THIS is Negro Literature Week in book history.
The best new novel is Du Bose Heyward's "Mamba's Daughters," published this week-end at $2.50 by Doubleday, Doran & Co., and Book-of-the-Month Club February selection-like Heyward's "Porgy," a book out of Charleston and about Charleston Negroes; unlike "Porgy," a book which encompasses Charleston and more; which treats (and considers their relations) both blacks and whites.
But the week-end is made more significant–particularly to Clevelanders–by Houghton Mifflin's celebration of the 30th anniversary of their first publication of "The Conjure Woman," the Negro classic by the Cleveland lawyer and court reporter, Charles Waddell Chesnutt.
Thus is published on the same day the omega and alpha as the score now stands of American literature about Negros.* * * The Anniversary
Thirty years ago tonight Chesnutt was reading to an audience at the Hathaway-Brown School the story which was to have been published that month in the Atlantic Monthly. The story was later published in the Century. It was not published in the Atlantic because Chesnutt's "Hot-Foot Hannibal" had been rushed in ahead of it.
And "Hot-Foot Hannibal" had been substituted because it completed the series of stories which make up "The Conjure Woman": and the book which bears that name was also first published 30 years ago today.* * * Epoch
THAT publication marked an epoch in American literature.
It was the first important book by an author of Negro blood. It was the first sound book to make use of the material the Negro in America presents. Twenty-five years ahead of its time it blazed the trail for the flood of good Negro books which recently have appeared. But tho it was ahead of its time, those who could recognize literature recognized it then.* * *
Immediately it was hailed as a masterpiece by critics from Boston to Portland, Ore., and from Minneapolis to New Orleans. It even proved that a prophet may have honor in his own country.
Chesnutt, Negro blood in his veins, wrote of Negros. From his 11th to 25th year he had lived in North Carolina at last as the principal of a normal school there. Southern critics were among the first to recognize him.
And in Cleveland, where he had been born and spent his childhood, and where he had returned and written his stories, "The Conjure Woman" led even "David Harum" and "When Knighthood was in Flower" on the best-seller list.
If you'll stop a moment and mull those titles over in your mind, you will realize what home-town acclaim that was.
Now "The Conjure Woman" is a classic. Not even excepting Artemus Ward, Chesnutt is in the history of American letters the most important writer Cleveland has ever housed.
Even that was recognized then. Limited editions were not the facile money-getters 30 years ago they are now. But when "The Conjure Woman" was first published, a limited edition of 150 copies, in addition to the trade edition was published.
Most of the 150 copies were subscribed to by Cleavelanders. It was a beautiful Edition.
The new edition of the book uses the same frontispiece and letter press as the limited edition of 30 years ago.
The chief addition is a forward by Maj. J. E. Springarn, former professor of comparative literature in Columbia University, now a member of the publishing house of Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Last summer Chesnutt was the belated recipient of the Springarn Medal of the Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"The Conjure Woman" is the earliest of Chesnutt's novels, and is quite different from its successors. It is folklore pure and simple, but folk tales most delightfully and whimsically told. Uncle Julius is as real as Uncle Remus, in deed more real; he is the character, while Uncle Remus is merely a mouthpiece for the immortal tales of Brer Rabbitt and Brer Fox. Every one of old Julius' tales tends towards self portrayal, for every word with a purpose and meaning of Julius' own. The old Negro has seldom been given more truthfully than here.Comparison
Dr. Springarn is well known as a great critic; but in dragging in Uncle Remus he follows a habit established as an advertising device 30 years ago.
Then the trade edition of Chesnutt's book bore a picture of an aged Negro and a pair of rabbits, obviously designed to make those who were enraptured by Joel Chandler Harris' stories think that here was another book they would like.
But there are only two points in common between Chessnut's and harris' books, really–both are filled with folktales told by an aged Negro narrators; and both are in Negro dialect.
But Chesnutt's work will demand a page in a history of American literature when Harris is reduced to a footnote. (And for the linguistic scholar, Chesnutt's dialect stories will serve as a casebook until the end of time, while Harris' already are placed in Bud Fisher's-Mutt's famous category: "Interesting if true.")* * * Julius
Briefly, for the new generation which may not have read Chesnutt's stories, "The Conjure Woman" is made up of several tales of black magic told by Julius McAdoo to the Yankees who have bought the plantation on which he was born. Each of these tales is a masterpiece itself; but in addition each is told for Julius' personal advantage.
Which of the seven stories is the best? I rather think they all are. One is pathetic; another humorous; another tragic; another something else. But all are colorful, dramatic, rich.
Walter Hines Page was Houghton Mifflin's adviser and the Atlantic Monthly's editor when Chesnutt submitted the stories for publication. A North Carolinian, he might have been expected to look on these tales by a man who had been a North Carolina Negro with a jaundiced eye. Instead, he stayed awake all night reading them; and when he joined in the foundation some years later, of the publishing house of Doubleday, Page & Co., he took Chesnutt with him and published his last book.
"Po' Sandy" was Page's favorite story. This tells of a conjure woman who changes her husband into a tree so he would not have to leave her. The tree was cut into boards in her absence. Po' Sandy's spirit haunted the schoolhouse built from these boards, even after his wife had died.
"There is the full full spirit of Greek tragedy in that tale," Page used to tell his coleagues when he was ambassador to Great Britain.
He was right. Not in my synopsis. But in Chesnutt's subtle telling.