Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels [Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery on 2011-04-01 04:37Z by Steven

Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels [Review]

Rocky Mountain Review
Rocky Mountain Language Association
Volume 61, Number 1 (Spring 2007)
pages 41-43

Susana M. Morris, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University

Ryan Simmons. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. 198p.

Ryan Simmons’ Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels is a timely work that proposes a key paradigm shift in critical studies about Charles W. Chesnutt. Simmons argues that all too often Chesnutt is on the periphery of studies on realism when he should be considered as a major contributor to the genre, alongside William Dean Howells, Henry James, and others. Nonetheless, Simmons’ goal is not to simply judge Chesnutt against canonical white authors. Rather, Simmons contends that criticism should recognize Chesnutt for his challenge to white readers to reconsider their racial politics and his life-long career goal to determine the best way to sway an often indifferent mainstream audience. For Simmons, labeling Chesnutt as a realist is not posthumous classification, but rather a recognition of how Chesnutt viewed himself as a writer…

…Simmons explores the “tragic mulatta” in the posthumously released novella Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars and argues that while these texts may, on the surface, recycle the oft-told tragic nature of the mixed raced woman, they actually reveal a more complex negotiation about race, identity, and community. characters in these texts upset rigid classifications of race and, for Chesnutt, the very possibility of the passing motif illustrates both “cultural fluidity” and the fragility of the foundations of race-based discrimination (78). Thus, these works are part of Chesnutt’s mission to have his readers recognize that while they cannot change the history of slavery and oppression, they do have the power to not let these circumstances overdetermine their society’s future. While Simmons champions Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars as complex renderings of race, he does, however, finds fault with what he sees as Chesnutt’s inability to forward solutions to the problems that he documents. This critique is a running commentary for Simmons and he cites it as one of Chesnutt’s major critical shortcomings…

Read the entire review here.

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Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novel

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2011-04-01 04:18Z by Steven

Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novel

The University of Alabama Press
208 pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8173-1520-7
E-Book ISBN: 978-0-8173-8228-5

Ryan Simmons

An important examination of Charles Chesnutt as a practitioner of realism.
With the release of previously unpublished novels and a recent proliferation of critical studies on his life and work, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932) has emerged as a major American writer of his time—the age of Howells, Twain, and Wharton. In Chesnutt and Realism, Ryan Simmons breaks new ground by theorizing how understandings of literary realism have shaped, and can continue to shape, the reception of Chesnutt’s work.
Although Chesnutt is typically acknowledged as the most prominent African American writer of the realist period, little attention has been paid to the central question of this study: what does it mean to call Chesnutt a realist? A writer whose career was circumscribed by the dismal racial politics of his era, Chesnutt refused to conform to literary conventions for depicting race. Nor did he use his imaginative skills to evade the realities he and other African Americans faced. Rather, he experimented with ways of portraying reality that could elicit an appropriate, proportionate response to it, as Simmons demonstrates in extended readings of each of Chestnutt’s novels, including important unpublished works that have been overlooked by previous critics.
Chesnutt and Realism also addresses a curiously neglected subject in American literary studies—the relationship between American literary realism and race. By taking Chesnutt seriously as a contributor to realism, this book articulates the strategies by which one African American intellectual helped to define the discourses that influenced his fate.

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