Review of:
Duncan, Charles, The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. 1962.

        In his critical analysis of Charles Chesnutt's fictional writing, Charles Duncan traces Chesnutt's narrative strategies and their implications for identity as well as other running themes in Chesnutt's work such as family and economics. Duncan's analysis is extremely well written and thorough. His thesis supports that which is central to Chesnutt's writing and Chesnutt as an individual--the idea that identity is nebulous and therefore dangerous to categorize or make hasty "readings" of. Unfortunately, Duncan does not always stick to his topic and these wanderings detract from an otherwise flawless argument.
        In each chapter Duncan addresses a different form of narration. Early in his analysis, in a perfect chapter, he discusses "the often protean narrative personae one finds in his fiction" (p. 32) and how this points to the "mutability of identity". Duncan argues Chesnutt's use of "I-narrators" whose identity is constantly in flux manifests the danger of classifying people. In the third chapter he again writes about Chesnutt's "I-narrated stories." This time Duncan describes how narrators in some of his fiction are characters who are relegated to the periphery and shadows. Since the reader sees the story through the story-tellers eyes, s/he is forced " to identify with the dislocated and disenfranchised" (p. 48) as well as though who don't see the story quite so clearly. Duncan argues this is one of Chesnutt's subtle ways of reshaping white reader's attitudes. Duncan describes how the witness narrator often finds it difficult to understand/ often "misread" the actions of other characters. Again Duncan successfully argues that Chesnutt is pointing to the "hazards of interpretation." Basically, whites may think they understand the situation/person, but really they should be wary of their judgments.
        In his forth chapter, Duncan focuses mainly on the "Conjure Tales" and how the dual-narrators of John and Julius "force us [to] reshuffle our own construction of what these co-narrators have to say to each other and to us" (p. 82). Duncan argues Chesnutt does not side more with either voice, but is represented by the shifting argument between them--that one can trace "Chesnutt's evolving philosophies" (p. 77-8). Duncan changes his focus in the next chapter. He discusses "asymmetrical narrative structure." One voice is the detached "master" perspective and one is the more oppressed, heart-rending eyewitness account. He connects this asymmetry with "familial relationships." The "divided" narrative, he argues, is representative of the often divided African-American families, and reuniting the family and the narratives is like putting one's identity together. This discussion is somewhat discordant with the rest of the book which discusses indefinable identities and problems with "misreading."
        In the sixth chapter, Duncan finally discusses "the absent man." He describes the traditional third-person narration. The story-teller is where Chesnutt is most comfortable, even farther away than the periphery--s/he is "physically and emotionally outside the narrative [s]he tells" (p. 137). In these works, Duncan argues Chesnutt is again asserting the "inscrutability of identity" (p. 156) and the perilous nature of interpretation. Duncan concludes with Chesnutt's story "Baxter's Procrustes," which is considered by many to be Chesnutt's best work. Duncan reveals the irony that as an African American writer, Chesnutt had to work not to be "marginalized" to the point of non-existence by his white audience, but his most famous work is which "celebrates the obliteration of black text" (p. 176) In a way, Chesnutt is "misread" by his audience and, thus, becomes "an absent man."
        The indefinablility and constant change of identity is the common link/ effect of all the ways Duncan examines narration. He discusses Chesnutt's "protean narrator," the peripheral narrator who "misreads," the shifting dialogue of the dual-narrators, and the "absent narrator." All point to the problems of trying to define. This is Duncan most effective and important point. Chesnutt was himself indefinable character. As a person of mixed race he was continually interested in the complexity of the color line and the ridiculousness of trying to draw definite distinctions or make concrete conclusions on things so nebulous as race or identity. Chesnutt had a goal of overturning white preconceptions, and Duncan clearly shows how Chesnutt went about his purpose: "Chesnutt believed that he might, like his fictional proxy, successfully encode messages that both appealed to and subverted the expectations of his mostly white audience" (p. 165). Duncan's analysis really grasps (if it is possible to grasp what is indefinable) what Charles Chesnutt is about. This analysis pulls Chesnutt's writing together in a significant way and is an important book to read for anyone seriously interested in Chesnutt.
        Although Charles Duncan's argument is excellent and well supported, it is not as succinct as it could be. Starting in the third chapter he diverges now and then on a superfluous topics, albeit, very interesting ones. For instance, while he is discussing narrators on the periphery he begin to talk about the characters interest in money:

        Perhaps the most readily identifiable trait, in fact, common to virtually all of Chesnutt's narrators and characters,
        in both the short fiction and the novels, is their shared concern with economic matters. (p. 54)
Reading this, one expects for him to analyze the narrators and characters interest in money in terms of narration from the margin or in some way that correlates to the chapter. But he concludes his thoughts with: "The pervasiveness of these economic intrusions in Chesnutt's fiction might suggest both a literary strategy…and his own keen interest in financial matters" (p. 55). What "literary strategy"? Duncan never goes further with this idea. This seems like it would be a very fascinating topic for another paper, but it detracts from his thesis in this one. Again, in chapter six, when he is predominantly focusing on third-person narration's and how they create a distant and hard to identify character, he bring up an unrelated idea:

                Chesnutt makes use of another powerful symbol in this set of monologic narratives, and indeed elsewhere.
                In several of these works, he emphasizes the degree to which his black characters' identities become interwoven
                with the houses they live in. (p. 150)

This sounds interesting, but it has nothing to do with third-person narratives and detachment. Duncan adds these interesting tid-bits now and then. His argument would really be much clearer if he eliminated this superfluous material.
        Charles Duncan writes an extremely salient analysis of Chesnutt's fictional writing. His thesis is interesting, well supported, and really addresses the epitome of Chesnutt's work. Readers of Chesnutt know his deep-rooted interest in the color line and its inscrutability, but may not have considered how his use of narration creates these ideas. The only drawback to Duncan's analysis is his occasional wandering into topics unrelated to his thesis.

This page is the work of E. Fleur Nicklen

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