Rediscovering a Master

Photo by Natalie Behring

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

By Bill Donahue
Reed magazine cover, June 2015, photo by Natalie Behring

Reed magazine cover, June 2015
photo by Natalie Behring

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 major 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.

Charles Chesnutt

Author, lawyer, and activist, Charles Chesnutt vowed to “show to the world that a man may spring from a race of slaves, and yet far excel many of the boasted ruling race.”
Photo Courtesy of Fayettevill State University Charles W. Chesnutt Library Archives.

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.