Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels

Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels

Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels

Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels

Excerpt

In this book I propose to initiate a new line of discussion about the cultural work done by American literary realism, and about the pressures and possibilities surrounding racial discourse in this nation, by examining the novels of an author whose career neatly matches the period traditionally associated with American realism. Charles W. Chesnutt's career as a published writer of fiction ran from 1885, when his first short stories appeared, to 1930, when a final story appeared in The Crisis. His career publishing novels was much shorter, from 1900 to 1905, although several of the novels he wrote were rejected by publishers before and after that period. During these years, he lived in Cleveland but traveled in both the Northeast and the deep South, including his former home of North Carolina, where he researched the events that inspired The Marrow of Tradition. The geography of Chesnutt's life and career offers a compelling metaphor for his position as a writer: as someone who is both Northern and Southern, and as a person of mixed race, Chesnutt attempts—and, in my view, largely achieves—an equilibrium, crafting narratives on the basis of an insider's insight and an outsider's objectivity, an auspicious blend for a practitioner of realism. His narrators tend to have a canny, slippery quality, simultaneously adopting and skewering the particular perspectives they may seem to hold. Like writers who followed him—including monumental African American authors of the twentieth century such as Hurston, Ellison, and Morrison—Chesnutt recog-

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