Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"The Curious Psychological Spectacle of a Mind Enslaved": Charles W. Chesnutt and Dialect Fiction

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"The Curious Psychological Spectacle of a Mind Enslaved": Charles W. Chesnutt and Dialect Fiction

Article excerpt

IT HAS BEEN FASHIONABLE FOR SOME TIME TO CELEBRATE Charles Chesnutt's defiance of a hegemonic publishing industry, governed by figures like William Dean Howells, Waiter Hines Page, and Richard Watson Gilder, all of whom conspired--or so the familiar story goes--to restrict Chesnutt's creative endeavors to the politically suspect domain of black dialect fiction. The story is undeniably true, in certain respects: Howells did prefer the muted anger of the dialect tales to Chesnutt's overtly "bitter" political stance in The Marrow of Tradition; Page did encourage Chesnutt to return to the conjure formula long after he had decided to abandon Uncle Julius and black dialect altogether; Gilder did reproach Chesnutt for deviating from the standard magazine characterization of African Americans as loyal retainers, dismissing his middle-class, non-dialect speaking characters as "amorphous." (1)

Focusing on the uneven effects of such discouraging encounters with literary authority, Chesnutt's admirers and detractors have traditionally disagreed over whether to regard the Uncle Julius stories as an expression of politically contemptible acquiescence, or of creative subversion. The more unflattering view of Chesnutt as a black parrot for white racist ideologies prevailed among some radically minded critics of the 1960s, including Amiri Baraka, who identified Chesnutt with an assimilationist black middle-class that "wanted no subculture, nothing that could connect them with the poor black man or the slave." (2) More recently, critics like Houston Baker and Craig Werner have effectively revised this image by noting Chesnutt's role as a subversive voice working quietly to dismantle the plantation tradition from within. (3) The latter view has done much to recuperate Chesnutt's reputation as a writer worthy of serious consideration in the present, but to regard his work in the dialect mode as essentially deconstructive--as motivated, that is, by resentment against hegemonic cultural forces--is to oversimplify his intricate relation to prevalent stereotypes of African-American character and behavior. I want to argue that the urge to envision Chesnutt and Uncle Julius as self-conscious hermeneutic tricksters (and the parallel urge to demonize Howells and other members of the white literary establishment, casting them as gulls in Chesnutt's signifying game) is rooted in impatience with the structural ambivalence of local-color fiction itself. Rather than attempt to decide the false question of Chesnutt's divided cultural allegiances, we should relish the agility with which his art responds to institutional pressures, often by seeming to embrace assumptions demeaning to African Americans in the act of redefining their cultural significance.

The complexity of Chesnutt's maneuvering within the local-color tradition can be appreciated in "Hot-Foot Hannibal," a tale neglected by anthologizers and frequently dismissed by critics because of its puzzling absence of subversive content. (4) Here, in the story Chesnutt selected to conclude The Conjure Woman, Julius for the first time delivers a tale apparently without economic self-interest, deploying his narrative gamesmanship to settle a lovers' quarrel between Annie's Northern sister, Mabel, and her betrothed, the "high-spirited" young Southerner Malcolm Murchison. (5) As the loyal black retainer who facilitates a symbolic reconciliation between North and South, Julius assumes a highly conventional role in this tale, one designed to reassure Chesnutt's readers that for all the ex-slave's grasping after control within the contested postwar Southern domain, the conjure stories are finally contained within the ideological imperatives of the plantation tradition. As what William Andrews has called Chesnutt's "return to orthodoxy," the story hints that the old man's vernacular art, like the antebellum art of conjure itself, ultimately serves the interests of his employers (Andrews, Literary Career, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.