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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932
The Conjure Woman
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.

Summary

On June 20, 1858, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anna Maria Sampson, free African Americans living in Cleveland, Ohio. The Chesnutt family remained in Cleveland until 1866 and then moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Chesnutt first worked in Charlotte and Fayetteville as a schoolteacher, a career he began as a pupil-teacher at age fourteen. Having grown frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, he moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. After passing the Ohio bar in 1887, he opened a successful stenography business. The publication of "The Goophered Grapevine" (later to become the first story in The Conjure Woman) in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1887 inaugurated Chesnutt's influential literary career.

The publication of two collections of short stories and three novels between 1899 and 1905 helped establish Charles Chesnutt as the most prominent African American fiction writer during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The popular and critical success of his short stories in The Conjure Woman (March 1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (fall 1899) set the stage for the 1900 publication of his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars. Chesnutt's second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, was published a year later in 1901. Neither The Marrow of Tradition nor his final novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), sold well. Consequently, his later publications were reduced to the occasional short story. In 1928, Charles Chesnutt was awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in recognition of his literary achievements.

Published in 1899 by Houghton Mifflin, Chesnutt's first book, The Conjure Woman, was a collection of seven short stories, all set in "Patesville" (Fayetteville), North Carolina. While drawing from local color traditions and relying on dialect, Chesnutt's tales of conjuring, a form of magic rooted in African hoodoo, refused to romanticize slave life or the "Old South." Though necessarily informed by Joel Chandler Harris's popular Uncle Remus stories and Thomas Nelson Page's plantation fiction, The Conjure Woman consciously moved away from these models, instead offering an almost biting examination of pre- and post-Civil War race relations.

These seven short stories use a frame narrator, John, a white carpetbagger who has moved south to protect his wife Annie's failing health and to begin cultivating a grape vineyard. Enamored by remnants of the plantation world, John portrays the South in largely idealistic terms. Yet Uncle Julius McAdoo, the ex-slave and "trickster" figure extraordinaire who narrates the internal storylines, presents a remarkably different view of southern life. His accounts include Aun' Peggy's conjure spells in "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Po' Sandy," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," and "Hot Foot Hannibal" as well as those of free black conjure men in "The Conjurer's Revenge" and "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt." These conjure tales reveal moments of active black resistance to white oppression in addition to calculated (and even self-motivated) plots of revenge.

See also the entry for Charles W. Chesnutt from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Introduction, Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line by Charles W. Chesnutt, Ed. William L. Andrews, New York: Penguin Books, 1992, vii-xvii; Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris, eds., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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