Essayist, folklorist, short-story writer and novelist, Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) was the first African-American writer to receive widespread serious attention during his lifetime as a literary artist, and was considered one of the major fiction writers of his era. After teaching for several years in Charlotte, and in Fayetteville at the State Colored Normal School (now Fayetteville State University) he moved north and passed the bar examination. After establishing a successful legal stenography firm, he began writing. Initially the author of humorous sketches and essays on social issues, he published his first short story at the age of twenty-nine in The Atlantic, even then one of the most prestigious magazines in the country. Contemporary William Dean Howells called Chesnutt’s short stories “works of art,” written by one who had “sounded a fresh note, boldly, not blatantly.”
Although Chesnutt lived most of his adult life in his native Ohio, his childhood and early manhood were spent in North Carolina, primarily in Fayetteville. Eastern North Carolina serves as the setting and the source of his most important works. His best known book, The Conjure Woman (1899) is a retelling of seven African-American slave folk tales from the Cape Fear region. Five of the nine stories in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) are set in and around Fayetteville, as is The House Behind the Cedars, a 1900 novel. Both deal with the problems confronting those of mixed race. The Marrow of Tradition (1901), based on the Wilmington coup d’état of 1898, and The Colonel’s Dream (1905), set in Reconstruction-era Fayetteville, address the hopeless situation of blacks in a white society.
During his own lifetime, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was recognized as a pioneer in treating racial themes. Throughout the years that he was writing and publishing, he continued to operate a successful business and to participate in programs dedicated to social justice. In 1928, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal for “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman.” The Fayetteville State University Library is named for Chesnutt; a State Highway Historical Marker marks where he taught in Fayetteville, North Carolina; and in Cleveland, Ohio, a street and a school are named for him.
The Conjure Woman (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899):
Watch Part One of a film adapation of Charles Chestnutt’s short story, “Dave’s Neckliss”:
(Courtesy of 13jalopy)
Watch a trailer for “The Doll,” a twenty-minute dramatic short film set in the early 1900s and based on Charles Chesnutt’s short story, “The Doll”:
(Courtesy of Duke University and DMD Films, LLC)