"A Familial Perspective of Charles Chesnutt"

    As a complicated, somewhat guarded man, it proves difficult to understand the mental workings of the author Charles Chesnutt. Therefore, in the undertaking of a biographical narrative, the author must make a decision regarding approach whether it is descriptive, chronological, or analytical. Helen Chesnutt, one of Charlesí older daughters, opts to write a descriptive, chronological history of her fatherís life. With this added information of the author, the book, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, pioneer of the color line, becomes a provocative biography to consider for review. Before even reading the narrative, the reviewer is faced with the following questions: What is the effect of having a family member write an authorís biography? How will this most personal relationship color the authorís reporting of his life? Finally, what emotions come into being when an adult writes about the life history of a parent including the events of his or her own childhood. Helen Chesnutt tries to avoid the aforementioned questions, but she makes her identity known through her choice of emphasis and tone. There are few, if any unkind words said about her father. One must keep in mind that a biography is filtered through the eyes of the author, and that no matter how objective the author attempts to be there is a certain image of Charles Chesnutt being presented.

    In sharing her fatherís life history with the world, Helen Chesnutt presents a very detailed, factual, and credible biography. Every significant life event is documented in either Chesnuttís own words or in his daughterís ever attentive hand. "In the fall of 1880 Robert Harris died, and the Local Board of Managers of the Normal School, Dr. T.D. Haigh, the Honorable W.C. Troy, and J.D. Williams, three of Fayettvilleís leading citizens insisted that Chesnutt go to the state capital at Raleigh to apply for the position of principal. (Chesnutt, 25) Helenís reproduction is meticulous and precise; she remembers every name and detail. One wonders if she read this information about her father, or if he actually told her all the specifics. Either way she does not miss any biographical information about her father including his letters and journals; perhaps this was in reaction to the dearth of information written about her father in 1952. We cannot be sure of her motivation, but her biography is essential for anyone that is interested in knowing all of Charles Chesnuttís significant life events.

    As a point of analysis, point of view comes into play as a method of understanding and critiquing this piece of writing. As a biographer Helen Chesnutt writes her novel in the third person point of view, and it is not readily apparent that there is a familial relationship between the author and the subject. "Nellie loved to push the baby carriage up and down the street, for Dollie was a dear baby and attracted a great deal of attention." (Chesnutt, 64) Helen, referring to herself as Nellie, recalls a personal anecdote with an impersonal point of view. In this and other quotes the reader is exposed to aspects of the Helenís childhood; therein lies the opportunity for the author to reflect on Chesnutt as a father and a man. Who better to unmask this enigmatic persona than one of his own children? It seems, however, that a personal narrative was not Helen Chesnuttís goal in the rewriting her fatherís life, and she resists that connection with the subject of her novel. Her narrative reads more like an autobiography, had Chesnutt tried to write one before his death as Helen attempts to enter her fatherís psyche. She has the following description of his thoughts upon his departure for the North, "He began to have a conviction of guilt. Was it wrong of him to want to leave? But he closed his mind to all doubts and fears and kept on with his preparations." (Chesnutt, 32) In addition to attempting to reproduce Chesnuttís inner thoughts, she inserts primary sources of his opinions and beliefs in the form of his letters and journal entries.

    In the process of entering her fatherís inner workings and chronological history, Helen Chesnutt is biased in the documentation of her fatherís life. A clear sense of admiration comes across in her presentation of the image of Charles Chesnutt. For example, Helen states the following opinion regarding her fatherís trip to the North:

"It needed courage to make this decision. None of the people dearest to him approved of his going. Susan, whose third baby was expected in September, and her parents thought him very foolish. His three sisters were heartbroken; his pupils would not believe that he could desert them; his friends urged him to reconsider his decision. But Charles, moved by some inner force, resisted all appeals and submitted his resignation to the Board of Managers." (Chesnutt, 31) She does not begrudge her father going into the world to seek his fortune with his newfound skills, even though he would have been deserting her as a small child. His determination is respected and held up as a model for following oneís dreams. This line of reasoning leads to Helenís portrayal of Charles as a model father, probably the way Chesnutt wanted to view himself. "On Sunday afternoons, he and the little girls took a long walk, and now their Sunday walk became an adventure Ė they went exploring for a house. Every night Charles listened to the story of the dayís happenings. His evenings were devoted to the children." (Chesnutt, 47, 48) Helen Chesnutt selectively chooses which events of her childhood to share with her readership. The author sets the tone of Charles Chesnutt as a loving father and ambitious businessman and does not depart from that viewpoint. Also, Helen shares the fact that he would only begin writing when his children were safely tucked into bed. We are not privy to Helenís personalized view of the hardships the family endured. A glimpse of this familial world is shown through Chesnuttís letters, but greater attention is drawn to those elements that coincide with Helen Chesnuttís depiction of her own father.

    The conclusion of Charles Chesnuttís biography reads like an obituary or summary of the aforementioned authorís life. "Chesnutt enjoyed a rich, full life. He experienced in abundance the things that make life beautiful Ė aspiration, high endeavor, noted achievement, and widespread recognition; then disillusion, readjustment, service to mankind, the respect and affection of all who knew him, abiding love and devotion from every member of his family." (Chesnutt, 312) Helen continues on to speak of the many different religions, nationalities, and races of people who attended Charlesí funeral. It made her feel as if her fatherís dream had come to fruition, and true to the autobiographical nature of this narrative she ends with her fatherís own words from the story "The Web of Circumstance"

    Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be
    another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and
    when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years. (Chesnutt, 313)

We are left with the final sentiments of a man making his story known through the pen of his daughter. Her portrayal is historically accurate, detailed, though biased, and would make a welcome addition to any Chesnutt scholarís collection.

This page is the work of Michelle Salvaggio.

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