“Passing” in a White Genre: Charles W. Chesnutt’s Negotiations of the Plantation Tradition in “The Conjure Woman”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-07-09 01:46Z by Steven

“Passing” in a White Genre: Charles W. Chesnutt’s Negotiations of the Plantation Tradition in “The Conjure Woman”

American Literary Realism, 1870-1910
Volume 27, Number 2 (Winter, 1995)
pages 20-36

Robert C. Nowatzki

When Charles Chesnutt’s collection of plantation tales The Conjure Woman was published in 1899, the immensely popular plantation tradition in fiction had become heavily codified and limited the formal and thematic possibilities of any new texts produced in that tradition. Thus, in writing The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt was largely restricted by the conventions of the plantation tradition in fiction. Yet he also had some limited success in transforming and critiquing the ideologies and conventions which informed that tradition. This essay focuses on the relations between The Conjure Woman, the plantation tradition in fiction, and late nineteenth-century beliefs regarding racial difference and racial relations. More specifically, my analysis examines Chesnutt’s use of the frame narrative device common in plantation fiction, as well as his depiction of the black storyteller, the contrast between his black storyteller and his white narrator, and his depictions of slavery. By analyzing these features of The Conjure Woman in the context of plantation fiction conventions and the predominant racial ideologies of the time, we can see how Chesnutt’s writing was determined by these ideologies and conventions, and conversely, how he was able to critique them.

The Conjure Woman and Its Predecessors

The Conjure Woman consists of seven stories: “The GoopheredGrapevine,” “Po’ Sandy,” “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare,” “The Conjurer’s…

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Mining the garrison of racial prejudice: The fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt and turn-of-the-century White racial discourse

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-07-09 01:22Z by Steven

Mining the garrison of racial prejudice: The fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt and turn-of-the-century White racial discourse

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
1995

Robert Carl Nowatzki

This dissertation analyzes the fiction of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932), the first black fiction writer published by a major American firm and widely reviewed and read by white critics and readers. My analysis focuses on the conflict between Chesnutt’s anti-racism and his attempt to make his critiques less threatening to his white publishers, critics, and readers. In order to demonstrate the ideological and discursive forces that Chesnutt resisted, I juxtapose his works with fiction and nonfiction prose by popular white authors and reviews of his work by white critics.

Chapter One provides the biographical, historical, ideological, and literary contexts of Chesnutt’s work. Each of the following five chapters examines one of Chesnutt’s books of fiction alongside literature by whites which deals with similar subjects and often expresses popular racist assumptions that Chesnutt’s fiction contests. Each chapter also demonstrates how white reviewers of his work often reiterated the racism that he resisted and dismissed him as a biased “Negro” author. Chapter Two interprets Chesnutt’s collection of plantation tales The Conjure Woman (1899) along with plantation fiction by Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris and pro-slavery nonfiction essays by Page and Philip Alexander Bruce. Chapter Three examines the treatment of miscegenation and depiction of mulattoes in Chesnutt’s collection of stories The Wife of His Youth (1899) in conjunction with anti-miscegenation literature by Page, Thomas Dixon, Jr., William Smith, and William Calhoun. Chapter Four focuses on the issue of passing and the “tragic octoroon” convention in Chesnutt’s novel The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and in novels by William Dean Howells, Gertrude Atherton, and Albion Tourg√©e. Chapter Five analyzes how Chesnutt’s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition critiques the black disfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence defended by Page, Dixon, Calhoun, Smith, and Bruce. Chapter Six interprets Chesnutt’s critique of sectional conflict and the “New South Creed” in his 1905 novel The Colonel’s Dream along with Henry Grady’s 1886 “New South” speech and literature by Tourgee, Harris, Page, Dixon, and Bruce. Chapter Seven briefly surveys the neglect and subsequent recovery of Chesnutt’s fiction since his death, and emphasizes the importance of studying his work in its historical, ideological, and literary contexts.

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