Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)

    Contributing Editor:
    William L. Andrews

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Classroom issues include: How critical or satirical of blacks is Chesnutt in his portrayal of them? Does he treat them with sympathy, even when they behave foolishly? Is Chesnutt's satire biting and distant or self-involving and tolerant?

    There's rarely one source of authority in a Chesnutt story. Different points of view compete for authority. Get the students to identify the different points of view and play them against each other.

    Stress that Chesnutt's conjure stories were written in such a way as not to identify their author as an African-American. How effective is Chesnutt in this effort?

    Students want to know what Chesnutt's social purposes were in writing his conjure stories. How could stories about slavery have any bearing on the situation of blacks and on race relations at the turn of the century--when Chesnutt wrote--and today?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Major themes include the following: Chesnutt's attitude toward the Old South; the myth of the plantation and the happy darkey, the mixed-blood (monster or natural and even an evolutionary improvement); and miscegenation as a natural process, not something to be shocked by.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Chesnutt wrote during the era of literary realism. What is his relationship to realism, its standards, its themes, its ideas about appropriateness of subject matter and tone?

    Original Audience

    I stress that Chesnutt wrote for genteel magazine readers much less critical and aware of their racism than we. How does he both appeal to and gently undermine that audience's assumptions?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Chesnutt wrote to counter the stories of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. Chesnutt might also be compared to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frederick Douglass as depicters of blacks on the plantation before the Civil War.


    Read the chapter on the dialect fiction in William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1980).