This week, the life and works of Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932), the first African-American novelist to be published on a national scale, will be honored with the 31st edition stamp in the US Postal Service’s Black Heritage series.
Charles Chesnutt was born in Ohio and raised in North Carolina, but he found a literary home at The Atlantic Monthly. His work arrived in The Atlantic’s pages by way of the slush pile, the heap of unsolicited manuscripts in which the magazine’s editors occasionally discover publishable work. The Atlantic’s then-editor Thomas Aldrich came upon Chesnutt’s first submission—a short story about plantation life entitled “The Goophered Grapevine”—in 1887, and liked the piece so much that he not only ran the story, but also solicited more from this young, unknown writer. Several more short stories followed, in which Chestnutt drew on his knowledge of eastern North Carolina to illustrate both the hardships and the idiosyncrasies of the postbellum South.
In light of his success in The Atlantic, Chesnutt next approached Houghton Mifflin about publishing a collection of his short stories. In a bold move, Chesnutt, a light-skinned man who could easily have passed for white, pitched the would-be collection as “the first contribution by an American of acknowledged African descent to purely imaginative literature.” Houghton Mifflin at first declined to publish such a book, on the grounds that the public would not be receptive. But the positive reception to “The Wife of His Youth,” a story probing such difficult issues as race and class that appeared in The Atlantic in 1898, convinced Houghton Mifflin to move ahead with not just one, but two collections of his work, The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth.