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The Negro as Writer

The Negro as Writer

NEGRO fiction in America properly commences with Charles Waddell Chesnutt, a Clevelander who is still living, but whose writing falls mainly into the period of the 'eighties and 'nineties. One goes back to the archaic, quaintly-flavored novels and stories of this pioneer with mingled appreciation and esthetic blankness. Most of the Chesnutt plots hinge on such adventitious circumstances that the works of Thomas Hardy seem the very soul of the natural by comparison, but even in the stretches where the antique machinery creaks the loudest one reads with nothing but admiration for Chesnutt as a man. If his plot structure is definitely dated, the fault resides with the white models with which he worked in that era when the novel was designed to tell a story at all costs; and the spectacle of a Negro of the time working with any models at all and producing fiction with many good points is sufficient to compel applause.

For it was the time (to use Chesnutt's own words from The Marrow of Tradition) when the "nation was rushing forward with giant strides toward colossal wealth and world-domination, before the exigencies of which mere abstract ethical theories must not be permitted to stand". In the North "a new Pharaoh had risen, who knew not Israel–a new generation, who knew little of the fierce passions which had played around the Negro in a past epoch, and derived their opinions of him from the 'coon song' and the police reports". The Negro of the South had hardly had a chance at schooling, save in the institutions set up by the Freedmen's Bureau and manned by the Yankee schoolmarms who came in the wake of the carpet-baggers; and the Negro of the North was too busy waging his economic battles to pay much attention to the arts.

But Chesnutt, a school-teacher who had lived in North Carolina in the turbulent Reconstruction era, and who had later been admitted to the bar in Cleveland, had the urge to write of his people. Traditionally, he is the first of his race to have "made" the Atlantic Monthly. He started out politely enough with folk material, and for a time people were generally unaware that the work of Chesnutt was not that of a white man. But he pressed on to more tragic materials, and handled them as no white novelist could have succeeded at the time in doing. And before he lapsed into silence all the materials of the Negro novel and short story as a vehicle for dramatizing racial problems had made their appearance, either explicitly or through adumbration, in his work.

Chesnutt blinked nothing. The problem of the color line fascinated him. He wrote stories of the Blue Vein Circle of Groveland (Cleveland?)–stories of a society of Negroes of light color that sets itself up above the darker members of the race. He dramatized the results of miscegenation in the South; he wrote of the snags that await the Negro who is "passing". The high passions following the Civil War and the rule of the carpet-baggers are built into his novels, The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition. While the former novel is generally the more admired, it is to The Marrow of Tradition that we must turn for the widest use of the materials presented by the Reconstruction South. The problem of a Negro doctor of intelligence in a black-hating community (a problem which has received ampler treatment at the hands of Walter White) forms the skeleton of this work; but the skeleton is an excuse for a generalized picture of a whole town of post-Civil War North Carolina. The novel is not remarkable for its characterization (no more so than are the novels of Thomas Dixon), but its people are credible enough as objectively revealed types to pull the reader along. It is the by-the-way sparks that fly from the wheel that interest us today: the workings of the chagrined southern white gentlemen, slaveholders of old, to the end of stirring up race antagonism against the Negro and his ally, the Republican carpetbagger. We are moved by the machinations, not by the machinery; for the absurd propagandic twist at the close of the story leaves us undisturbed.

The House Behind the Cedars, which came before The Marrow of Tradition or The Colonel's Dream, is also interesting largely for its incidentals. It, too, is solved by the clumsy intrusion of a man-manipulated Fate, but it is an honest attempt to deal with the dilemma of a good-looking white woman who has a streak of Negro blood in her without resorting to the standard happy ending that marred some of George Cable's stories built around similar situations. We can well believe in the situation of The House Behind the Cedars, even though the mesh of coincidence that traps Rena Walden in a tragic death is a little too elaborate to swallow. The novel impresses us as true in essence. It might not have happened this way, but it very likely would have happened some other way.

Chesnutt is at his happiest, from a modern point of view, in the whimsical, poetic folk-tales that comprise The Conjure Woman, which was reprinted last spring by Houghton Mifflin, who hold the copyright of most of Chesnutt's works. (The Conjure Woman is the only Chesnutt book easily available, for all the rest have long since been out of print.) The worst side of the writer crops up in the short stories of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories. The tales of The Conjure Woman are the stock in trade of an old Negro Machiavelli, Uncle Julius, who tells them with ulterior motives. For example, he regales his white masters with some nonsense about the "goopher" placed upon a grape vine with the end view in mind of preserving the income he has been deriving from the scuppernong wine made from the fruit. Julius is a lovable old liar with a fine imagination; and, as J. E. Spingarn says, every story he passes on adds a stroke to his self-portrait–something that cannot be said for Joel Chandler Harris's entertaining Uncle Remus. We accept queer twists from Uncle Julius.

But in "The Wife of His Youth" we can not accept queer twists. For instance, when the dean of the Blue Veins of Groveland is confronted by the forgotten wife his plantation days, a little black wizened woman, we cannot believe in the wrench whereby Chesnutt makes it possible for the confounded man to accept the situation and present "the wife of his youth" to the assembled Blue Veins at a ball originally intended to mark his betrothal to a charming young woman. The inner conflict of Mr. Ryder is totally missing. "A Matter of Principle" is the best of the Chesnutt short stories in the realistic genre; it is too plotted, but irony saves. "The Sheriff's Children," a story of North Carolina, is effective as melodrama, for the sheriff who saves a prisoner from the lynching mob finds himself confronted by his own mulatto son, a son who is willing to kill him to make good his escape. In other stories, such as "The Bouquet" and "Ciceley's Dream", Chesnutt can become as sentimental as any of the cheaper fiction writers of his day or ours; but it is a tribute to his artistic conscience that he lapsed only occasionally.

To turn from Chesnutt to his contemporary, Paul Laurence Dunbar, is to descend quite a number of steps. Dunbar's realm was his poetry; his novels are hopelessly inept. He wrote four: The Uncalled, The Fanatics, The Love of Landry and The Sport of the Gods; and two books of short stories, The Strength of Gideon and Folks from Dixie. The moralizing with which The Uncalled is larded is as unappetizing as the mechanistic moralizing in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, of the same epoch of American letters; and it has not the Dreiserian virtue of being gloomy in a time of treacly fiction. To read The Fanatics, a Civil War story, is to read an unconscious parody; it contains a father who speaks to his son as "You cur, you mongrel cur, neither Northern nor Southern!", and other things quite in tone with such talk. The Dunbar short stories are mostly in the sentimental vein. And the prose in which the novels and stories are written is uniformly sullen, woolly, and of interest only to the archaeologist of letters. To appreciate Dunbar one must turn to the poems.


Between the time of Chesnutt and Dunbar and the renascence that went hand in glove with the development of Harlem there was a lull. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, two years, before The Colonel's Dream, Chesnutt's last novel, was printed, and three years before Dunbar died. But The Souls of Black Folk, with its sturdy challenge, was a precursor of another day, a day that was not to dawn until 1912 with the anonymous issue of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) belongs properly to period of lull; it paints an unconscious portrait of the fawning type of intellectual Negro who served his race in the only available way during the depressing interval between the time of the dynamic orator, Frederick Douglass (whose own autobiography is so much more virile and inspiriting than the rather goody-good reminiscences of Washington), and the present. Robert Russa Moton, the successor to Washington at Tuskegee, is spiritually of an older era; his books, Finding a Way Out and What the Negro Thinks, are far from being servile, but they lack the vigor that one finds in Negro literature more closely identified with the growth of the race in the North. However, Dr. Moton realizes that the limitations of Washington are not to be prolonged any longer than they have to be prolonged, for his What the Negro Thinks does speak out, even though the terms are polite and measured. Du Bois was one of the first to criticize Washington; quite early he had clearly formulated his objectives, and his course has been towards them ever since.


The challenge of Harlem is direct. Since 1915 a million and a half Negroes have come North, most of them to fill jobs made to their hand by the passing of the immigration quota laws and the consequent elimination of cheap European labor. The pullulation of energy that built a Negro town of Harlem has flowed into the novel, into poetry, into the short story. The Negro has not deserted the South for thematic material, but he has written with Harlem at his back, so to speak, as a forum in which he is at complete liberty to compare notes and to receive the encouragement of a community of interests.

There is a school of white criticism which insists that the rise of the Negro in contemporary literature has had its origins in fad. While V. F. Calverton may have the deeper reasons on his side when he attacks those who explain the success of Negro literature on this ground, it remains true that the fashion instituted by the exploitation of the Negro by that archaeologist of the exotic, Carl Van Vechten, has helped the race in Harlem to find itself in a literary sense. Out of a work of dubious motivation has come good fruit. To speak of the rôle played by fad is not necessarily a slur, nor is it a slur to ascribe an element of the popularity of this fiction to the cult of the primitive that flourished after the war; and the Negro may count himself fortunate that the success of Nigger Heaven helped to carry the publishers' forts for much of his work. The sad part of the matter is that the fashion has lately overreached itself; Van Vechten has ceased to write intelligent introductions (his foreword to the Knopf reissue of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is very intelligent), and has become patronizing, as in his introduction to Taylor Gordon's Born to Be, or a stereotyped trumpeter for any Negro art, as when he shouts for a poorly-constructed novel by Nella Larsen.

Fashion or no fashion, the Negro may look back over the movement coeval with the growth of Harlem with not a little pride. In the post-Chesnutt novel there are three Negroes who have done genuinely good work: Walter White, Claude McKay and Rudolph Fisher. Fisher has also written some short stories in which his technical dexterity is apparent, and he is the only modern Negro novelist who does not distort Negro character to make it seem superior to white character. The short sketches in Jean Toomer's Cane move us as poetry moves us, and are therefore far from negligible, even though Toomer has failed to give us any credible characterization. Eric Waldron, in Tropic Death, gets some sharp effects through his elliptical way of presenting melodramatic conflicts in the Caribbean region.

The Chesnutt tradition is carried on by Walter White, who has gone to the South for most of his material. White is probably not a novelist at heart. Part of his job has been to investigate lynchings in the South for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a work which has resulted in his Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. His best novel remains The Fire in the Flint, a book which succeeds because of the inherent power of the theme. It is an improvement on the work of Chesnutt, for this story of a Negro doctor's reception at the hands of the whites in a southern town has an inner logic which is not open to scepticism. White's second novel, Flight, is not up to the first; its motivations are not always plausible; but it has one memorable passage, a description of the Atlanta riots of 1906. This phantasmagoric outrage has been chanted by Du Bois in verse.

The work of McKay in prose is always poetic, for McKay brings his Jamaica world of color to everything he writes. There is a racial rhythm out of Langston Hughes in his first novel, Home to Harlem, a book that is saved from the rut of naturalism by the undertone of brooding provided by an intellectual Negro who is probably one aspect of McKay himself. Banjo, McKay's second novel, shows both advance and retrogression–advance because it is substantially richer, retrogression because the material is spread so profusely that it tends to clog the movement. McKay's defects as a novelist lie in his deficiencies as a dramatist; he has not yet seized on a problem that must spend itself in time with serious effects upon the involved characters.

The most able craftsman among the Negro novelists is Rudolph Fisher. In The Walls of Jericho, his novel of Harlem, the dominant note is one of comic sincerity. Fisher both moves his characters and moves beside them in friendly pity. His ear is remarkable; he can catch all the gradations of slang; and in a different field he is the peer of Ring Lardner as a manipulator of native idiom. The same qualities that mark his novel are present in his short stories, one of which, "The City of Refuge", is available in Edward J. O'Brien's collection, The Best Short Stories of 1925. Another, "Blades of Steel", may be obtained in V. F. Calverton's very valuable anthology of Negro literature recently issued by the Modern Library. Each of these stories turns on a trick but the tricks depend on character for their effectiveness.

If we are to call Johnson's fictional Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man the precursor of the Harlem movement, it deserves extended comment. Although it was written while the author was a United States Consul in Nicaragua, it is evident that Johnson's eye and ear were close to the problems of the Negro at home. There is a real sense of all phases of the Negro problem in it. Its sentences are smooth and shapely; and it has a remarkable analysis of ragtime, written at a period before jazz had grown out of such beginnings as "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Considered historically, the book is one that the Negro would do well to call epoch-making, for it certainly caught the tempo of the future, and it explored problems that remain as portentous today as they were in 1912.

Of the lesser fiction writers not much need be said. Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing, cannot yet sustain a novel, although she has some skill at tracing the involute processes of a mind divided against itself. Jessie Fauset, author of There is Confusion and Plum Bun, has evidently gone to school to dubious models. Plum Bun depends so much upon coincidence that it becomes more ridiculous than the most intricate short story of Chesnutt. Wallace Thurman, a playwright and critic, has written one novel, The Blacker the Berry, which is "literary" in the worst sense. Du Bois, who spans the whole time between the Chesnutt era and the present, is more at home in the sociological essay than in fiction. His early The Souls of Black Folk, written when he was teaching economics and history at Atlanta University, amounts to a sort of Magna Charta of Negro rights, and remains his most effective work. His latest novel, Dark Princess, which mingles reality, fantasy and satire in distressing proportions, bogs the reader before he gets well into it. Characterization eludes Du Bois, probably because he is more interested in the future of the Negro race as a whole than Negro as novelist.


Since the World War, the South, as well as the Negro, has taken to the novel. The renascence has included many novels by whites about Negroes, among them being DuBose Heyward's Porgy and Mamba's Daughters, Julia Peterkin's Black April and Scarlet Sister Mary, Roark Bradford's This Side of Jordan, Clement Wood's Nigger, and. T. S. Stribling's Birthright. Paul Green has used the Negro in plays and in short sketches. Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun's Got Wings and Jim Tully's Black Boy went beyond the color line for dramatic material; and The Emperor Jones did much to break down the barrier between the Negro actor and the legitimate stage with Charles Gilpin in the title rôle. Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, as we have said, gave a powerful impetus to the novelists of Harlem; and in spite of its elements of tacked-on sophistication it succeeds in its own right, for its technique–the old wheel technique of George Eliot–is skilful, and it is evidently close enough to the truth to receive the compliment of imitation by Negroes. (One of its great services is its uncovering of the name of Chesnutt, the favorite novelist of Van Vechten's young writer, Byron.) For his probable influence on Toomer we must not forget Waldo Frank, author of Holiday, a novel in which outlines are done away with in favor of essences, and in which the drama of white versus black in the South is lifted to a plane of poetry that might be very acceptable were it not for the memory that Dostoevski wrote novels of both essences and outlines that are much more acceptable.