Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)
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
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?
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
Read the chapter on the dialect fiction in William L. Andrews, The
Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1980).