A new light on an old master: scholars reexamine the provocative racial themes in the fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt.

Author:Fleming, Robert
Position::Bibliomane - The Northern Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt - Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt - Book Review

The Northern Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt Edited by Charles Duncan Ohio University Press, May 2004 $49.95, ISBN 0-821-41542-5

Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt by Matthew Wilson University Press of Mississippi September 2004 $45., ISBN 1-578-06667-0

A revival of, writer Charles W. Chesnutts works in recent years has been led by university presses with the publication of several posthumous novels and essays, as well as volumes of criticism. Chesnutt (1858-1932) was the first prominent African American novelist and essayist recognized by white critics and readers. With this acclaim, he almost totally eclipsed the noted popular poet Patti Laurence Dunbar at the turn of the 20th century.

Chesnutt's most popular book, The Conjure Woman (1899) showcased slave folktales from the Cape Fear region of the South, while Fayetteville, North Carolina, served as the setting of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and The Colonel's Dream (1905). He lodged his literary protest against lynching in The Marrow of Tradition (1901), set in the 1898 Wilmington race riot. He used themes of racial mixing and the "passing" of mulattoes in his other works.

The Northern Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt, edited by Charles Duncan, an English professor who has been studying Chesnutt's work for more than decade, features 18 short stories centering around "Groveland," a fictionalized version of Chesnutt's native Cleveland, Ohio. There is an evolved sense of narrative and metaphor in these stories of comedy and conflict about northern Negroes still fighting the color line. While the stories do not pack the rage and defiance that would later come with the books of the Harlem Renaissance, Chesnutt saw the need for blacks to accommodate and compromise with the prevailing color codes of the white society, presenting an option of mulattoes and mixed races as the cure for white bigotry. These are the themes of the majority of the stories such as "A Matter of Principle," "Uncle Wellington's Wives," "The Doll," "Mr. Taylor's Funeral," "The Kiss," "The Shadow of My Past," and "White Weeds."

He varies the settings, situations and characters with great skill and style such as the comic "A Bad Night," the nourishing "A Grass Widow," the romantic "Uncle Wellington's Wives" and the tragic "Her Virginia Mammy." He that truly believes in the tenets of American democracy and the promise that all of its citizens...

To continue reading