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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932
Frederick Douglass
Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899.


Charles Waddell Chesnutt, perhaps the most influential African American writer of fiction at the turn of the twentieth century, was born June 20, 1858 to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anna Maria Sampson, free mixed-race African Americans living in Cleveland, Ohio. Chesnutt moved with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1866 and later attended the Howard School there. An apt student who read extensively, Chesnutt became a pupil-teacher at age fourteen, initiating a decade-long career as a schoolteacher in Charlotte and Fayetteville. Having grown increasingly frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, Chesnutt moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. He opened a successful stenography business and passed the Ohio bar exam in 1887. In September 1899 Chesnutt closed his stenography firm, hoping to focus full time on his writing; however, lagging book sales forced him to reopen the business in 1901. He died in Cleveland in 1932.

Between 1899 and 1905, Chesnutt published the bulk of his writing, including two collections of short stories and three novels. Significantly, Chesnutt was the first African American writer whose texts were published predominantly in leading periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly and The Outlook and by major publishers, including Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday. 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) led to the 1900 publication of his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, was published a year later in 1901. Neither The Marrow of Tradition nor Chesnutt's final novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), sold well. Consequently, his later publications were limited 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.

The abundant critical scholarship on Chesnutt's literary corpus has focused almost exclusively on his fiction. Yet in November 1899, Chesnutt published the biography, Frederick Douglass, a volume in Small Maynard's popular series, Beacon Biographies of Eminent Americans. Just as Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was the first African American treated in the series, so Chesnutt, as his biographer, was the first African American contributor. In researching and writing the biography, Chesnutt draws primarily on Douglass's three autobiographies as well as other works documenting the efforts of prominent figures in the American antislavery movement, including William Lloyd Garrison.

Throughout Frederick Douglass, Chesnutt adopts a celebratory tone, commemorating this "self-made man" as a brilliant orator and intellectual. This brief introduction to the life of Frederick Douglass opens with his birth in slavery and provides a short account of his escape to New York disguised as a sailor. After recounting Douglass's veritable act of self-naming, Chesnutt moves to Douglass's career as a lecturer on the antislavery circuit and his relationship with William Lloyd Garrison. In 1845, following the publication of his narrative, Douglass sailed to England, where he spent two years giving lectures on slavery and temperance throughout Great Britain. While in England, Mrs. Ellen Richardson secured funds for his legal manumission from Hugh Auld. When Frederick Douglass returned to the United States in April 1847, he was a free man with plans to establish and run his own antislavery newspaper. In December that same year, Douglass began printing and editing the North Star. The biography also describes Douglass's political activism and his work for African American civil liberties. In 1860, Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed to various committees (such as the Santo Domingo Commission in 1870) by Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, among others. Interestingly, Chesnutt only cursorily addresses some of the more controversial aspects of Douglass's life, including his public fallout with Garrison, his relationships with Julia Griffiths and John Brown, and his marriage to a white woman, Helen Pitts, in 1884. He overlooks entirely charges that Douglass distanced himself from his people or that his own affluence left him unsympathetic to his poorer brethren. Following descriptions of the many monuments and statues erected in Douglass's honor, Chesnutt closes with a Theodore Tilton poem that celebrates this "peer of princes, . . . the noblest Slave that ever God set free."

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

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris, eds., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Andrews, William L., Introduction, Frederick Douglass by Charles Chesnutt, Ed. Ernestine W. Pickens, Atlanta: Clark Atlanta University Press, 2001, xix-xxxvi; 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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