Sylvia Lyons Render, Charles W. Chesnutt (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980 Pp. 182)

 Charles W. Chesnutt
Getting to Know His Ideals, Struggles, and Talent through His Literature

    Get educated on Charles W. Chesnutt by trusting someone who knows! Sylvia Lyons Render wrote the very first dissertation on Chesnutt and received a Ph.D. degree in English. She served as professor at North Carolina Central University until she was appointed Specialist in Afro-American History and culture in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Charles W. Chesnutt is her exploration of "his development as a writer" through identifying the "great influence of his life and times upon the purposes, natures, and scope of his published prose" (preface).

    The book presents an in depth focus on Chesnutt's beliefs, experiences, and goals in relation to his literary work through providing a well developed biography of Chesnutt's childhood and adult experiences  in relation to his ethnicity. Render identifies his decision to become an author and traces his literary work through his accomplished success, while noting the many disappointments. Through an in depth study of Chesnutt's published work, the central themes of well known novels and short stories is understood to be an expansion of his personal experiences and observations that began in his personal journals prior to writing publicly.

    Assisted through a biography by Chesnutt's daughter Helen, Render conveys the very important traits that were instilled in him by his mother to "imbue his mind with the spirit of courage and high endeavor" so that he would "feel that loyalty and duty were sacred obligations" (17). This is a key characteristic which, makes itself visible in Chesnutt's work and underlines Render's idea that his goal to become an author stemmed from his devotion to "urge [his] country toward fuller realization of its great potential as a truly democratic society" (156).

    The development of Render's theoretical view on the plot circumstances of Chesnutt's major works emphasizes the political, economic, social, and cultural divides that separate the races. Together, these aspects were the governing determination in preventing the Negroes from rising above; as well as excluding the Mulatto from being accepted as part of either the white or black race. As these very factual statements were a part of Chesnutt's reality as an individual, Render identifies his personal perspective on these issues through an analysis of his most dynamic characters and their situations.

    Render defends and sympathizes with those who found themselves in the position of passing as white and denying their true heritage.  Individuals in this situation were forced to such extremes due to, the social necessity of passing in order to have any opportunity to progress economically, socially, and politically. Render passionately explores this issue is relation to the situations surrounding John Walden/Warwick in "The House behind the Cedars."    She claims that her readers must "respect" and admire the sacrifices he made in order to progress so that he could provide for himself in hope to make better provisions for his family (76).

    In contrast to John's ability to adapt to being white, his sister Rena portrays the complex issues within herself that he managed to suppress. Neither Rena nor John were "ashamed of [their] mixed ancestry, but [resented] the barriers erected by race" (see V. Fictional Folk/Mixed Blood and Their Progenitors 75). Render sees these character issues as evidence reflecting Chesnutt's view on passing b "morally defensible 'if it is only by becoming white that colored people and their children are to enjoy the rights and dignities of citizenship'" (89). Chesnutt defends both the those who pass, as well as those who are torn to do so.  The passing issue, in Chesnutt's literature proves to be defended.  His problem is with the "social need" to pass, where he respects any sacrifices a black man makes to better his opportunities.

    The chronological portrayal of Chesnutt's life and career informs the reader of the trials and tribulations Chesnutt endured through his journey on becoming the "first Negro novelist of merit" (preface). The process in which Chesnutt's writings were introduced to the literary world, required that he take small steps before shifting "from, the earlier, lighter pieces to the more serious work," which is marked with the publication of "The Groophered Grapevine" (see First Fruits 31).

    Render demands that Chesnutt's literary success was a careful plotted plan, which entailed him to take small steps into the literary world until he was widely accepted before he could address the issues of the color line, which had been his initial desire as an author. This is evident by the tactics Chesnutt used prior to his initial conjure tale (The Groophered Grapevine),  which included writing about white characters and concealing his identity to protect the merit of his work.

    The order in which the book is structured compliments the idea of Chesnutt's success as a plan. Render's development of this idea is structured in the beginning portion of the book while identifying the actual themes and issues toward the end. In tying Chesnutt's intents prior to public writing, with the themes and issues of his major characters, Render repeatedly makes connections and suggestions of how Chesnutt's shadows his life experiences. This structure functions to aid the book in becoming a complete whole.

    Although Chesnutt maintained his motivation to continue the fight racism in a positive way, Renders claims that is was not without "his psyche [haven been] repeatedly scarred" (24).  Throughout the book, Render identifies the true emotion portrayed in his characters, which both demonstrate his talent as a writer and reveal the personal connections of his life experiences with his work.

    On a whole, Render explores the strengths of Chesnutt's writing through his accurate dialect and education commonly associated with the various diversities of his characters.  Through exploring the various techniques Chesnutt mastered, Render identifies the humanity of blacks portrayed in his novels, as well as Chesnutt's higher level of intelligence.  His stereotypical characters give life to his writing and enable him to deal with the complex social, cultural, and individual issues effected by race discrimination.

    Chesnutt was denied the ability to become a writer in absence of his planning due to social, racial, economical, and political restrictions.  Render demonstrates his progress in overcoming each of these obstacles through the book.  His success became a reality as a result of his taking both the offensive and defensive side, to reach his goal.  Render successfully introduces Chesnutt to the reader as a man whom excelled at reaching the public attention in speaking against race discrimination against all odds.

    Charles W. Chesnutt represents everything that the man stood for.  Piece by piece it brings together the complexities of bringing African American Literature to such high standards in which demanded the attention and publicity in the white society.  Getting to know Chesnutt from Sylvia Render's perspective discloses the intellect of a genius, whose personal life fired his determination.

    Regardless of you knowledge of Chesnutt, this book will bring you to a high appreciation of his life as a contribution to the progression of our country to move toward becoming a true democratic society.  Through literature, he gained social and political attention to a problem that deeply plagued America.  Becoming a true democratic society remains to be an on going process.  However, this book presents Chesnutt's work as a symbol of the progression we have made since his time. Charles W. Chesnutt is a definite thumbs up!

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