Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

Chesnutt’s Forgotten Story

Charles Hackenberry

WHEN SYLVIA LYONS RENDER PUBLISHED THE SHORT FICTION OF CHARLES W. Chesnutt in 1974, she surprised those readers who thought they had seen all the fiction this first professional African American man of letters had written.1 Professor Render had obviously taken the time and made the effort to read Chesnutt’s letters carefully; therein lay clues that led her to many of Chesnutt’s formerly uncollected stories. But there was even more Chesnutt material out there, writing that existed only in manuscript. Let me tell you a story.

In the late 1970s, when I was a long-in-the-tooth graduate student, just turned forty, I went to Fisk University in Nashville to read the treasure trove of materials that had been deposited in the library there by Charles W. Chesnutt’s daughter Helen after she had completed the biography Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (1952).2 Remember, this was before the publication of McElrath and Leitz’s edition of Chesnutt’s letters3 or Brodhead’s edition of Chesnutt’s journal.4 Even before William L. Andrews’s excellent The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt.5 The Middle Ages of Chesnutt study.

In Harrison T. Meserole’s Research Methods 501 (intellectual boot camp, we called it), I had edited three letters written by Chesnutt to Small, Maynard and Company concerning his biography of Frederick Douglass. I learned about Chesnutt’s fiction in a hurry, and after Professor Meserole’s class, I kept reading it avidly, especially after I discovered and devoured Conjure Woman. A truly masterful book, I felt. Why was it I’d never heard of Chesnutt before? Simple: he was decidedly out of fashion after taking a bashing in the late sixties for supposedly being an Uncle Tom.

How easily the critics had forgotten that The House Behind the Cedars had examined closely the special problems of mixed-bloods in American society. How important it had been during its day—the very end of the nineteenth century—to have the biography of an important American black man, Frederick Douglass, written by a man who knew,

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