Collecting the Untold Stories

Reed professor wins grant to compile the outstanding stories of Charles Chesnutt.

By Ben Read ’21 | February 19, 2020

For fifty years, African American author Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) wrote stories that chronicled the complexities of race in America. A formidable craftsman, he published in newspapers and elite magazines such as The Atlantic. While some of his stories have appeared in major anthologies, they represent just a tiny fraction of his literary output. Most of his writing—writing that provides key insight into America after the Civil War—is out of print and hard to find.

Now, thanks to a $206,330 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Prof. Sarah Wagner-McCoy [English] and her collaborators will produce a scholarly edition of his stories. Prof. Wagner-McCoy, who uncovered several forgotten manuscripts by Chesnutt in the archive of his work at Fisk University, will work with Prof. Stephanie Browner of The New School to collect Chesnutt’s complete works and create a digital archive of his short stories and journals. Prof. Wagner-McCoy is the lead editor of The Complete Short Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt, a collection which will comprise the first two volumes of a nine-volume scholarly edition of Chesnutt’s complete works from Oxford University Press.

Chesnutt is best known for his collection of dialect tales, The Conjure Woman. But most of his stories are no longer in print and some remain unpublished—an absence Wagner-McCoy is now working to remedy through the NEH project, which will preserve Chesnutt’s work for students, teachers, and scholars. In her scholarly work on archives of early African-American writers, she laments, “One of the problems with what we have left is that there are narratives excluded.” However, as the breadth of Chesnutt’s unknown work shows, “We do have archives that are yet to be explored that have more stories than we think. We need to go deeper into them.” 

If you enter Wagner-McCoy’s office, you will find yourself in front of a detective’s evidence board festooned with maps of Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town on which Chesnutt based his fictional setting of Patesville.

What sort of secrets might we uncover in the archives? The answer lies in the footnotes. In the story “Lonesome Ben,” the storytelling character Uncle Julius goes on a long digression about where the clay beds of the creek mark the property line of the vineyard. Following this lead through newspapers, property records, and military tribunals, Wagner-McCoy uncovered the story of a white man convicted of murdering a young black boy, the same white man who was later pardoned and purchased the clay-rich land across the creek from the African American school where Chesnutt was the principal. “That all grew out of a footnote on bricks,” she said. 

In a way, Wagner-McCoy is following Chesnutt’s lead in a practice any Reed student knows well: the close reading of a text. She will write headnote essays and footnote annotations for all of his stories. By paying such close attention to Chesnutt’s writing, she hopes to reveal the complexity of his work and the questions his writing asks about race, narratives of Reconstruction, and, as she puts it, “what it means to have a humanistic education, who’s in the classroom as well as who’s on the syllabus.”

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