How Chesnutt's Conjure Tales Argue Against Humanity




    If there is a single protagonist of Chesnutt's Conjure Tales it is John, the budding northern capitalist whose purchase of the old McAdoo plantation first brings him into contact with old Julius McAdoo, the teller of the tales. Each of Chesnutt's stories is framed by a nearly identical scene: John and his wife Annie, sitting around the master house, are approached by Julius and ultimately become audience to a narative written by Chesnutt(but told by Julius) in southern, African American dialect. The frame of each story is told in the first person by John, who gives way to Julius and, at the conclusion of each story returns to interpret what Julius has said-- John insists on lending his own meaning to Julius and his stories. And, there is one other carefully crafted belief, in a clear notion of humanity, that makes John. In his response to the character of Julius, to Julius' tales of human-animal transformations and magic "mixtry", John employs a sort of analytical science fueled by his belief in humanity that serves to help him, as he is helped by science in other instances, to get a truthful read on Julius-- to rationalize what he has heard and seen. But an analysis of how John's scientific humanism in to the conjure tales themselves reveals a conflict with the discourse that frames each tale, revealing its construction, and endangering the "implicit" truth of John's language.
    It is John's rationality, reason, and, importantly, his belief in science that has brought him and his wife south: "Some years ago my wife was in poor health, and our family doctor, in whose skill and honesty I had implicit confidence, advised a change of climate"("The Goophered Grapevine," 1). The ability of science to "implicitly" dictate truth and right figures deeply into the character of John-- in moving to North Carolina John is practicing the science of good business as he transplants his grape-culture, gauging the attributes of Carolina's climate, soil, land, and labor.
    By bringing John into contact with Julius, Chesnutt enters John into a more ambiguous activity. In Dave's Neckliss John's framing of Julius story involves John in a process of watching, and reading Julius himself. Julius has appeared at the house just in time for Annie to offer him some left over ham from her and John's dinner. As Julius begins to eat John begins to read and in reading positions himself within the text:

I threw myself into a hammock, from which I could see Julius through an open window. He ate with evident relish, devoting attention chiefly to the ham, slice after slice of which disappeared in the spacious cavity of his mouth. At first the old man ate rapidly, but after the edge of his appetite had been taken off he proceeded in a more leisurely manner. When he had cut the sixth slice of ham... I saw him lay it on his plate; as he adjusted the knife and fork to cut it into smaller pieces, he paused, as if struck by a sudden thought, and a tear rolled down his rugged cheek and fell upon the slice of ham before him. But the emotion, whatever the thought that caused it, was transitory, and in a moment he continued his dinner. When he was through eating, he came out on the porch, and resumed his seat with the satisfied expression of countenance that usually follows a good dinner.("Dave's Neckliss," 90-91)

John's reading of Julius already reflects only John's own discourse of humanity. John's precision in recounting the way that Julius eats reflects his belief in both science and humanity. John's language is infused with scientific discourse-- He takes note of the number of slices that Julius eats; he notes the speed of Julius' actions and even speaks with anatomical accuracy, noting Julius' "spacious cavity"(remminisscent of the physical once-over given African-American bodies on the sale block during slavery). And, for John, Julius' teardrop symbolizes the center of the system of reading, between John and Julius, that controls the story. It is John's observation, his ability to see and read, Julius' emotion that causes him to inquire to its cause: "... 'it wa'n't de mustard; I wuz studyin' 'bout Dave.'/ 'Who was Dave, and what about him?' I asked"(p.91).
    So Julius' telling of the story of Dave's Neckliss comes only after John's reading of Julius and Chesnutt's use of the teardrop as a device to get to Julius' story. From John's reading of the teardrop he offers a further, now distinctly humanist reading of Julius:

...we were able to study, through the medium of his recollection, the simple but intensely human inner life of slavery... whether he had more than the most elementary ideas of love, friendship, patriotism, religion-- things which are half, and the better half, of life to us; whether he even realized, except in a vague, undertain way, his own degradation, I do not know... But in the simple human feeling, and still more in the undertone of sadness which prevaded his stories, I thought I could see a spark which fanned by favoring breezes and fed by the memories of the past, might become in his children's children a glowing flame of sensibility, alive to every thrill of human happiness or human woe.("Dave's Neckliss," 91-92)

John's point of view here demonstrates his blindness to his actual position in the story. John seems oblivious to the fact that Julius' tales are "memories of the past". But John dismisses the stories as fantastic and even believes that he can detect an ulterior motive in Julius' tellings, in order to procure food and other materials from John and Annie.
    In "Po' Sandy" there is a specific site of discursive intensity, like the site of humanist intensity that John sees in Julius, in which John's scientific discourse undergoes a transformation into the metaphoric realm of Julius. In Po' Sandy John decides to build a new kitchen for Annie and takes her and Julius to a lumbermill to purchase supplies. The three sit in John's coach watching, and reading the scene of a lumbermill. And, again, John and Julius read the scene in different ways. Just as John observed Julius eating the ham in Dave's Neckliss, here he watches as "the machinery of the mill was set in motion, and the circular saw began to eat its way through the log..."("Po' Sandy," 15). Seen next to John's observations of Julius' eating, John's language here represents a scientific breakdown. Here, John's language is transformed, as some of the characters in Julius' stories undergo bodily transformations, to pure metaphor. Are Julius' teeth made of the same stuff as those of the saw that enable John's here realized leap to metaphor?
    As the boundaries between the two discourses begin to break down on John's side, Julius' reading of the mill scene destroy John's scientific humanism:

"Ugh! but dat des do cuddle my blood!"
"What's the matter Uncle Julius?"... "Does the noise affect your nerves?"
"No, Mis' Annie," replied the old man, with emotion, "I ain' narvous; but dat saw, a-cuttin' en grindin' thoo dat stick er timber, en moanin', en groanin', en sweekin', kyars my 'memb'ance back ter ole times, en 'min's me er po' Sandy."("Po' Sandy," 15)

As we learn later, Po' Sandy is a slave-man turned into a tree so that he can stay close to his lover and eventually chopped up for building wood. But here, Julius' language is entirely metaphoric. Julius hears moans and groans in the wood which are actually coming from Sandy, far in the past. Where Julius' teardrop in "Dave's Neckliss" brings out John's scientific discourse, the site of highest discursive intensity here further illustrates a breakdown in John's science. We have seen how John's discourse blocks him from a seeing the truth of Julius' stories as authentic "memories of the past". In "Po' Sandy" we see that Julius' metaphoric language enables, rather than prevents, an authentic temporal positioning. And Julius' metaphoric senses subvert John's attempt to scan Julius for evidence of "love, friendship, patriotism, religion"(the elements that for John define humanity).
 
 

This page is the work of David Frank

Read more about Chesnutt and his critics
Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page
About the Chesnutt Literary Web