I recently met Mr. Charles W Chesnutt, the well-known writer of Southern stories, in Alabama, and enjoyed the opportunity which I had there to learn something of his methods of work.
Mr. Chesnutt told me, when I asked him about his literary work, that his stories, as a general thing, develop gradually in his mind, sometimes taking a long time in the process, and that even then they are usually written out slowly. "'The March of Progress,' which was printed in the Century, was an exception to this, though," Mr. Chesnutt said. "I wrote the whole of that out one forenoon, copied it on the typewriter in the afternoon, and sent it off that same evening.
"Sometimes I write a story out complete, as I think at the time, and yet, after it is completed I have a feeling that it lacks something. Perhaps the story may lie around for months before I am able to tell just what there is about it that does not satisfy me. It was that way with 'The Wife of His Youth,' probably the most widely read story I have written–my best story, some people say. I wrote that story, complete, as I thought, and then it lay in my desk for a year because I was not satisfied with it. As the story was written then I made the little old black wife appear to her prosperous and cultured husband as he was getting ready to entertain a company of guests, before whom he eventually acknowledged her.
"There was something lacking in the story, though, and I knew it. One evening after dinner, when the manuscript was more than a year old, I picked it up and read it through, and at once there came to me a knowledge of what was wanting. The story lacked the element of conflicting interest. I saw that there ought to be another woman in it, by contrast with whom the little old black wife should be made more striking. I wrote the story over, and wrote into it the second woman–the young, educated, attractive woman whom the man was to have married if 'the wife of his youth' had not returned. Then the story was complete.
"I have been greatly interested," Mr. Chesnutt continued, "to see how women feel about the way in which I made that story end–whether they think that the man ought to have acknowledged the unattractive old woman to whom he was bound by ties of sentiment and gratitude, rather than by legal bonds, or whether he did not owe it as a duty to himself to marry the other woman, the one who was a much more fitting mate for him, and who, with himself, was entitled to happiness. I have asked a good many women, cultivated, intelligent women, what they thought the man ought to have done–whether they thought he did right. The answer which I get almost invariably seems to depend on the age of the woman who gives it.
"Young women, those who are under twenty, reply promptly and enthusiastically, 'He did just right. He ought to have acknowledged the little old black wife whom he had loved years before, and who had loved and sought him through all those years.' Women between twenty and thirty stop to consider the question. They usually say, finally, in a deprecating sort of way, 'Ye-es, I think he did right. I suppose he ought to have married the woman he did.' When I ask the question of a woman over thirty, she does not take any more time for reflection than the very young woman did. She says promptly, 'He did not do right. He made a mistake. He ought to have married the other woman.
"In all these cases I take it there is sympathy for both women in the story but the woman under twenty, looking out upon life through the rose-colored glasses of youth, allows her sympathy for the older woman to predominate. She thinks the young woman in the story can afford to be generous, because she has life before her, and one chance to marry will not matter to her among the many she will have. The woman of twenty-five has had more experience with life. She has learned that chances to marry well are not frequent enough so that any ought to be passed over without careful consideration. The woman who is still older reasons that a good matrimonial opportunity should not be let slip for anything."
Mr. Chesnutt had been spending some time in the Southern States, getting impressions and collecting material which will doubtless find expression in future writings. "I was surprised," Mr. Chesnutt said, "after an absence of many years from the South, to note the fidelity with which my mind had retained the impressions received in youth. The old 'conjure woman' and 'conjure man' whom I have made it a point to unearth in my travels bear a faithful resemblance to old 'Aunt Peggy, the conjure woman,' and the roots and herbs still have, in the minds of at least a few surviving relics of the past, their ancient potency. I interviewed a conjure doctor who furnished me with 'a hand,' a charm of mysterious significance which he guarantees will bring me good luck, and which he assured me would keep me 'from losing my job.' I also secured a genuine rabbit's foot, from a rabbit killed in a graveyard on a dark night. This is the 'real thing,' and not the spurious imitation which is marketed in Northern cities."
Mr. Chesnutt visited the neighborhood and the old house in which the scene of his recently published novel, "The House Behind the Cedars," was laid. He says that the house has fallen somewhat into disrepair, and of the cedar hedge which once surrounded it only one tree remains. He secured a photograph of the house, and brought away with him as a souvenir a twig from the sole surviving cedar.
Mr. Chesnutt says that he was deeply interested in the study of racial conditions during his Southern sojourn, and while he saw much to depress, he also found here and there, and especially in the educational work at Tuskegee and elsewhere, good grounds for hope that some time, in some way, a just and rational solution may be found for the many and vexed problems which have grown out of slavery and the contact of the two races which make up in so nearly equal numbers the population of the South.
I asked Mr. Chesnutt, one day, if it was because he had a vein of superstition in his nature that he wrote such weird stories. "No, indeed," he said. "I have not a bit of superstition. Sometimes I think that I have not even a proper amount of reverence. My first literary ventures were along the lines of short stories for newspaper syndicates, and squibs for Puck and such papers as that. I wrote about Southern themes because at that time I was comparatively fresh from the South, and was more familiar with things there than at the North. I soon found that there was a greater demand and a better market for writings along that line.
"I remembered a remarkable yarn which had been related to me by my father-in-law's gardener, old Uncle Henry, to the effect that the sap of a pruned grapevine rubbed on a bald head in the spring would produce a luxuriant growth of hair, which would, however, fall out when the sap in the vine went down in the fall. To the creative mind this was sufficient material for the story 'The Goophered Grapevine.' That story resulted in several others involving the same idea, for instance, that of the man who was turned into a tree and by mistake chopped down, sawed into lumber and built into a house, which was ever afterwards haunted by the spirit of the unfortunate man. Those dialect stories, while written primarily to amuse, have each of them a moral, which, while not forced upon the reader, is none the less apparent to those who read thoughtfully. For instance, the story of the cruel master, who, through the arts of the conjure woman, was transformed into a slave and given for several weeks a dose of his own medicine, resulting in his reformation when he is restored to his normal condition of life, teaches its own story."
Mr. Chesnutt is an attorney by profession, and has been connected with the Ohio bar and the courts of the State for fifteen years. He lives at Cleveland. He has two daughters who graduated from Smith College last June, and two younger children. He spent ten years of his youth and early manhood as a teacher in North Carolina, and his daughters have fitted themselves for the work of teaching. Mr. Chesnutt's works have a deserved popularity, it seems to me, from the strength and delicacy with which they treat certain phases of the race question which are often avoided or neglected by other writers from lack of knowledge or want of courage. He writes frankly, and at the same time in a manner which commands attention and respect. He represents a new field in fiction. From his special knowledge, sympathy, and personal interest in his subjects, he is perhaps better qualified to discuss them than any other writer now before the American public.