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Charles W. Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, 13 January 1891

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Yours of the 29th inst. received. The study of the Southern question is fruitful of surprises, and a great many people who have much to say about it, know really very little about it. I fear that future political action, of which the Mississippi Constitutional Convention will serve as a prototype, will still further curtail the opportunities for education of the colored people in the South.1

It seems to me I sent you with my MS. that you refer to, the various pamphlets from which I got my information; I suspect you will find them about your study somewhere, though I will look for them here. There is a later report of the Committeeissioner of Education, which may slightly alter the figures for 1887–'8—whether for better or worse I do not now call to mind.2

My wife and sister join me in regards to you. We remember with much pride and pleasure your brief visit to our home, and would be glad of some future opportunity to offer you better entertainment. My wife has recently presented me with another little Chesnutt, a girl, which makes ours a respectably numerous family.3

I will look up any further data I have on the subject of Southern schools, and forward any papers or information I may get upon the matter. I have n't written anything, or rather I have n't offered anything for publication since "Rena" came back to me.4 My business for the past year has been very absorbing, and has netted me a handsome income. I stand at the parting of two ways: by strict attention to business, and its natural development, I see a speedy competence and possible wealth before me. On the other hand, I see probably a comfortable living and such compensations as the literary life has to offer. I think I have made my choice of the latter, though it will be a year yet before I can safely adopt it. I remain,as ever,

Sincerely 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. In 1890, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Mississippi, and on November 1 a new state constitution was adopted. Its provisions included a poll tax and literacy test designed to disenfranchise Black voters, a prohibition on interracial marriages, and mandated separate schools for Black and White children. These provisions quickly became models for similar disenfranchisement and segregation laws adopted by other Southern states.[back]

2. The article about Southern schools Chesnutt references was first discussed when Cable met with him in Cleveland in November 1889. Chesnutt references it in several letters to Cable: December 30, 1889; February 3, 1889; and February 18, 1890, and encloses the finished article with his March 29, 1890, letter. Neither a published nor manuscript version of the article has been located.[back]

3. Dorothy Katherine Chesnutt Slade (1890–1954), the youngest of the four Chesnutt children, was born on December 12, 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]