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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