The Many Faces of Charles Chesnutt

    Charles Chesnutt was a man interested in outward appearances and professional success. His literary achievements were a result of sedulous work and ambition. Therefore, his internal motivation, choice of subject matter, and contextual tone may come into question. Also, his personal stake is rather ambiguous in writings of the color line and the "American Negro." One method of analysis into his personal life is a close reading of the correspondence between Charles Chesnutt and his family. The reader catches a glimpse of the man behind the powerfully written essays; we discover an ethical stance and personality that profoundly affects his creation of narrative.  A parallel can be drawn between Chesnutt as a father figurein his family dynamic and man troubled by the plight of the black race.  One cannot, however, classify this man into any type of neat category.  Presenting himself as an enigmatic persona, the reader will never truly know where Chesnutt places himself in the color spectrum associated with people of so-called mixed blood.  Through his writing we can only begin to understand who Chesnutt really was.  
 
    Raw ambition and an inner desire for success is a motivational force behind the works of Charles Chesnutt. He advocates the advancement of the colored race, and an example is set in the way Chesnutt conducts himself. This achievement, however, cannot come to fruition unless Chesnutt appeals to to the white men in charge of the publishing houses.  Therefore, not only must he be a talented author with an underlying message of racial equality, but also Chesnutt has to sell his stories.  If he cannot present an image and a dedication to his work, to "dress for success" so to speak, then his writing career will remain stagnant.  There is an acute awareness of appearances that is consistent between his personal and professional realm.  In a letter dated February 4, 1900, Chesnutt relays the following correspondence to his daughters Ethel and Helen, "It was my firm intention to visit you on this trip East, but you want me to make the best impression when I come, and left home about ten days sooner than I expected, so that I didn’t have time to get some ‘glad rags’ that I intended to wear to impress my ‘distinguished personality’ upon your undergraduate friends and to you proper credit." (140)  Chesnutt is fully mindful of the importance of impressions and appearances, but also the reader attains a small view of a family dynamic. He wishes to impress the friends of his daughters, however, if one were to read further it would be seen that he missed a visit because of professional obligations. This is only one example in a familial history of missed opportunities, leading one to the conclusion that Chesnutt’s work is more important than his family. In Chesnutt’s situation, however, this almost has to be true, and his family supports him. In order for him to follow his dream and provide for his family, he has to be away from them working hard to become established. Also, his method of becoming established involves keeping up appearances to impress his publishing houses and readership. It is difficult to ascertain Chesnutt's particular feelings regarding his role as a father figure; because, just like in his writings, his personal stance is ambiguous.

    It becomes readily apparent that Chesnutt is the male authority in his family. His literary achievement is the main focus of his life, and his family is a means of support in this endeavor. On March 15, 1900, Chesnutt had the following words for his daughters, "I wired your mother to express me a certain pair of shoes to Northampton. Keep them for me-they are not for your wear-I want something for myself. I hope the infant is enjoying herself." (145)  Now obviously, Chesnutt is talking about his shoes, but his words are symbolic. His daughters are seniors in college, but yet he converses with them as if they are children.  Chesnutt fails to even mention his third daughter’s name; she is referred to merely as ‘the infant.’ In another letter he speaks of his infant daughter as if she were a piece of luggage, "Thought I wouldn’t take Dorothy to New York, as I might stay several days, but will either come Springfield for her in a day or two or have you ship her to Albany." Chesnutt goes out into the world to claim his fortune, and his family is there to nurture him. If one were to read Chesnutt as a man primarily motivated to earn money for his family, this image would not hold much significance.  Then, it would seem as if this man simply wanted something for himself, a nice, clean pair of shoes.  Also, this image connects to the theme of importance of outward appearances; Chesnutt absolutely must have these shoes when he reads his work or meets with a publisher.  No matter how revolutionary Chesnutt is in his thoughts about race, he continues to have his good wife at home to send him shoes.

    As far as his preoccupation with outward impressions and professional succes, connections may be drawn between Charles Chesnutt’s relationship with his family and his essay writing.  Once again the reader is confronted with the hidden nature of his personal views.  In one piece of writing, Chesnutt recounts a visit to the vocational institution of Tuskegee. For Chesnutt, Tuskegee embodies the working spirit he has adopted, and it represents the so-called inevitable separation of the races that he struggles with in his writings. This institution, however, places a stronger emphasis on the colored race’s industrial skills in the way of farming and manual creation. "The practical air of the place is an inspiration in itself. The student workers build the houses in which they live, and make the bricks with which to build them." (146) One can visually imagine this black utopia; former slaves learning how to build structures, tend a farm, own land, and make clothes. It is a school almost entirely run by black men and women. There is money donated by white people, but Tuskegee is a segregated institution.

    Although Chesnutt is praising this vocational center, he finds fault with the fact that it has to be a colored institution. "The present writer does not believe in the wisdom of the separation of the races which prevails in the Southern States, and thinks that it is carried to an extreme which is not only short-sighted, expensive, and troublesome, but which to an outsider, borders upon the ridiculous." (147)  In this quote in particular, Chesnutt's place in the race continuum is puzzling.  He is obviously stating his views regarding segregation, but is he including himself in the description of an outsider?  We cannot know for sure, but as a man of mixed heritage one could assume that he is an outsider to the separation of the races. Even though he appears to be white in complexion, he is a member of neither race.  The black elite would like to claim him as an example of what a colored man can accomplish, but his skin tone is of the white persuasion.  For Chesnutt the separation borders on the ridiculous because it leaves no middle ground for people such as himself, and describing segregation as expensive and troublesome links to his personal goal of becoming successful.  Finally, a separation of color complicates life more than it has to be.  It is not enough that Chesnutt was a prolific writer, each race wanted to take credit for his accomplishments.  This, however, does not come into question until his mixed race is revealed.  In his life and work, he shows that we do not need to classify people based on physical appearances.  This does not mean, however, that Chesnutt was not perceptive of the importance of outward appearance.  He did have to endure the work of becoming an established writer.  If this distinction between black and white did not exist, then perhaps he would not have had to work so laboriously to become a writer.

    As a man of mixed racial heritage it is interesting to consider where Chesnutt stands in his own discussion of the Southern Negro and the Southern white man. "I have said that the Southern Negro is not free. The same may be said of the Southern white man, for the laws which seek the separation of the races apply to him as well-but with a very material difference." (140) Chesnutt persists in speaking of the Southern Negro and the Southern white man in the third-person point of view, as if he is a third party not involved with either group. He states his opinion, but manages to keep himself objective. Unless the reader is familiar with Chesnutt’s background his racial status remains ambiguous. He could be a Northern white sympathizer for all the reader knows, and he is able to keep his emotions guarded even from his family. This secrecy dictates his personal relationships with his family and his business relationships with various publishers. It is this method of manipulating both sides of the color line that allows Chesnutt to achieve his goals of being both a successful writer and provider for his family.

This page is the work of Michelle Salvaggio

Read more about Chesnutt's Essays, Letters, and Journals

Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page

About the Chesnutt Literary Web