Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

(Re)staging Colonial Encounters: Chesnutt's Critique of Imperialism in the Conjure Woman

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

(Re)staging Colonial Encounters: Chesnutt's Critique of Imperialism in the Conjure Woman

Article excerpt

Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman has long been treated as a regionalist work, set as it is during Reconstruction in the fictional town of Patesville, North Carolina, which Chesnutt modeled on his native Fayetteville. But The Conjure Woman also taps issues that resonate beyond North Carolina. Broader issues imbue the encounters between the former slave, Uncle Julius, and his employer, John, who during Reconstruction has moved to the South, bought a ruined plantation, and invested in a vineyard whose fruit he ships to the North for profit. Even as Chesnutt roots his plots in particular relations of race and class that characterize exploitation in North Carolina after the Civil War, he also responds to extensions of exploitation that accompanied emergent American imperialism during the 1880s and 1890s, the decades in which he wrote the stories for The Conjure Woman.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the United States was displacing Spain and vying with England to become the major power in the Western Hemisphere. Chesnutt, who published The Conjure Woman as a volume in 1898 shortly after the Spanish-American war, wrote into the tensions betwen Uncle Julius and John a veiled critique of Western imperialism.(1) Many of the scenes that depict John as the Yankee capitalist exploiting Uncle Julius and the ruined Reconstruction South carry undercurrents that cast John as the emergent imperialist--the new Westerner, who has much in common with his European predecessors. Chesnutt, who countered his white audience's racism through strategies of indirection,(2) placed his critique of imperialism (geographically his most far-reaching, and historically his most contemporary, critique) in the parts of the stories that in 1898 seemed least important: the tales' frames.(3) By inserting descriptions that resonate beyond the immediate setting within the local color scenes of Patesville, Chesnutt avoided accusations that he had stepped out of "his place," even as he condemned emergent American power and undermined the Western imperial subject. The Conjure Woman repeatedly undercuts John's claims to a stable, abstract, and rational identity, which he constructs against the conditions of his own capitalist venture and against Uncle Julius, the subaltern, to whom John's project allocates an unstable and situated position.

Chesnutt's interest in imperialism dates back at least to 1881, when he outlined in his diary a course of reading he had set for himself on Western empires, ancient and modern. He noted that he was reading Goldsmith's Roman History from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire and Merivale's General History of Rome, as well as The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. Macaulay's Life and Letters includes correspondence and minutes from his years of service to the British empire in India, where he presided over the committee that established English as India's national language.(4)

While Chesnutt immersed himself in Western historical texts, he read them with a critical eye. Two stories Chesnutt published in 1889 in Puck magazine set the Reconstruction United States and emergent American nationalism within a long tradition of Western imperialism. In "A Roman Antique," the narrator, visiting New York City, meets an old black man in Washington Square Park who tells him that he had been "Mars Julius Caesar's `fav'rite body-sarven'," and that he is "`bout nineteen hund'ed" years old. Because he had rushed into battle on Caesar's behalf, the old man explains, Caesar gave him a quarter and "lef' directions in his will fer [him] ter be gradually 'mancipated, so [he]'ud be free w'en [he] wuz a hund'ed years old." In this satire on the outcome of American Reconstruction, "a vision of imperial Rome" rises up before the narrator "in all its glory and magnificence and power." Chesnutt's second Puck allegory of 1889, "The Origin of the Hatchet Story," satirizes American nationalism, setting the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree "in the stream of tradition" that extends back to the ancient Egyptian empire. …

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