Rediscovering a Master (continued)

Prof. Wagner-McCoy made an astonishing discovery on her first trip to the Chesnutt collection: three previously unknown manuscripts, with corrections penned in Chesnutt’s neat cursive.

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.


Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections, Charles Chesnutt Collection, John Pettiford’s Ghost, Box 10, File 13, p.1

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.

Editor's Note: Special thanks to Aisha Johnson and Chantel Clark and the staff at the Fisk University Special Collections and Archives.