Ohio History Journal

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Race and Realism in the Fiction of

Charles W.Chesnutt





In this day of increased awareness of the role blacks have played in American history

and culture it is somewhat surprising that Charles W. Chesnutt is only recently being

recognized by students of history and literature. He played an important part in the

development of black American literature during the last decade of the nineteenth

century, and also helped to lay the foundation for the "Negro Renaissance" of the

1920's. For his contemporaries, including William Dean Howells, the first publication

of his short stories in The Atlantic Monthly marked the "coming of age" of Negro

literature. This was the first time black literature had appeared in a major literary

journal without the tacit understanding that it was inferior to white fiction.1

Initially, at least, critics judged Chesnutt's work on the basis of its artistic merits

and not according to the color of its creator. To disregard his race, however, is to

avoid coming to terms with the essence of Chesnutt's literature and to ignore com-

pletely the one major theme that runs through his work. In referring to the Negro

author's work, Howells naively noted, "in this [the field of literature] there is, happily

no color line."2 Mr. Howells, of course, was seriously mistaken. Not only was there

a color line in literature, but also it is totally inaccurate to expect there would be no

difference in the artistic expression of blacks and whites. Indeed, the major significance

of Chesnutt is that he was black, not white, and that he was one of the first to success-

fully depict the condition of blacks in post-Civil War America. In doing so, however,

he ran counter to the accepted practice of white writers to use the widespread racial

prejudice and increasing antipathy toward the Negro for popular literary success.

Thus we are faced with the dualism which permeates Chesnutt's work, as well as

black literature in general of the period. On the one hand we see the attempt to

accurately present black experience and the true aspirations of Negro life in America.

This entailed the discussion of themes and problems that generally fell outside of

white experience, that often went against the political and social beliefs of white

society and frequently invoked hostility in the majority of whites. On the other hand


1. Hugh M. Gloster, "Charles W. Chesnutt: Pioneer in the Fiction of Negro Life," Phylon, II

(1941), 57. Three of Chesnutt's novels, The Conjure Woman, The Marrow of Tradition, and

The Wife of His Youth, were printed in paperback editions in 1969 by the University of Michigan


2. William Dean Howells, "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories," Atlantic Monthly, LXXXV

(1900), 700.


Mr. Wintz is Instructor of History, Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas.