Crossing the Color Line

A look back at Charles Chesnutt and his pioneering African-American fiction

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.

William Dean Howells reviewed both collections for The Atlantic the following year, praising Chesnutt’s work, as

notable for the passionless handling of a phase of our common life which is tense with potential tragedy; for the attitude almost ironical, in which the artist observes the play of contesting emotions in the drama under his eyes; and for his apparently reluctant, apparently helpless consent to let the spectator know his real feeling in the matter.

In the course of lauding Chesnutt’s work for its social and literary merit, Howells unwittingly revealed that he, too, was not entirely free of the prejudices of the times. Referring to the kinds of characters—some of them mixed-race—who peopled Chesnutt’s stories, Howells wrote that “the writer dealt not only with the people who were not white, but with people who were not black enough to contrast grotesquely with white people.”

In spite of the racial barriers Chesnutt faced, the success of his two books allowed him, at least temporarily, to put aside the legal secretary business he had established and to devote full attention to his writing. With the encouragement of two Atlantic editors, Horace Scudder and Walter Page, he next wrote a novel, The House Behind the Cedars, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1900. The following year he published his controversial second novel, The Marrow of Tradition—a story of two half sisters, one black, one white, set in a fictionalized version of Wilmington, North Carolina during its 1898 race riots.

Chesnutt maintained his literary relationship with The Atlantic Monthly for almost 20 years. Over that time, he not only made a name for himself as an early voice in African-American literature but also contributed to the magazine’s reputation as a cultural space in which unknown and sometimes marginalized authors could explore some of America’s most challenging issues of the day.