"To Be an Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905

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Long eclipsed by the writers who later rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) has received a steadily increasing amount of attention since the 1960s. In what he termed the "Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem" phase of African-American cultural history, this pioneer in the world of black letters vied with Paul Laurence Dunbar for the honor of being the first to "evince innate distinction in literature." The major establishment critic of his day, William Dean Howells, recognized ...
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Overview

Long eclipsed by the writers who later rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) has received a steadily increasing amount of attention since the 1960s. In what he termed the "Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem" phase of African-American cultural history, this pioneer in the world of black letters vied with Paul Laurence Dunbar for the honor of being the first to "evince innate distinction in literature." The major establishment critic of his day, William Dean Howells, recognized Dunbar's poetry thus in 1896. But it was Chesnutt who won Howells's praise for prose fiction a few years later when The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth (1899) appeared. His other books, Frederick Douglass (1899), The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel's Dream (1905), have since secured his permanent place in the history of American belles lettres. Selected for inclusion in this first edition of Chesnutt's letters are those that best document the vibrant personality of a very successful Cleveland businessman who gave his free hours to the literary avocation that he had hoped would someday become his full-time career. Motivated as well by a desire to continue the noble work that the Abolitionists and Reconstruction Era reformers had begun, Chesnutt pursued the goal that he had announced in his journal years earlier in Fayetteville, N.C., before he emigrated to the North in 1883: he would not only demonstrate what African Americans were capable of intellectually but would, through his art, "elevate the whites" above ignoble prejudice against those of his racial background. By 1905 he had both succeeded and failed. To his mind he had reached the goal of transcending the earlier achievements of reform-novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Albion W. Tourgee. But such fame as Booker T. Washington's at the turn of the century eluded him. By late 1905, it was clear that his 1880s' dream of professional authors
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A thoughtful and energetic reader, Mizruchi produces some fine insights, particularly about the novels' production of complicity between their narrators and seemingly non-authorial characters and their thematization of narrative technique as a mode of power."—Nineteenth-Century Literature
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691036687
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/17/1997
  • Pages: 244
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Editorial Note
Introduction 3
Pt. I Cable's Protege in 1889-1891: An "Insider" Views the Negro Question 27
Pt. II A Dream Deferred, 1891-1896: The Businessman Prevails 73
Pt. III Page's Protege in 1897-1899: The Reemergence of the Artist and Prophet 95
Pt. IV The Professional Novelist of 1899-1902: Pursuit of the Dream 131
Pt. V Discontent in 1903-1904: A Turn to Argumentative Prose 177
Pt. VI The Quest Renewed, 1904-1905: Argumentative Art for an Indifferent Readership 211
Index 237
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