Skip to main content

The Author of "The Conjure Woman," Charles W. Chesnutt

The Author of "The Conjure Woman," * Charles W. Chesnutt

WHEN a book is favorably reviewed from Maine to California, when the stories in it are said to be "fresh, vivid, dramatic sketches" in "a new and delightful vein," when the narrator of these stories, Uncle Julius, is called not only "a cousin once removed," but "own brother" to Uncle Remus, a new character in whose portrait "there is not a line out of place,"–we are naturally led to inquire who is the creator of this character, shrewd, and at the same time naïf as a child. Mr. Chesnutt has once or twice been referred to recently as "a new writer." But any close follower of magazine literature for the past ten years is familiar enough with his name to pronounce such a statement very far wide of the mark. This volume of stories, "The Conjure Woman," is his first book, but his first published story appeared some fourteen years ago in McClure's Syndicate.

Mr. Chesnutt was born of Southern parents forty years ago in Cleveland. When he was ten years old, almost immediately after the war, his parents moved to North Carolina, where the boy grew familiar with the country described in his book. The educational advantages of North Carolina were not at that time good, but he enjoyed exceptional opportunities, and profited by them. Perhaps the fact that the boy was exceptional accounts for the exceptional opportunities. Talent develops itself in spite of mediocre teachers. At sixteen years of age the young student began to teach as pupil-teacher. At twenty-three, he became Principal of the State Normal School at Fayetteville, where he taught for two years. Although nominally his education was no more advanced than the grammar-school grade with some higher branches, yet by private study and wide reading the youthful principle gained a knowledge of the classics, of French and German, and, as his stories show, of pure English and of general literature. Like many literary men of the present generation, he received his college training from life. He was his own professor–a pupil-teacher,

After a time Mr. Chesnutt tired of life in the South, and longed for wider opportunity. Accordingly he went to New York City, where he remained six months as reporter for a Wall Street news agency and for one of the daily papers. At the end of the six months he came to Cleveland, where he has ever since lived. Here he studied law in the office of Judge Samuel E. Williamson, now general counsel of the New York Central Railroad. During this period of study he wrote in a desultory way, contributing to various magazines and newspaper syndicates. The most of his time has been given to court reporting, a profession at the head of which he has stood for a number of years; and so great has been his interest in literature that he has devoted himself to writing, somewhat to the neglect of the law.

At a very early age Mr. Chesnutt felt the desire to write, but his first story was not published until he reached maturity, in 1885. This story was a pathetic tale of Southern life, called "Uncle Peter's House." It was followed by other stories, for the most part of negro life, which he painted with that sympathy and suggestive touch indicating the kinsman allied to the artist. These stories were published by newspaper syndicates, and in Puck, Tid-Bits, Two Tales, The Independent, The Overland Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. The first few stories in "The Conjure Woman" appeared in The Atlantic Monthly ten years ago; the last, "Hot-Foot Hannibal," in the issue of January, 1899. Several other tales of plantation life in a different vein–tales not included in "The Conjure Woman"–have been from time to time published in that magazine. Perhaps the most striking of these is "The Wife of His Youth," which appeared less than a year ago. In this story Mr. Chesnutt shows a surprising sympathy with the negro people, and with the conditions under which they are obliged to live. He treats a difficult subject delicately and with the skill of an artist. In all his work he faces the problems of the race to which he in part belongs, and treats them with the critical ability of a lawyer, yet with that degree of partisanship which tempers justice with mercy. Underneath the humor and light touch of some of his stories is a tragic vein, sometimes lightened to pathos, and a philosophy which make his sincerest admirers feel that Mr. Chesnutt's best work is still before him. A writer whose philosophy of life is constructive, and not destructive, can safely count on the future.

* See page 586.[back]