) who had served as a Confederate soldier. He wrote local-color stories and historical novels set in both regions, featuring stereotyped Black characters.[back]

5. Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) was a White writer and lawyer from Virginia who glorified the antebellum South in his fiction and nonfiction, beginning with his "Marse Chan" stories published in Century Magazine. Chesnutt frequently criticized Page's writings; see Chesnutt's retrospective assessment in "Post-Bellum—Pre-Harlem" (1931).[back]

6. Harry Stillwell Edwards (1855-1938) was a White journalist and fiction writer from Georgia who wrote stories and novels in dialect set in the South, often featuring racist stereotypes of Black characters. He had come to Chesnutt's attention because of strong similarities between his story "How Sal Came Through," published in Century Magazine in February of 1890, and Chesnutt's 1889 "How Dasdy Came Through."[back]

7. Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) was a White writer from Georgia most famous for his "Bre'r Rabbit" stories, which were based on African-American animal folklore he heard during his youth. Set on an antebellum plantation, they featured an enslaved storyteller, Uncle Remus, to whom Chesnutt's Uncle Julius was sometimes compared. Chesnutt distinguishes his Julius stories from Harris's Remus stories in "Superstitions and Folk-Lore of the South," published in Modern Culture in May 1901 and "The Negro in Books," a speech delivered in 1916.[back]

8. Albion Winegar Tourgée (1838–1905) was a White activist, author, and judge. During Reconstruction, he settled in North Carolina and became an advocate for racial equality. Tourgée wrote his bestselling autobiographical novel, A Fool's Errand (1879), before moving to Mayville, New York, in 1881. He published 15 more novels in the next 17 years, and several times attempted to found magazines, often inviting Chesnutt to serve as editor. In 1891, he founded the National Citizens' Rights Association, an organization devoted to equality for African-American citizens, and in 1896 served as Homer Plessy's lead counsel in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).[back]

9. A direct quotation from Richard Watson Gilder's 28 May 1890 letter regarding "Rena Walden."[back]

10. In 1889, the Brotherhood of Liberty published the book Justice and Jurisprudence: An Inquiry Concerning the Constitutional Limitations of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Brotherhood was founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1885 to protect the rights of Black people and combat social injustice.[back]