An Analysis of the Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt
Bruxvoort, Harold James
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Summary of Author: Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) is a black short story author and novelist whose two volumes of short stories and three novels of purpose depict racial tensions present in the South during the post-Reconstruction era. He addressed a culture dominated by the myth of white superiority and black inferiority. Chesnutt's purpose in his fiction is to present a perspective of racial tensions and social issues confronting Southern whites and blacks that differed from the perspective presented by writers of the plantation tradition fiction. Rationale: Since black authors from 1853 to the 1890s basically reflected the themes of plantation tradition fiction and thus ignored social and political issues facing blacks in the 1890s, this analysis of Chesnutt's fiction is made to determine whether he did present a differing perspective of slavery and of white-black issues in the South. Procedure: This study is based on the reading and analysis of primary sources--The Conjure Woman, The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel's Dream--as well as his letters collected by Helen, his daughter. Material from the Charles Chesnutt Collection was also incorporated into this study. Secondary sources include articles by Chesnutt's contemporaries as well as articles and books by later scholars. Findinqs: Charles Chesnutt is the first black American author to ask his publishers for the freedom to treat social and racial issues from a black's perspective: issues such as racial intermarriage, the franchise, and convict labor practices. He also explored the ramifications of "passing" into white society and other problems confronting people of mixed-race in the South and in the North. He pleaded for a quickening of conscience and for moral renewal in the hearts of Southern whites. Conclusions: Chesnutt projects a sense of optimism for racial acceptance in The House Behind the Cedars and to a lesser degree in The Marrow of Tradition. However, his third novel, The Colonel's Dream reflects his frustration concerning the absence of meaningful change in the South in 1905. Negative responses by white supremacy groups and apathy on the part of Northern whites are two factors which led to his decline as an early twentieth-century novelist.
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