Rediscovering a Master

Prof. Sarah Wagner-McCoy unearths new manuscripts that cast fresh light on the first major African-American novelist.

By Bill Donahue | June 1, 2015

Death is, generally speaking, a bad career move for writers of fiction. As their graves grow moss, their work often gathers dust, and we’re left with only a vague, cartoonish notion of what they wrote and who they were.

The nation’s first African American novelist, Charles Chesnutt (1858–1932), is now mostly remembered as the author of The Conjure Woman, an 1899 collection of short stories in which a sardonic ex-slave, Uncle Julius, obliquely comments on race relations in antebellum North Carolina by telling clever supernatural tales in dialect. In “The Goophered Grapevine,” Julius speaks of one slave who ate some betwitched scuppernong. The man is caught and returned to a cursed life wherein he becomes a weird, animate farm tool who sprouts new hair and youthful muscles each spring before withering each fall and beginning “ter draw up wid de rheumatiz.”

The critic William Dean Howells, Chesnutt’s contemporary, praised the book for its “wild, indigenous poetry,” but the seven tales in The Conjure Woman represent just a sliver of Chesnutt’s massive oeuvre (Chesnutt wrote nine novels and over 80 other stories) and they scarcely convey the power and mastery of their enigmatic author—a mixed-race grocer’s son from North Carolina who taught himself Latin and Greek, and became a lawyer, a teacher, and a civil rights activist, and whose literary voice ranged from sober and restrained to utterly outraged.

Last summer, Prof. Sarah Wagner-McCoy [English 2011–] set out to to explore Chesnutt’s work. Armed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she ventured to Fisk University, in Tennessee, to the Charles Chesnutt collection. On her first day there, she made an astonishing discovery. Archival box number 10 contained three previously unknown manuscripts, with corrections penned in Chesnutt’s neat cursive. In another box, she found a black notebook containing 11 handwritten drafts of stories. Digging into Chesnutt’s financial ledger, she located pay receipts for two early, long-forgotten stories—“Train Boy,” which earned Chesnutt $10 from the Detroit Free Press in 1888 and “The Fabric of a Vision,” a 1897 story that was likely never published.

“I was insanely excited,” she says. “I ran into the curator’s office and said, ‘Do you know what you have here?’ I couldn’t believe scholars had never done anything with this material.”

It’s not clear why the manuscripts escaped notice for so long. Back in 1974, a scholar named Sylvia Lyon Render published The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt, a compendium of 74 stories, but did not include the typescripts Prof. Wagner-McCoy found. Had Render never seen Box 10? Did she deem its contents unfinished or perhaps too political?

It’s impossible to be sure, as Render, a curator at the Library of Congress, died decades ago. But as Wagner-McCoy read one of the newly found tales, “John Pettifer’s Ghost,” on a sweltering afternoon, its relevance sang out to her.  “It was mid-August,” she says, “the same week that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, and in the story a white man shoots a free black man in the street, in broad daylight, and goes unpunished.”

Delving into the notebook, she found that for one unpublished conjure tale Chesnutt wrote a frame narrative introducing Uncle Julius—and then this scrawled edit note: “Insert here that story from the newspaper story about bewitched pigs.” In another draft, Chesnutt made a nod to a fellow novelist, a lion of literary realism, as he gave his story a subtitle, “À La Henry James.”

For Wagner-McCoy, it was a delight to glimpse Chesnutt’s creative process. She’d fallen hard for the writer in grad school, entranced by his use of fiction to consider the horrors of slavery. “In his time,” she explains, “slave narratives were always true stories. Even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel, was printed with a note saying it was based on reality. Chesnutt asked, ‘How do you represent something so unrepresentable as the buying and selling of human property? And how to bring to life the age of lynching that followed slavery?’ Chesnutt decided you do that best through myth.”

Perhaps myth was the only vessel big enough to contain everything that Chesnutt wanted to say about race. The writer was raised by freed blacks. His parents were the owners of a struggling grocery store in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and his father helped to establish a school for freed blacks. Still, he once wrote that he was “seven-eighths white.” He was pale skinned and his grandfather was a slave owner. Amid strangers, he could easily pass as white. But he could not deny his blackness, for his world was African American and he believed in racial uplift.

When Chesnutt was 14, he began teaching at the Howard School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he had been a star pupil. He wanted to pursue his own education, but his mother had just died and the grocery had failed. His family was poor, so he elected to study Greek and Latin on his own at night, after correcting papers, when, he wrote, “my body is fatigued, my eyes tired [and] my mind anything but clear.” He assigned himself essays on Homer and Virgil—and in so doing threw himself into the midst of a heated debate among black activists of his day.

Some blacks, such as the author W.E.B. Du Bois, believed that the “talented tenth” of all Negros should pursue an education in the humanities, in order to “guide the Mass [of blacks] away from the contamination and death of the Worst.” The educator Booker T. Washington, meanwhile, dismissed the “craze for Greek and Latin learning,” lobbying instead for industrial and agricultural training. His critique was of course prelude to the shrill battle that still rages over the value of a liberal arts education today.

It’s an argument Wagner-McCoy knows all too well. Her father was an English professor, and she grew up reading voraciously. Still, in the summer before her freshman year at Columbia University, she groaned when she was asked to read Homer’s Iliad. “I was really turned off by it,” she says. “I didn’t want to read about these big battles between ancient soldiers, and I wondered, ‘What’s the relevance of all this?’”

This spring, when she gave a lecture titled “Allusion and Epic” to a couple hundred Hum 110 students, she confessed that she had brought her disdain for the classics to Columbia. “One of my most vivid memories of my own first day of college,” she said, “is walking to the subway with my father and asking him, ‘Is it too late to transfer?’”

Soon, though, she became enchanted with Virgil, the Roman poet whose own epic, the Aeneid, was written 700 years after Homer’s death and reimagines Homer’s tale to deliver its own rendition of the Trojan War. In her view, Virgil’s poem “adapted the epic to critique the politics of ancient Rome.” His work is, she feels, a “reading” of  Homer—and, by extension, a rallying cry for smart reading in all contexts. “He analyzes the complexities in everything he reads,” she told the Hum 110 fledglings, “and then he uses the tensions he finds to frame his representation of his own cultural moment. He does what we do. He digs deep to make the material new again.”

Virgil’s politics sang to her at Columbia because she was then active in issues of social justice. As a student, she started an after-school tutoring program for homeless kids. “I thought that was going to be my career,” she says.

It was Chesnutt who tugged her toward her other passion, literature. The writer was also a lawyer and social activist who, in writing for the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, argued for blacks’ voting rights and equal access to education. He saw the presence of injustice all around him,” she says, “and he fought it. For him, literature was not just a belletrist enterprise.”

At Harvard, she wrote one chapter of her doctoral thesis on Chesnutt and how he read Virgil’s first two epics—the Eclogues and the Georgics, both agricultural poems—to arrive at his own critique of pastoral nostalgia in the antebellum South. In the years since, she’s reveled in the range of Chesnutt’s meditation on race. Some of his novels—Evelyn’s Husband, for instance—are parodies of white society. In one story called “The Wife of His Youth,” Chesnutt considers racial stratification within the black community, by introducing us to the fictional “Blue Vein Society,” reserved for African Americans “white enough to show blue veins.”

“He was representing America from every angle,” she says, “and telling the story of a complicated moment in race relations.”

“I’m fascinated by the connections between Chesnutt’s period and our own,” she continues. “Racial injustice and violent terrorism, debates about who should have access to education and whether they should study the humanities, a widening income gap fueled by the myth of meritocracy, the re-enslavement of black men that would lead to the current system of mass incarceration today, a nation sharply split by partisanship and denying the people whose labor kept it running franchise and basic rights of citizenship. This is a period when fiction—imaginary stories—shaped the history of this country more than politics, economics, even war.”

At Fisk, she decided that her discoveries could form the backbone for a larger project. Last year, she and Stephanie Browner, a literary scholar  and dean at the New School, in New York, met to discuss working together on The Complete Charles W. Chesnutt, a projected seven-volume resource that will include nearly everything that Chesnutt ever wrote—fiction, sketches, poems, journals, letters, his one play, and a biography on the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The archival material that can’t be squeezed into print will go online, into a digital archive.

Last summer, with two Reed students, Michael Ojeda ’15 and Luis Valenzuela ’17, Wagner-McCoy took the first concrete steps to launch the project, setting up an online database of all currently available Chesnutt stories, and also wrote footnotes for Chesnutt’s work. It’s a matter of intense reading, really. “I spent most of last summer annotating three stories,” she says. But there are still over 70 stories to go. The project may take several years to complete, but will be a critical step in reaching a deep understanding of this complex black author and the legacy of his race.

Special thanks to Aisha Johnson and Chantel Clark and the staff at the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives.


Page of History

The first page of the typescript of “John Pettifer’s Ghost,” an unpublished short story by Charles Chesnutt, introduces Abel Galloway, a white businessman who makes his fortune from mortgages on slaves. Galloway and Pettifer, a free mixed-race farmer, both court a poor white woman. The interracial love triangle—especially when the white woman prefers the black man to his white rival—counters typical nineteenth-century representations of gender and race. Later in the story, Galloway shoots Pettifer in the back of the head at a crossroads, knowing that, without white witnesses, no grand jury will ever indict him. Prof. Wagner found the story the same week that black teenager Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. 

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