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

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 ...
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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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"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)

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To Be an Author

Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1889â?"1905


By Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Robert C. Leitz III

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03668-7



CHAPTER 1

CABLE'S PROTÉGÉ IN 1889–1891

* * *

An "Insider" Views the Negro Question

* * *

I am under the impression that a colored writer of literature is something that editors and the public would be glad to recognize and encourage.


George Washington Cable

* * *

Jan'y 10, 1889

My Dear Mr. Cable:—

I have written something on the Negro question, which at your kind suggestion, I enclose to you herewith. I do not know that there are any new ideas in it, or that the old ones are expressed with sufficient originality to merit attention. I have tried to write it as well as I could, with the limited time I have been able to devote to it, though I am painfully aware that it could be improved upon. Perhaps there are some things in it which you may not think it wise to publish. I have kept pretty closely to your view of the subject, as I understand it, which seems to me the correct one; and I have doubtless, and unavoidably, trenched upon ground which you have covered. I have indicated by pencil marks on the margin certain passages which it occurs to me you might think better left unsaid; and I am quite willing to accept your advice and suggestions. This is my first attempt at a serious composition of this description, and I would not have ventured to trouble you with it, but for your friendly offer, of which I trust you have not since repented. The difficulty I meet with in writing upon this question is not a dearth of ideas, but rather a superabundance of them, and it is quite possible that I have written too long an article.

If you can place the enclosed (in its present shape, or with such emendations as you may suggest, or choose to make in the way of omissions), where it will be read, I will feel that I have tried to do something in a good cause.

There could hardly be any question that the writer of such an article is a colored man; and it has been suggested to me by a gentleman of some literary standing and authority, that a knowledge of that fact would adversely affect my chances for literary success. I hardly think so, for I am under the impression that a colored writer of literature is something that editors and the public would be glad to recognize and encourage. I may be mistaken, but if your opinion agrees with mine, I am not afraid to make a frank avowal of my position, and to give the benefit of any possible success or reputation that I may by hard work win, to those who need it most.

As the reading of my MS will occupy a good deal of your time, I will not trouble you with a longer letter, but remain

Very respectfully yours, Chas. W Chesnutt.


George Washington Cable

* * *

Feb'y 2, 1889

My Dear Mr. Cable:—

MS. received, with accompanying note. I have adopted your suggestions literally, and have given the paper the title last suggested by you. I have only to look at the re-written MS. to see that your cuts have enhanced the dignity and effectiveness of the paper, and thereby more than compensated for any loss made by the excisions.

I will forward you in a few days several type-written copies of the MSS., of which you are at liberty to make any use you may see fit.

Thanks for the criticisms contained in your marginal notes: they will be of value to me in other ways than in connection with this article. I return the MS. herewith, and hope to be able at some time, to express to you in person my thanks for your favors to me.

Very respectfully yours, Chas. W Chesnutt.


George Washington Cable

* * *

February 12, 1889

My Dear Mr. Cable:—

I enclose herewith three copies of "The Negro's Answer to the Negro Question" as per your suggestion.

I would have sent them sooner, but have really not had time to write them until now. I shall be very glad to have you place them where they may possibly do some good.

Professor Scarborough, of Wilberforce University (a colored institution of this state), and the author of a series of Greek textbooks published by A. S. Barnes & Co. of New York, if I am not mistaken, has an article in the March Forum I have not read it yet, and do not know what it is about, but I mention the fact because the Professor is a Negro, and a full-blooded one at that; perhaps you know him already—he is a scholar and a gentleman.

The article by Professor Wright of Berea College in the last Independent but one, I believe, was a good one; and the Negro question, I am convinced, will become a more and more prominent subject of discussion until there is a radical departure at the South in the right direction.

Very respectfully yours, Chas. W Chesnutt


George Washington Cable

* * *

Feb'y 22/89

My Dear Mr. Cable:—

I return herewith Mr. Metcalf's letter. I appreciate his words of commendation, and am sorry he could not accept the article. I shall read Prof. Scarborough's article with interest, and revise my MSS. in view of it I was thinking that the title of my article, "The Negro's Answer &rc," might sound rather large in view of the fact that Scarborough is, I presume, speaking in the same character: but I can tell better when I have read his paper. If you succeed with the Century, I shall regard it as a very good change from the Forum. I presume the Century is read by ten people to the Forum's one.

The "Symposium" in this week's Independent is a revelation to me, and confirms me in a theory I have had for some time, i.e., that just about the time that the Negro got ready to assert himself and demand his rights, he would find nothing to do—the white people would have done it all. The most encouraging thing about it all is that these men are the teachers of the white youth of the South. The influence of one Haygood, or Baskervill, extending over a long period of time and acting upon receptive and plastic minds, will more than offset the fervid rhetoric of a score of Gradys and Eustises and Morgans, and I more than suspect that your example and your influence have done more than any other one thing to stimulate the growth of the school of thought represented by the Independent's Symposium.

Very truly yours— Chas. W Chesnutt.

I am glad that you asked Scarborough to write. I think there is a good deal of latent talent, literary and otherwise, among the colored people of this country, which needs only a decent degree of encouragement and recognition to stimulate it to activity.

Yours &c., C.W.C.

George Washington Cable

* * *

March 1, 1889

My dear Mr Cable—

I have read Prof Scarborough's article in the March Forum He has a clear grasp of the situation, his article is well written, though it might have had a little more fervor I don't believe that emigration to the West will do the Negroes in the South a great deal of good, for the reason that those who go will probably be the most advanced of them instead of the lowest, and it is not difficult to foresee the effect upon a people of a steady drain of its best blood While Scarborough and I have written on the same subject, and our views upon it are substantially the same, I am not able to see, at first glance at least, that we have treated any special topic identically I will go over it more carefully, however; and if, as sponsor to my essay, you have time or inclination to make any further suggestions in regard to it, they will be gratefully received and respectfully considered

Thanks for the Open Letter pamphlet containing Dr. Haygood's Reply to Eustis; I shall endeavor to send Mr. Baskervill a number of such names as are desired.

Very truly yours, Chas. W. Chesnutt


George Washington Cable

* * *

March 4th, 1889

My dear Mr. Cable—

Permit me to trouble you long enough to read this letter, in regard to a personal matter.

I have been chiefly employed, during the past two years, as a stenographic reporter in the courts of this county, intending to use this business as a means of support while awaiting the growth of a law practice, there being reasons why this process might be a little slower in my case than in some others. But by a very natural process, the thing I have given most time to has hindered instead of helping that which it was intended to assist As a consequence I have built up a business, almost entirely as a stenographer, which brought me in last year an income of two thousand dollars

But there is a bill pending in the legislature of this State (it has already passed one house) for the appointment of two official stenographers for this county There are five or six men now engaged in doing this court work, and probably all of these will be applicants for these positions I have perhaps more than a fighting chance—certainly that—for one of them If I should secure it, it would pay a salary of $1500 a year, with fees to the probable amount of $1000 or $1500 more, and it would in all probability occupy fully all my time

In the event of a failure on my part to apply for or to secure one of these appointments, I shall be compelled to turn my attention to other fields of labor And my object in writing to you is to inquire your opinion as to the wisdom or rashness of my adopting literature as a means of support

I am aware that I am perhaps asking you a question, an answer to which you have very meager data to base upon, and I realize that I am perhaps presuming on a very slight acquaintance with a busy man But I will risk the latter, and say as to the former, that I can turn my hand to several kinds of literary work—can write a story, a funny skit, can turn a verse, or write a serious essay, and I have heretofore been able to dispose of most that I have written, at prices which fairly compensated me for the time spent in writing them, as compared with what I could have earned in the same time at something else I have even written a novel, though I have never had time to revise it for publication, nor temerity enough to submit it to a publisher I have a student's knowledge of German and French, can speak the former, and could translate either into grammatical English, and I trust into better English than many of the translations which are dumped upon the market

I am also impelled to this step by a deep and growing interest in the discussion and settlement of the Southern question, and all other questions which affect the happiness of the millions of colored people in this country But life is short, and any active part that one would take in this matter ought to be begun, it seems to me, while something of the vigor and hopefulness of youth remains I am only 31, but time flies rapidly It seems to me that there is a growing demand for literature dealing with the Negro, and for information concerning subjects with which he is in any manner connected, his progress in the United States, in Brazil, in the West Indies, in South America, and in other lands, the opening up of Africa—it seems to me that in these subjects there is a vast field for literary work, and that the time is propitious for it, and it seems to me a field in which a writer who was connected with these people by ties of blood and still stronger ties of sympathy, could be facile princeps, other things being equal, or in which such a wnter of very ordinary powers could at least earn a livelihood

If I could earn twelve or fifteen hundred dollars a year at literature, or in some collateral pursuit which would allow me some time to devote to letters, I think I should be willing to undertake it in any event, and certainly in the event of my failure to apply for or to secure one of the appointments above referred to. If from your own experience and knowledge of the literary life you think it likely that I could make a success in it, or if you know or hear of any such employment as I have suggested, and will take the trouble to write to me upon the subject, I will be under greater obligations to you than I am already.

Yours very truly, Chas. W. Chesnutt.


George Washington Cable

* * *

April 10, 1889

My dear Mr. Cable:—

Your two letters were duly received, also Symposium pamphlet. I have been very busy since my return to Cleveland, which must be my excuse for not having written to you sooner.

I enclose several type-writer copies of excerpts from pamphlet. There are not many short sentences in the symposium. I suspect I have written too much, but that is a defect easily remedied. There are other good things, which could not be used, at least some of them, without garbling them. I have written in one copy the name of the author of each group of sentiments; if you do not desire to quote names, of course they can be rubbed out and the copy used. If I had not already delayed this so long I would try to write a suitable introductory paragraph, but I think perhaps you would prefer to do that, as you said nothing about it in your letter

I have not yet succeeded in procuring you any engagements in this part of the country I am writing to several parties to-day, and shall ask them for immediate replies

I have not yet decided upon my plans for the Summer, in any event, it will be impossible for me to come to Northampton before the Summer As to whether I can come then, or move to Northampton permanently, I must have some further time to consider I fully realize the importance of the work, and would like nothing better, personally, than to be in it In any event, I shall devote more or less time to it In the meantime, do not let yourself be embarrassed for want of proper assistance on my account Whatever you can send me here to do, I will gladly give precedence, wherever possible, over my other work

I will send you later in the day, or to-morrow, a list of names for the OLC pamphlets Shall I see your "Haunted House in Royal Street" in the Century soon?

Very truly yours, Chas W Chesnutt


George Washington Cable

* * *

May 3, 1889

My dear Mr Cable —

I regret to say that, after mature deliberation, I have reached the conclusion that I could not afford to come to Northampton for any sum which, judging from the figures you have already mentioned, you would probably feel justified in offering me The contingency which immediately inspired my first letter to you did not happen—that is, the appointment of official stenographers—so that my business is not affected in that direction My earnings, for the month just ended, as per memorandum lying before me, are just $250 65 I have just made a change in my business which will, I hope, enable me to increase the income from it with less work on my part individually So you will see that even $1200 00 or $1500 00 a year would, in comparison, be a sacrifice of half my income—a sacrifice which I, personally, would not hesitate to make, in view of the compensating advantages, but which my duty to my family, and other considerations which would perhaps not interest you, constrain me not to make

I hope, however, to still do what I can in the good cause of human rights, and am not likely to grow lukewarm in it, for if no nobler motive inspired me, my own interests and those of many who are dear to me are largely at stake But I hope still to find opportunities, and I shall write and speak and act as occasion may require

I have written to the North American Review asking for something definite in regard to the acceptance of my article, but have as yet received no answer

I enclose you a list of names of gentlemen who will be valuable additions to the list of those to whom Open Letter Club pamphlets are sent

My office arrangements are now such that I can give prompt attention to copying other work, and as I have already said, you can command me for assistance in anything where distance will not be too great an obstacle Reiterating my regret at feeling forced to the conclusion I have reached, I remain

Very respectfully yours, Chas W Chesnutt

PS Please note the change of address

CWC


George Washington Cable

* * *

May 24, 1889

My dear Mr. Cable:—

The North American Review, after keeping my essay on the Negro Question an unconscionably long time under the circumstances, has returned it with the usual polite regrets. I fear the public, as represented by the editors of the leading magazines, is not absolutely yearning for an opportunity to read the utterances of obscure colored writers upon the subject of the Negro's rights; a little of it I suspect goes a long way.

I see from the papers that the chapter of Southern outrages is not yet complete, but the work of intimidating voters and killing prominent negroes on trumped-up charges (the true character of which is not discovered until after the killing) still goes merrily on.

Your story of Salome Miller was very interesting, and yet one could not help thinking, while reading it, what a still more interesting work of fiction might have been made of it. I suppose the story of "The Haunted House in Royal Street" will soon appear. I hope you have secured a good secretary, and still regret that circumstances would not permit me to serve you in that capacity.

Very truly yours, Chas. W Chesnutt.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from To Be an Author by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Robert C. Leitz III. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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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