Restoring Chesnutt's Short Fiction: A Review of Charles Duncan's The Absent Man

    Charles Duncan's The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt succeeds in presenting Chesnutt as a sort of trickster of the literary craft who employs a broad range of technique to varying effect, always obscuring the sense of Chesnutt's own authorship. The Absent Man, a study of all of Chesnutt's short fiction including some unpublished work, is divided into six chapters which are divided in an a way that effectively highlites Duncan's main concern, the relationship between Chesnutt's themes and the narrative framework of his stories. According to Duncan Chesnutt's stories become increasingly depersonalized as time goes on. And, the book is arranged in accordance with this motion. The second and third chapters deal with first person narration(Chapter 2 critiques Chesnutt's "I"/hero narrator while Chapter 3 takes up firt person witness narrators). Chapter four focuses on Chesnutt's frame stories, including the entire collection entitled The Conjure Woman. Following Duncan's discussion of the conjure stories is a chapter devoted to what Duncan calls stories with "inside" narratives. These include most of the Stories of the Color Line.
    If the work has a shortcoming it may be the scope of Duncan's project. It seems at times as though he is stretching himself thin, trying to cover every piece of work of Chesnutt. For Duncan the project is intended to address a lack of substantial criticism surrounding this area of Chesnutt's writings. The best moments in Duncan's work come in spurts where he discusses issues of identity. Early on Duncan draws a distinction between Chesnutt's identity as an author and that of other African-American writers of Chesnutt's era. As a fiction writer Chesnutt holds a much more ambiguous role than those who write in the mode of slave narrations. Writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were forced into the role of truth-tellers because of the nature of their writings. But Chesnutt's fiction demonstrates the notion of masking that is found in many examples of African-American literature. For Duncan, Chesnutt's ability to display a range of voices, using multiple voices within the same story, enters Chesnutt into a sort of "literary ventriloquism" which needs to be taken apart. This notion reinforces Duncan's overall message in relation to Chesnutt. Chesnutt's narrative technique always leans towards obscuring and questioning issues surrounding identity, rather than laying out clear cut truths.
    The first example of this in Duncan's work comes in his analysis of a first person, "I" narrator story entitled "The Shadow of My Past". In this story, as Duncan describes, a man returns to his hometown under an alias in order to find out how he is remembered. As it turns out the hero, Hal Skinner, in his conversations with his former neighbors, finds that he is remembered quite differently, in a much worse light, than he presumed. For Duncan this story demonstrates the obscurity of one's "personal archeology". For Duncan, Hal Skinner is a "self-made man [who] self-consciously examines the construction of his own identity and subsequently reinvents his past"(42). Here, Chesnutt's protagonist points to problems that Chesnutt must have encountered himself. And, indeed, a strength of Duncan's work is his ability to point out the way that the elements of fiction guided Chesnutt's perception of the world. For Duncan, Chesnutt is first and foremost an author of fiction. In the chapter that discusses Hal Skinner, Duncan writes: "Chesnutt seeks to conceal himself behind his literary creations rather than foregrounding his life and experiences"(34).
    In his chapter devoted to Chesnutt's conjure stories, Duncan effectively furthers his argument about the relationship between theme and technique in Chesnutt's short fiction. This chapter however, also points to some weaknesses in the overall effect of Duncan's book. Once Again Duncan, in focusing on Chesnutt's authorial position, is able to demonstrate a relationship between the frame of each story, and the tale told by Julius. But the terms that Duncan uses are somewhat vague. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Duncan means when he begins to talk about economics as a point of difference between John and Julius. It seems that his notion of economics is separate from issues of identity. Despite the fact that a certain language of economics pervades John's language, the question of how economics figures in to the construction of Julius' identity seems to be ignored. But again, Duncan strengthens his work by pointing out that the obscurities present between frame and story would have caused Chesnutt's white readership to "rethink their attitudes in regard to 'black writing'"(98).
    Duncan's book is almost entirely theoretical. Because of this, many of his points that relate to overarching social and political themes are unclear. For example, in discussing the importance of race Duncan ignores the legal aspects of southern racism. The final chapter of the book is devoted to what Duncan describes as the "blackballing" of Chesnutt. Here, Duncan describes a process by which Chesnutt was excluded, in the latter part of his life, from a club of bibliophiles. The members voted on accepting new members by casting either white, meaning for, or black, indicating an against vote. But to think about race in these black and white terms prevents Duncan from discussing the legal and economic meanings of slavery itself, as opposed to the construction of racism.
    Duncan's book is most compelling when he sticks to analyzing and comparing each text. But his desire to place Chesnutt within the canon of western literature sometimes distracts from the most interesting analytical moments. Duncan's work depends to a great extent on drawing on a broad range of pre-existing criticism and theory. The many references cause a fluctuation in the focus of the work and the strength of what Duncan has to say at any given time often depends on whatever critic he is bringing in to play. For example, at a strong point of argument involving the conjure stories, Chesnutt runs off a laundry list of critics--Fieneberg, Terry, Britt, among others- recounting whether each one proposed that Chesnutt would have identified more with John or Julius. Duncan's own readings of each work are enough to give compelling support for his thesis and for the book's unique structure-- both of which make for a worthwhile exploration of Chesnutt's broad range of work in short fiction.

This page is the work of David Frank

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