Charles Waddell Chesnutt (June 20, 1858 – November 15, 1932) was an African American author and political activist best known for novels and short stories exploring racism and other social themes.
Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Jackson and Ann Maria (Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was a white slaveholder. Issues of miscegenation, "passing", and racial identity would influence his writing throughout his career.
Click here to read The Marrow of Tradition, by Charles Chesnutt, one of seven of his works available free from Project Gutenberg.
After the Civil War, the family returned to Fayetteville, where they ran a grocery store. Charles entered school at the age of eight, and at fourteen became a student-teacher to help support his family following his mother's death. He continued to study and teach, eventually becoming assistant principal of the normal school in Fayetteville.
In 1878, he married Susan Perry and moved to New York City, where he hoped to escape the prejudice and poverty of the South and pursue a literary career. After six months he moved back to Cleveland, where he studied for and passed the bar exam in 1887. He had also learned stenography as a young man in North Carolina, and he established a lucrative stenography business.
While living in Cleveland, he began writing stories, which appeared in various magazines, including Atlantic Monthly. His first book, The Conjure Woman, was published in 1899. He continued writing short stories, and a biography of Frederick Douglass. He also wrote several full-length novels and appeared on the lecture circuit.
Although his stories met with critical acclaim, poor sales of his novels doomed his literary career. He devoted himself to his business and, increasingly, to social and political activism. He served on the General Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Working side-by-side with W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, he became one of the era's most prominent activists and commentators. In 1928, he received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his life's work.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt died in 1932 and was interred in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.
Chesnutt's style and subject matter place him in the local color school of American writing, though various short stories (e.g., "The Wife of His Youth") border on realism. In its style, setting in the pre-war plantations of the South, and its use of dialect, The Conjure Woman is reminiscent of the works of Joel Chandler Harris, but differs in its pointed commentary on the institution of slavery. Set in a rapidly receding past, the stories were not calculated to challenge white readers' assumptions, especially since neither Chesnutt nor his publishers revealed his race.
The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a fictionalized account of the Wilmington Race Riot, marked a turning point for Chesnutt's writing. He began to speak out more directly on political issues, and confronted uncomfortable topics like racial "passing", lynching, and miscegenation. Many reviewers condemned the novel's overt politics, and even Chesnutt supporters like William Dean Howells openly regretted its raw and "bitter" tone. Middle-class white readers who had been the core audience for Chesnutt's earlier works found the novel's content shocking and even offensive, and it sold poorly.
The Harlem Renaissance eclipsed much of Chesnutt's remaining literary reputation. Regarded as an old-fashioned writer who sometimes pandered to racial stereotypes, Chesnutt was relegated to minor status. A long process of critical discussion and re-evaluation starting in the 1960s revived his reputation. In particular, critics have focused on his complex narrative technique, subtlety, and use of irony. Several of his novels have been published posthumously. In 2001, the Library of America added a major collection of Chesnutt's fiction and non-fiction to its series of important American authors.