Review of Charles W. Chesnutt: a study of the short fiction

The superficial simplicity of Charles Chesnutt’s short stories allows unmotivated readers to dismiss them without delving into the meaningful and pointed layers of social, political and literary commentary that lie just beneath their surfaces. The traditional plantation framework of The Conjure Tales and the seemingly transparent morals of the Stories of the Color Line belie the complexity of Chesnutt’s negotiation with fictional and societal conventions within these stories. Henry Wonham’s contribution to the literary series Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction, Charles W. Chesnutt: a study of the short fiction, goes beyond his stated purpose of attempting "to elaborate and substantiate [William Dean] Howell’s high opinion of Chesnutt’s achievements as a writer of short fiction, while reassessing the racially charged assumptions upon which that opinion rests" (xi). Wonham’s analytical critique of Chesnutt’s short stories, although far from comprehensive, provides a thorough but manageable collection of criticism to assist the novice Chesnutt reader in exploring the less obvious implications of Chesnutt’s fiction. As a reader newly introduced to Chesnutt myself, I find the accessibility of this work encouraging, and I feel that Wonham’s true contribution to the Chesnutt criticism is to invite new readers to look more closely at this complex man and his deceptively simple writing. Divided into three parts, this book uses what I am assuming is probably the typical format for the Twayne series to the best advantage. The first section, The Short Fiction, separates Chesnutt’s stories into "Dialect Tales" and "NonDialect Tales" and deals with each story separately; the second section, The Writer, offers relevant selections from Chesnutt’s journals and nonfiction work and gives the reader the opportunity to examine Chesnutt’s personal motivations and ideology without literary or critical filter; and the final section, The Critics, excerpts other critical works about Chesnutt’s short fiction. Approaching Chesnutt’s work from several directions at once, the three sections each contribute uniquely and effectively to this critique, merging into as cohesive and satisfying a whole as a work of this limited scope and introductory nature can be.

The first section, containing Wonham’s criticism of Chesnutt’s short stories, is woven throughout with analytical threads drawn from other critics many of whose works are excerpted in the third section of this book. In it, Wonham fulfills his intention of confirming and supplementing William Dean Howells’s praise of Chesnutt’s short stories while at the same time moving beyond Howell’s critically narrow and socially obtuse reading. Although Howells’s interpretation of Chesnutt’s collections of short stories lies at the center of Wonham’s stated purpose in writing this book, Wonham’s dialogue is not directly with Howell, but with the novice reader whose first cursory introduction to Chesnutt’s short stories may resemble Howells’s experience. Wonham discusses the way in which Chesnutt wrestles with the racial stereotypes maintained by fictional tradition by simultaneously employing and challenging them within the figure of "Uncle" Julius. In Wonham’s analysis of The Conjure Tales, he shows how Chesnutt plays the role of Julius to our John. Unless we abandon the rigid, narrow-minded and reductionist mentality that plagues John’s mind, we risk succumbing to the same trap into which Howells has inadvertently fallen. We must move beyond John’s understanding of Julius’s narratives as merely economic tools to gain access to material resources and see them, rather, as tools forged from past to stop the past from seeping into the future. Wonham does a good job exploring the connections among the three different narrative experiences of Chesnutt’s conjure tales: Julius’s inner narrative, the outer framework of John and Annie, and the relationship between Chesnutt and the reader. Interwoven throughout all three narratives is the conflict between the mentality of oppression and the mentality of freedom found on both sides of the color line and the problems that conflict causes in the black individual’s transition from slavery to freedom. By extracting the hard reality hidden beneath the hazy surface of plantation myth, Wonham gives readers the tools with which to resist Howells’s reductionist reading of "the simple black lives in these enchanting tales" (115).

In his discussion of Chesnutt’s "Nondialect Stories," Wonham examines Chesnutt’s movement beyond his narrator, Julius, a character whose "capacity for resistance is always limited by his participation in a system of hierarchies that he can nudge, perhaps modify, but never escape" (45). Chesnutt’s socioeconomic commentary in The Conjure Tales is always tainted or compromised by the concessions to the expectations of his white audience that "Uncle" Julius and his plantation setting represent. Wonham shows the way in which these color line stories further elaborate on the idea of the relationship between the past and the present explored by Chesnutt in The Conjure Tales. The color line characters run away from the past only to find that it is the outmoded mentality of the past retained by individuals on both sides of the color line, not their history, that threatens the formation of their new identities and the fulfillment of the promises of freedom. Like his commentary of The Conjure Tales, Wonham’s analysis of the Stories of the Color Line resists a simplistic reading of the texts, allowing readers to look beyond the obvious sentimental morality they seem to advocate. Certainly, after reading this book, readers will never come to Howells’s trite conclusion that these "paler shades" are "like us because they are of our blood by more than half, or three quarters, or nine tenths" (115).

The second section displays several examples of Chesnutt’s non-fiction. These pieces allow Chesnutt himself to explain his motives and ideology. They speak to questions Chesnutt’s readers may have regarding the compromising and indirect way in which he addresses issues of racial domination and injustice, his position on the color line, his relation to the spiritual world of conjure, and his place in literary history. Wonham seems careful not to arbitrarily categorize Chesnutt; he only occasionally refers to Chesnutt’s mixed racial heritage, never making it the crux of his argument. The inclusion of this unadulterated voice allows Chesnutt to place himself within the racial and literary spectrum. Perhaps Wonham understands that throughout his life Chesnutt challenged society’s compulsive need to lock him into a concise, unambiguous category; for Wonham seems reluctant to do so now. While each piece does have some connection to Wonham’s analysis of the short stories, the relationship is not always obvious, and the book might have benefited from some sort of commentary or framework to bring this section in cohesion with the first. I think that a couple of these texts inspire more questions than they answer; they actually demand an explanation. The reader is left with Chesnutt’s idea of racial amalgamation as an answer to racism and his apparent lack of appreciation of the positive communal force of African American superstition and spirituality and no context into which to place them. Despite this absence of commentary, these non-fictional works do bring the reader one step closer to the man, and they do provide insight regarding his motivations for writing these short stories, insight that assists his readers in their efforts to finding meaning beneath the somewhat socially nostalgic and compromising surface.

The final section includes criticisms ranging from the William Dean Howells’s review, written in 1900, that Wonham intends to challenge in this book to a 1987 critical essay by Ben Slote, a rather bizarre juxtaposition of The Conjure Tales and the claymation California Raisins commercials that were so popular in the 1980’s. This collection of criticisms fill two of the larger holes in Wonham’s own analysis: 1) several provide overall thematic analysis of Chesnutt’s stories in general and 2) they actually do some critical criticism, i.e., they point out Chesnutt’s weaknesses and failings. Wonham’s piecemeal approach to Chesnutt’s stories does have its merits. Providing individual analyses of each story presents the reader with comfortable, inviting, digestible bites of criticism from which to pick and choose. Unfortunately, the division of the story collections into their individual parts does not lend itself to the discussion of overall themes or to the exploration of ideas that link the stories together. Wonham makes many insightful connections between stories, both within a given collection and between the two collections, but the reader must exert a great deal of energy to keep them straight. The introduction to the short story section of this book is mainly biographical and does not thoroughly discuss the elements that pull these individual stories together and justify their amalgamation into one collection. The criticisms in this third section of the book approach Chesnutt’s collections from a top-down perspective, rather than the bottom-up perspective endorsed by Wonham. These critics provide the specific, cohesive, thematic analyses of the stories missing from Wonham’s treatment of Chesnutt’s work. The second problem I had with Wonham’s critique of Chesnutt’s work is that he appears to be overwhelmingly impressed with Chesnutt’s work, and he declines to question Chesnutt’s choices or methods. At one point, Wonham comes within arms reach of suggesting a modicum of hypocrisy in Chesnutt’s negative response to the emigration of Southern blacks to the North, but then backs off. He lets these critics in the third section do the real work of criticism for him. William L. Andrews discusses how Chesnutt’s attempt in The Bouquet "to reconcile serious social comment and purpose with popular reader expectations" results in a character with "stereotypical characteristics" and in a "lachrymose conclusion" (123); and Ben Slote claims that "The Goophered Grapevine constitutes Chesnutt’s attempt at literary passing" and that The Conjure Tales …gratif[y] his readers’ moral complacency while seeming to criticize it" (149). This type of critical commentary is nowhere to be found in Wonham’s analysis; however, by including these critics in his book, he gives voice to dissenting and diverse opinions and provides his readers with a sense of critical balance that would otherwise be missed.

Although Charles W. Chesnutt: a study of the short fiction is somewhat limited in scope, I recommend this book to readers who are new to Chesnutt’s fiction. Hopefully, this book will inspire in them the interest to investigate further the history of the color line and Chesnutt’s novels that address its past, present and future. After reading this book, readers will, perhaps, identify any "John-like" tendencies they may themselves exhibit in their interpretations of Chesnutt’s work, and may recognize similar tendencies in their contemplation of other texts in the future.

This page is the work of Carey Ann Kotake.

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