Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Charles W. Chesnutt

CHARLES WADDELL CHESNUTT was bom in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858. His parents were free blacks who moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, after the Civil War. Chesnutt began teaching at age fourteen and from 1877 to 1880 was assistant principal of State Normal School in Fayetteville; he became principal in 1880. In 1878 he married Susan Perry, with whom he had four children. Chesnutt went to New York City in 1883 to work as a journalist; he soon relocated to Cleveland, where he studied law.

In 1887, the year he passed his bar examination, Chesnutt sold his first stories. He was "discovered" by the critic and editor Walter Hines Page, who promoted Chesnutt's work enthusiastically over the next decade. Chesnutt spent these years working as a Cleveland court reporter and writing stories. These were published in two volumes in 1899. The Conjure Woman contained the Uncle Julius stories, which retold tales from Ovid and Vergil in black dialect, while The Wife of His Youth collected a series of stories with mulatto protagonists. Encouraged by the success of these books and of his biography, Frederick Doughs, published the same year, Chesnutt left his job to write full-time and made a southern lecture tour. His most controversial prose works, essays concerning his hope of miscegenation in America, were published in the Boston Transcript in 1900. Also at this time he began exchanging letters with Booker T. Washington and was instrumental in having Macmillan withdraw from publication the antiblack volume The American Negro. His most popular novel was his first, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), which poignantly, if somewhat melodramatically, etches the difficulties of mixed-race offspring in the South.

The Marrow of Tradition (1901) was a sweeping condemnation of racial prejudice and greed, less sentimental than its predecessor and correspondingly less popular. Chesnutt was disappointed by the book's failure, and in 1902 he returned to his court reporting position. He wrote another novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), as well as at least five more that remain unpublished. An outspoken advocate for black rights, he successfully shut


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