Eye-Opening Essays

In the Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, the editor Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., collects a range of analytical writings on Chesnutt’s subject matter and his books from various critics. Since this is a collection of essays, the thesis varies from one essayist or book critic to another, but overall it appears that McElrath is in favor of Chesnutt’s accomplishments. In fact, the most interesting essays are the ones relevant to the class readings such as The House Behind the Cedars, and Chesnutt’s article on the "Future American." The specific essays I focus on are the following: "The Mulatto in American Fiction" by Penelope Bullock, "The Evolution of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars" by Robert P. Sedlack, "Rena Walden: Chesnutt’s Failed ‘Future American’" by SallyAnn H. Ferguson, and "Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth: the Unveiling of the Black Storyteller." Initially skeptical of this book being a proper choice for doing a critical book review, I almost chose a different book. However, after reading the book, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate, through the detailed examination of the mentioned essays above, the important contributions the collection of critical essays play in further enhancing readers’s comprehension and as an essential secondary reference book in any study of Charles Waddell Chesnutt or his literature.

Before Chesnutt entered the picture, there were Abolitionist writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who asked their readers "Can an institution which literally enslaves the sons and daughters of the dominant race be tolerated?" through the stereotyped figures in their novels (McElrath: Bullock, 143). Similarly stereotyped to the mulatto figures familiar to his readers, Chesnutt’s mulatto characters are the "son or daughter of a Southern white aristocratic gentleman and one of his favorite slave mistresses" and yet despite the inherited superior endowments of the white race such as knowledge and beauty, the characters are tragedy-stricken as in his novel The House Behind the Cedars (143). Though the mulatto entered fiction as a propaganda agent, Chesnutt transforms the mulatto character from being "the instrument of cause" to the mulatto himself being the cause, who is "living in a complex and paradoxical environment" (144). Thus, stenciling the new nineteenth-century mulatto of American fiction, Chesnutt sends out the same message as his companion writers, ‘Equality to all.’

Chesnutt being a mulatto himself was extremely interested in the position of a mulatto in American life and the issues of skin color, miscegenation, and ‘passing as whites’ that his characters examine in his literature. However, incorporating these concerns effectively in a story originally entitled "Rena" in a satisfying and acceptable way in his time, proved to be his greatest challenge in his entire writing career. Yet, it is interesting to study ‘The Evolution of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars’ and observe the refining and fine-tuning of his extreme views to a reasonable compromise on the treatment of the mulatto. By reading Robert P. Sedlack’s article, readers will further understand and be able to appreciate the genius of The House Behind the Cedars. The earlier versions of this novel emphasize the lighter or fairer-skinned tragic mulatto, Rena Walden, in a very melodramatic manner. In fact, the motherly character of Molly Walden is depicted as having "inherited the color prejudice of her world" by having her scorn "a young neighbor, Frank Fuller (later Fowler), with his ebony skin and ‘strongly marked African features’ who had grown to love Rena deeply when they were allowed to play together as children"(McElrath: Sedlack, 182).

The earlier versions further uncover some surprises concerning Chesnutt and his writing career. One surprising discovery directly from Sedlack’s essay is that there never would have been a novel if Chesnutt had listened to his literary mentor, George W. Cable who advised him not to revise his short-story "Rena". Luckily, Chesnutt ignored him and continued to revise his short-story into a novelette and finally ending with a full blown novel. Also, it is interesting to note the dramatic change in plot from Frank-Rena-Wain triangle to one revolving around George Tryon, and the resurrection of John Walden, both characters initially not included. As a result of adding Tryon to the plot, Chesnutt changes his initial purpose of writing to initiate "a moral revolution in a white America" by shifting his criticism of prejudice from the black to the white community (184). More over, by changing his stereotypical and weak characters from Rena as the tragic mulatto, Wain as the treacherous villain, and Tryon as the white bigot, he creates more complex and credible characters (185). Thus, by fusing his new conflicts with his new dynamic characters through his final revisement –the elimination of first person narrator—"Chesnutt made an overt, direct assault on white racial prejudice…while muting his criticism of prejudice within the black community" (186).

This particular article was most striking because it explained material that present-day readers may hastily jump to negatively criticize the characters and plots as being pointless or flat. For instance, the use of coincidence in his novel to merge the plots with Rena-Tryon to Rena-Wain, was a literary device more acceptable in his time than in ours (187). Readers can learn the dramatic changes an author himself can undergo in a course of writing a novel that attempts to change a society’s attitude like Chesnutt did. Though he "affected more whites by showing that Tryon destroys his own happiness because of racism…[Tryon] provides a final ironic twist to Chesnutt’s decade-long struggle with this story –for his deepest concern from the original story through the novelette and into the novel had always been with Rena, a bright mulatto like himself in a world infested with racism" (188).

However, SallyAnn H. Ferguson’s article, "Rena Walden: Chesnutt’s Failed ‘Future American’" is an essay that discussed how the main character of his novel, The House Behind the Cedars, Rena Walden contradicted Chesnutt’s image of an ideal future american. Ferguson questions those who blamed racism for Rena’s tragedy via the several "references to the Walden children’s having to atone their parents’ adulterous miscegenation," placing the burden of atonement on Rena (203). Thus, Rena’s death punishes those who failed to conform to Chesnutt’s racial ideas. "Rena, therefore, commits a crime against society when she fails to pass, because racial suffering continues when miscegenation does not. Her crime –refusal to miscegenate –makes her elimination inevitable. Because Rena does not stop being black, she dies" (204). Chesnutt ensures the downfall of Rena by providing inadequate, sexist education that leaves her to reason with her heart and not to think with her mind. He also makes her black roots shine through in the form of her "superstitious ignorance— a stereotypical characteristic of blacks—Rena cannot become a "Future American" like her brother" (201). Though Chesnutt sets up his heroine to fail by making her remain "psychologically black while trying to pass becomes her greatest fault", critics "ignore the extent to which the author uses it as a vehicle for racial propaganda" simple to make "a case for racial amalgamation in The House Behind the Cedars, which provides a fictional forum for ideas less subtly advanced in his non-fiction" (201, 204).

After reading this book of critical essays, my understanding has improved and allowed me to further appreciate Chesnutt’s work of genius and art. Before concluding, a very interesting article was the mini-critical book review by Lorne Fienberg is worth mentioning. Her essay, called "Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the Black Storyteller," though too long to discuss for this paper, was very interesting and quite enlightening by the thorough analysis –from examining Chesnutt’s writing from the grammar and sentence structure level to the overall effectiveness—of each short story in The Wife of His Youth. In conclusion, any study on Charles W. Chesnutt is incomplete without the book, The Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, because it changes readers’ attitude from inappropriately criticizing to valuing his nineteenth-century masterpieces. More over, it allows Chesnutt’s twentieth or twenty-first century readers to appreciate properly his masterpieces as a work of skilled artistry of his time. As the critic, Russell Ames, points out in his essay "Social Realism in Charles W. Chesnutt," Chesnutt was "the first distinguished American Negro author of short stories and novels, [who] remains in certain respects the best. Neglect of his life and work represents, therefore, a general neglect of Negro literature" (McElrath: Ames, 147).

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