Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Significance of Charles W. Chesnutt's "Conjure Stories"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Significance of Charles W. Chesnutt's "Conjure Stories"

Article excerpt

In August, 1887, The Atlantic Monthly published "The Goophered Grapevine," a local color story set in North Carolina and written by a literary unknown named Charles W. Chesnutt. The acceptance of this story initiated the rise of its author from literary obscurity to a position as the most widely read Afro-American fiction writer of his time. What made this story and others like it successful, however, was not the knowledge that their creator was black. As late as 1889 Chesnutt's publishers, including Houghton, Mifflin, who brought out his first collection of "conjure stories," chose to delete any mention of the new author's racial identity. Although such a deliberate omission of such a significant fact might indicate racist motives to a modern reader, in Chesnutt's case the omission of his racial background constituted a significant though left-handed compliment to him as a writer of fiction. For, as William Dean Howells pointed out in a review of The Conjure Woman and a subsequent collection of Chesnutt short stories, "It is not from their racial interest that we could wish to speak of them [i.e. Chesnutt's short stories].... It is much more simply and directly, as works of art, that they make their appeal." (1)

Twentieth century critics have found several features of The Conjure Woman praiseworthy. In describing Chesnutt's collection as "a study in duplicity," David D. Britt has concentrated on the unity of the stories, a unity which combines "structure, characterization, language, and theme" in a successful effort to deceive "the unperceiving audience." (2) Donald M. Winkleman has studied Chesnutt's use of folk elements in the conjure stories and has evaluated Chesnutt as a "folk artist." (3) The "artistic objectivity" of Chesnutt in The Conjure Woman has been singled out by Saunders Redding as the principal source of the collection's success, especially among white readers. (4) But an accompanying comment by Redding in his examination of The Conjure Woman sheds more light on the subject of why Chesnutt's stories were popular among white readers and why they were accepted by the most important literary magazines of the day. "The book's reception as the work of a white writer ... signifies that [Chesnutt] was judged by the standards of his white contemporaries. By these standards The Conjure Woman is successful." (5)

Redding's remarks point toward a truth about Chesnutt as a short story writer that often has been underplayed. Unlike almost every black writer before or contemporary with him, Chesnutt achieved his initial fame without reference to either his own racial identity or to the current racial issues of his time. He did not present himself as a "race author." He presented himself as a literary craftsman, and he won recognition because he met the standards for fiction by which his white contemporaries were judged. Thus Chesnutt's familiarity with and mastery of the accepted modes and traditions of the American short story in the 1880s and `90s should be recognized as the basis for his popular success and his place in American literary history. But Chesnutt was not merely an assimilator and imitator of prevalent trends. Though he attempted no innovations in either style or structure, he did widen the perspective of the conventional short story to include his peculiar subject matter and his individual thematic concerns. In this respect Chesnutt's conjure stories take on additional historical significance, for they reflect both his understanding of literary tradition and his ability to use the tradition as a means of approaching his readers with untraditional themes. An accurate assessment of the significance of Chesnutt's conjure stories in both American and Afro-American literature depends on two realizations: that Chesnutt achieved popularity in his own day through his adherence to tradition, and that he maintains his distinction today because of his expansion and occasional transcendence of tradition. …

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