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

Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997, 248 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by

William Gleason Princeton University

This copiously annotated edition of Charles Chesnutt's letters is the most significant Chesnutt resource to emerge since the publication of his journals by Duke University Press in 1993. It is also more than that: "To Be an Author"offers a fascinating case study of the racial dynamics of American authorship at the turn of the century, a story whose parameters we are only beginning to sketch. Focusing on Chesnutt's correspondence between 1889 and 1905 with his editors, mentors, and acquaintances, including such prominent figures as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and William Dean Howells, this volume illuminates not only the arc of Chesnutt's major phase but the evolution of his attitudes toward art and polemic, the disfranchisement of African American citizens, and the role of the public black intellectual.

Editors Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III, have divided the collection into six sections. Part I, "Cable's Protege in 1889-1901," gathers more than two dozen letters from Chesnutt to white writer and social reformer George Washington Cable, whose literary and commercial success the younger author hoped to emulate. Part II, "A Dream Deferred, 1891-1896," shows how difficult the attainment of that success would be. Here the silences tell the tale: After Houghton Mifflin in 1891 rejects Chesnutt's proposed collection of stories, the letters slow to a trickle and Chesnutt must at intervals assure others that he has not "ceased altogether to write." Part III, "Page's Protege in 1897-1899," details Chesnutt's reemergence on the national stage under the editorial mentoring of Walter Hines Page, culminating in Chesnutt's bringing three books to print in 1899: The Conjure Woman, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and his biography of Frederick Douglass. Part IV, "The Professional Novelist of 1899-1902," tracks the peak years of Chesnutt's success - the publication of The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901) - but also foreshadows his sudden decline, as Marrow fell well below sales expectations. Parts V ("Discontent in 1903-1904") and VI ("The Quest Renewed, 1904-1905") document Chesnutt's growing frustration with an indifferent reading public and his final attempt to attain the popular and critical acclaim he had set as his goal so many years before.

Scholars familiar with the secondary work on Chesnutt will have encountered excerpts from several of the letters in this volume before, many of which first appeared in Helen Chesnutt's 1952 biography of her father. But here the better-known letters appear not only in full but in the useful context of Chesnutt's extensive professional correspondence, giving a much fuller picture than we have yet had of the methods, motives, and moods of one of the turn-of-the-century's most important writers. The multiple agonies of revising "Rena Walden" throughout the 1890s until it finally saw light as The House Behind the Cedars, for example, are made painfully clear. So too do we see Chesnutt's energetic involvement in the minutiae of book promotion, as he suggests advertising strategies to his publishers, enlists networks of African American contacts to sell his books, and works to put copies in the hands of influential editors and reviewers of both races. (The earnestness of Chesnutt's commitment is suggested at times even in the dates of his letters: One long reply to Houghton Mifflin was penned on Christmas Day, 1899.) What these letters also make evident is Chesnutt's willingness, if not eagerness, to revise his work to suit the needs of his editors and audience. The account that the letters in Part III provide of the ordering and naming of his two short story collections, for example, suggests a writer not so much "achieving" authorship as having to negotiate, at every step, its terms.

The textual apparatus accompanying these letters is also of great value. Not only do McElrath and Leitz track down nearly every reference - making the book not simply an account of one man's literary aspirations but, in effect, a picture of an era's literary, social, and political nodes of connection - their notes quote extensively from letters received by Chesnutt and describe the significant draft emendations that he made to his own correspondence. This thus turns out to be a volume as interested in the exchange of ideas as it is in one writer's voice, and nowhere is that exchange more compelling than in Chesnutt's letters to Washington. These modulate from the cautious letters of 1900-1901, in which Chesnutt tries tactfully to ask for a word of public support for The Marrow of Tradition, to the more forceful letters of 1903-1904 - written after Marrow's weak sales had derailed Chesnutt's career - in which Chesnutt takes Washington sternly (and repeatedly) to task for his support of restrictions on black voting.

The force with which Chesnutt challenges Washington on political issues after 1902 might lead one to concur with the editors' framing thesis: that the "ultimate cause" of Chesnutt's demise as an author was a fatal shift in his writing from the "literary" to the "political." This is a point with which other readers may want to argue, however, presuming as it does a neater split between art and polemic than turn-of-the-century literary production would seem to allow. (Many of the letters suggest that Chesnutt himself viewed the two categories as inseparable.) Chesnutt scholars in particular may take issue with McElrath's and Leitz's claim that Chesnutt's early tales (such as "Dave's Neckliss") were principally "congenial, witty, and ingratiating" and that his writing became "politically oriented" only after he had begun corresponding with Cable. But these are matters well worth debating, shedding light as they do not only on Chesnutt's career but on our understanding of the complex social, literary, and political environment of early African American modernism, and as such this volume makes a valuable contribution to both projects.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gleason, William
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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