Literary Ancestors: Charles W. Chesnutt

“Read our literary ancestors. It is the quintessential path to becoming a better writer.”

–Jewell Parker Rhodes

I love a good short story. There’s nothing wrong with an extended work of fiction, but there’s something about the careful crafting of short stories that always gives me such a thrill. A few years ago in an African American literature course, I was introduced to the literary great and short story master that is Charles W. Chesnutt.

Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio, to free Black emigres. He was a brilliant storyteller and wrote fiction, plays, poems, and nonfiction, all of which centered around the diverse lives of African Americans. From 1899-1905, Chesnutt was considered one of the most influential and respected African American fiction writers in the United States. During this era, he published three collections of short stories and three novels.

The first short story I had the privilege of reading by Chesnutt was The Goophered Grapevine, which first appeared in The Atlantic’s August 1887 issue. This story completely blew me away. The Goophered Grapevine takes place in an enslaved south and features the famed trickster archetype character, native to African and African American folktales. The Goopherd Grapevine essentially follows the story of a white couple looking to buy a plantation; however, they arrive and learn from trickster, Uncle Julius, that a conjure woman has “goophered” (or conjured) the grapevines, making them inedible. If you want to find out how the rest of the story pans out, I’ll let you head over to The Atlantic to check it out.

What I love about Chesnutt’s work is that he was no stranger to exploring themes of folk magic, like in his 1899 short story collection, The Conjure Woman. He didn’t limit his work to these themes, however. I’ve also had the great pleasure of reading Chesnutt’s The Passing of Grandison, which again borrows from the trickster archetype. In The Passing of Grandison, a white male wishes to win a maiden’s love and thinks that in freeing an enslaved man named Grandison, she will believe him to be brave and honorable. He certainly frees Grandison, but to much surprise, Grandison returns to the plantation.

When I read of Grandison’s return, I was confused—and maybe even a bit angry with him. Why would any sane person return to slavery? All I’ll say is that Grandison was much more intelligent that I, or anyone else, was giving him credit for. If you’re interested in hearing how his story played out, you can read The Passing of Grandison here.

For me, Chesnutt is a noteworthy author because he acquired literary success in a time when it wasn’t exactly easy for African American authors. Further, even in his great success, he stayed true to his own roots (in more ways than one) by always highlighting African American themes and culture.

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