The Subtle (and a little-less-than-subtle) Humor of Charles Chesnutt
June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899. In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white. He wrote:
But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: ”while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.” The entire journal entry is printed below. But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.
When I have taught literature in the post-Civil War era, I teach Chesnutt at the end of a unit on plantation fiction. I start with Mark Twain’s “A True Story” (1874), which I argue is a crucial transition point in the shift from antebellum southern humor (especially of the “Old Southwest” or “Southern Frontier” tradition) and the local color fiction of the post-Reconstruction era. Framed by the stereotypical view of the black female servant as jolly and laughing, Twain’s story allows the black vernacular speaker, Rachel, to tell her own powerful and tragic story of slavery and her bittersweet tale of reunion. It also gives Rachel the last word, breaking the frame story with a powerful punchline (in the more violent sense of that word, possibly).
The local color tradition that developed after the Civil War, on the other hand, looked back on the antebellum era, and on the current state of affairs in the south, with a glow of nostalgia and the sanitized memory that accompanies rosy memories.
Of this latter tradition, I use Thomas Nelson Page’s “Marse Chan,” which was published first in the Century magazine in 1884 and then in In Ole Virginia (1887). These stories establish the prominent threads of Southern local color fiction: the problem of the color line, the relationship between an educated narrator/author and a black vernacular speaker, the essential humor of black characters, and the sentimentality of the genre. ”Marse Chan,” especially, works as an effective and affective example of the local color tale as a bulwark of Lost Cause sentiment–many readers are sucked in to the hogwash of sentimentality that lionizes the master and makes the subservience of his slave, Sam, seem natural and justified. The story also relies on the humor of Sam as a character–in his relation to the master’s dog and in his vernacular speech–to humanize his character and normalize the story.
This is the context in which Chesnutt’s stories of plantation life make sense. Most of these stories are to be found in The Conjure Woman in the character of “Uncle Julius.” I like to teach “The Goophered Grapevine,” in which the characters of Julius, John, and Anne are introduced and which sets up their dynamic. I also like “Po’ Sandy,” “Sis Becky’s Pickaninny,” and “Dave’s Neckliss” (the latter was not in the book, but features the same characters). These stories could be said to use the subtle humor–to lead white readers “unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling”–that Chesnutt desires.
But sometimes subtlety is hard to see or to teach, and critics–both black and white–have found fault in Chesnutt (and with Paul Laurence Dunbar) for their relationship to the plantation tradition. To some, Chesnutt’s decision to not directly attack or subvert the tradition might reinforce its ideology. I would caution against a belief that humor much satirize, attack, or assault in order to be effective. (See Sharon McCoy’s take on Dunbar here)
But since my students don’t always get subtle, I like to teach “The Passing of Grandison,” which appeared in TheWife of His Youth, but which fits thematically with the plantation tradition. Besides being a fun story to read, “Grandison” helps students to see more clearly Chesnutt’s stance on the plantation tradition, which is harder to clearly gather from the conjure stories. And while I like that the conjure stories consist of complex narrative interactions between author/narrator/vernacular narrator/audience (in terms of John and Annie, but also the reader), I also like that “Grandison” often tricks readers, who might not have read the conjure tales as closely as I would have liked, to first buy into the plantation stereotype of the docile slave and then uses that stereotype to make fools of the white characters (and possibly some readers).
Much like Twain’s “A True Story,” “The Passing of Grandison” is structured like a joke on its characters and on those readers who uncritically identify with those characters. Not as subtle, perhaps, but sometimes the ideologies of the Lost Cause, and/or the habits of lazy reading, need a more direct assault.
Fifteen years of life in the South, in one of the most eventful eras of its history; among a people whose life is rich in the elements of romance; under conditions calculated to stir one’s soul to the very depths; —I think there is here a fund of experience, a supply of material, which a skillful pers[on] could work up with tremendous effect. Besides, If I do write, I shall write for a purpose, a high, holy purpose, and this will inspire me to greater effort. The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites, —for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it. Not a fierce indiscriminate onslaught; not an appeal to force, for this is something that force can but slightly affect; but a moral revolution which must be brought about in a different manner. The Abolition[ist]s stirred up public opinion in behalf of the slave, by appealing in trumpet tones to those principles of justice and humanity which were only lying dormant in the northern heart. The iron hand of power set the slave free from personal bondage, and by admitting him to all the rights of citizenship—the ballot, education—is fast freeing him from the greater bondage of ignorance. But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
This work is of a twofold character. The negro’s part is to prepare himself for social recognition and quality; and it is the province of literature to open the way for him to get it—to accustom the public mind to the idea: and while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling. If I can do anything to further this work, and can see any likelihood of obtaining success in it, I would gladly devote my life to the work.
—May 29, 1879
From book reviews:
“Mr. Chesnutt’s familiarity with negro life and manners is of that sympathetic stamp that gives a story the mark of realistic and faithful portraiture. In these stories the humorous characteristics that are so firmly ingrained in the very nature of the negro, are brought out in a simple and very effective way. In the use of the pathetic elements, Mr. Chesnutt shows himself to be singularly convincing. “
–”Tales of Negro Life” in “Reviews of Many New Books that are Well Worth Reading,” Worchester Evening Gazette 11 Dec. 1899: 4.
“Of the nine short stories gathered together in the volume entitled “The Wife of His Youth,” it is difficult to say which appeals most searchingly to the intelligent and fair-minded readers. Charles W. Chesnutt, limits himself to studies of “the color line”-one might rather say, broadens out into such studies. Sympathy and dignity of presentation mark his work, while his stories are always entertaining, apart form their underlying purpose. In “The Passing of Grandison,” an apparently humorous study comes to a conclusion more forcible than droll. (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.)”
–Review of The Wife of His Youth. In: “Books and Authors,” The Living Age, vol. 223 (16 December 1899): 733.
“Mr. Chesnutt has made a distinct mark in recent fiction. His earlier book was of a quality which compelled attention. This volume of short stories is less distinctly original, but is full of close and humorous studies of negro character portrayed with humor and pathos.”
–Review of The Wife of His Youth. In: “Books of the Week,” Outlook, vol. 63, (16 December 1899): 935.
“The various types of the race are well portrayed, and the high ideals of the author would inculcate are in striking contrast to the “coon” propensities with which fiction and the stage have made us so familiar. (Houghton, Mifflin & Co, Boston. $1.50.)”
–Rev. of The Wife of His Youth in “Notes on New Books,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat 16 Dec. 1899: 13.
“…his stories are not without gleams of good-humored satire. But it is always genial, or with a genial undertone, while the really sterling qualities of the race are thrown into much higher relief, and there is always a strong and deep sympathy with the blood held for centuries in bondage. Some of the stories illustrate the profound pathos of the situation growing out of our system of slavery, but they rarely, probably never, present anything that can fairly be called offensive, recognizing, as the author appears tacitly to do, that for many years the system was an inheritance, and so free from moral responsibility, to the whites as truly as to the black.”
–”Stories of the Color Line.” Review of The Wife of His Youth. In: “Current Literature,” The Chicago Chronicle 2 January 1900: 10.
“In these stories we have a variation of most of the methods employed by American story-tellers in handling the characterizations of our colored population, either before or since their emancipation, from a humorous or a pathetic point of view, and one that is so striking and so novel that it may fairly be called a new departure in Afro-American fiction, or a fine and wise departure in art, since, instead of trying on the one hand to move our compassion for the negro, because we have inflicted so much suffering on his race in the past, or, on the other hand, to study and enjoy him, because he is such a comical, laughable, creature, so childlike and irresponsible–it simply aims to interest us in him as an individual human being, without regard to the straightness or kinkyness of his hair, or the amount of nigritude in the color of his skin. The art of Mr. Chesnutt in these stories is so fine, so elusive, so shadowy, and yet so sincere and real, that one is compelled to feel it, and remember it, without quite understanding it.”
–Rev. of The Wife of his Youth in “New Books and New Editions,” Book News [Philadelphia] 18 (Jan. 1900): 305.
“It is one of the hideous inconsistencies of social conditions in this country, and one that never ceases to appall the thoughtful, that there are white, as well as black negroes. In several of the stories Mr. Chesnutt touches upon the tragedy of this fact, though never in a sensational or melodramatic fashion. The stories have humor and pathos, but neither emotion grows out of the fact that the personages are other than men and women.”
–Rev of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color line in “Books and Writers,” The Brooklyn Daily Times 3 Feb 1900: 15.
“Mr. Chesnutt finds his field in the life of the negro, and writes as one who knows that life at first hand, and who is able to comprehend and interpret it both on the side of humor and of tragedy, because he has to a certain extent shared its fortune. In “The Conjure Woman” he presented a series of studies in the old-time supersititions of the plantation negro; the darkest side of the life of slavery; reminiscences of barbaric religions brought from beyond the sea. Some of these stories are humourous; none of them lacks those quiet touches of humor which are so characteristics of the negro character; but they are also full of side-lights on the tragedy of slave life–a tragedy which is brought into more striking relief because it comes out, so to speak, incidentally and by the way.”
–Mabie, Hamilton Wright. “Two Novelists.” The Outlook, 4 February 1900.
“There is no arraignment of the white race, no effort whatever to fix responsibility for present difficult conditions, only a careful and artistic portrayal of some of those conditions and of the results to which they may lead. Some of the stories, as “A Matter of Principle,” “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” and “The Passing of Grandison” show the same vein of humor that runs through the “Conjure Woman”; others are intensely somber in their dealing with the worst phases of the Negro question, notably “The Sheriff’s Children” and “A Web of Circumstance.” In the others neither humor nor tragedy is predominant, only the simple pathos that we see in everyday homely virtues and emotions, called out by hard, or new and untried conditions.”
–Rev. of The Wife of His Youth in “Book Reviews,” The Southern Workman 29 (Feb. 1900): 121-22.
“ Yet these stories, after all, are Mr. Chesnutt’s most important work, whether we consider them merely as realistic fiction, apart from their author, or as studies of that middle world of which he is naturally and voluntarily a citizen. We had known the nethermost world of the grotesque and comical negro and the terrible and tragic negro through the white observer on the outside, and black character in its lyrical moods we had known from such an inside witness as Mr. Paul Dunbar; but it had remained for Mr. Chesnutt to acquaint us with those regions where the paler shades dwell as hopelessly, with relations to ourselves, as the blackest negro. …With Mr. Booker Washington the first American orator of our time, fresh upon the time of Frederick Douglass; with Mr. Dunbar among the truest of our poets; with Mr. Tanner, a black American, among the only three Americans from whom the French government ever bought a picture, Mr. Chesnutt may well be willing to own his color.”
(c) 2012, Tracy Wuster