Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt.
In addition to a number of useful references and accessible resources, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt comprises twenty-one concise essays that offer clear insights into Chesnutt's life and work and provide classroom strategies for helping undergraduate and graduate students get the most out of reading Chesnutt's fiction. The volume's editors re-introduce Chesnutt not only as a gifted author but also as a reflective teacher and "a great ethical thinker" (22-23)--one whose questions continue to prick the consciences of present-day readers. The writers of the volume's essays, in turn, provide frameworks teachers can adopt or adapt to make these questions immediate and compelling to students.
The volume is broken up into two parts. The first, much shorter part, "Materials," includes a brisk literary biography with accompanying chronology, a survey and evaluation of available editions of Chesnutt's work, and a comprehensive list of Chesnutt archives useful to scholars and teachers alike. The great strength of the collection, however, is its second part, "Approaches," which is remarkable for the diversity, novelty, and insightfulness of approaches to teaching Chesnutt it contains. The essays that comprise this part break neatly into two categories: those that outline specific strategies for teaching Chesnutt's works, and those that describe the experiences of instructors who have introduced Chesnutt to students in a variety of contexts. The former offer scripted approaches to, and immediately accessible resources for, instructors of all experience levels to use in their classrooms; the latter elaborate upon the contingencies that can and do affect students' interpretation and appreciation of Chesnutt's work. Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories, as the teaching strategies we employ are affected by the same issues of positionality that shape students' perspectives and, by extension, their approaches to an author like Chesnutt. The effect is complementary, and befitting of Chesnutt's complexity.
The variety of subjects covered in the "Approaches" section is dazzling, especially considering the brevity of the book that contains them. In addition to several essays that examine Chesnutt as an historian, cultural critic, and/or political theorist, the list of topics covered includes: Chesnutt's use of dialect and the challenges it poses for present-day readers; his uncanny use of physical settings to formalize Reconstruction-era asymmetrical power relations; Chesnutt's spectral figuration of race and its corollary, the weight of blackness; the editorial policies that (re)shaped The Conjure Woman; Chesnutt's deep, symbolic connection to gothic literature; his portrayal of enslaved black women as spiritually and/or supernaturally powerful (in contrast to the tactically sentimental tropes of narratives written by enslaved women necessitated by editorial policies committed to centering whiteness); his examination and portrayal of the limits of education in a racist society; the intersectional applicability of disability studies and critical race theory to the study of Chesnutt's fiction; the imbrication of allusions to Ivanhoe in Chesnutt's novel The House behind the Cedars; the receptiveness of Chesnutt's House to a host of interpretive methodologies learned in introductory theory courses; Chesnutt's neo-Baudrillardian delineation of the precession of racial simulacra in House; his interrogation of prevailing notions of, as well as figures for, justice in The Marrow of Tradition; the relevance of Chesnutt's cartographies of power to the US-Mexico borderlands; and his anticipation of the discourses of whiteness studies in The Colonel's Dream.
As someone who has written at some length about Chesnutt's House and Marrow and has been teaching Chesnutt's fiction at the undergraduate and graduate levels for the last thirteen years, I was delighted to encounter strategies in this volume that I'd never even considered before. Especially rewarding in this regard is William Gleason's "Visualizing the Landscape of Slavery: Architecture and the Built Environment in the Conjure Stories," which provides a lesson plan for using actual plantation maps to reconstruct the racial cartographies of Chesnutt's most popular stories. I've been teaching these stories almost every semester since I joined the faculty of my institution, and I've taken similar place-based approaches to other authors before, but I never put two and two together! Gleason's essay convinced me that I have to try this in future iterations of my American Literature and African American Literature survey courses. Another highlight (among many) is Shirley Moody-Turner's "Teaching Whiteness, Folklore, and the Discourses of Race in The Colonel's Dream," which, in addition to framing whiteness studies in a way that makes its goals and methods accessible to undergraduate students, keenly illustrates the crosstalk between folklore studies and critical race theory. All three essays on The Colonel's Dream convinced me that this is a text I must teach in a future upper-division American Literature course.
I do have some minor--and I do mean minor--quibbles with the collection. First, I believe that the two essays on Chesnutt's use of dialect by Jeffrey W. Miller and Mary E. Brown Zeigler overemphasize the claim that Chesnutt was aiming primarily for verisimilitude, authenticity, or realism in his rendering of dialect(s). This assertion militates against their broader--and more compelling--claims that differences in dialect in Chesnutt's fiction signify more than any particular dialect, no matter how it is rendered. I also think Miller's suggestion to recite examples of Chesnutt's dialect in class could backfire in a number of ways, especially at majority-white institutions like my own and/or with white teachers like me. Chesnutt may have been burlesquing the plantation tradition with gusto, but his brilliance as a satirist doesn't excuse the kind of "claiming" that my performance of the part of Julius McAdoo would entail. Second, Ryan Simmons's otherwise excellent essay on teaching The House behind the Cedars in an introductory theory course doesn't offer a particularly convincing rationale for why the novel is uniquely suited to the task of introducing critical methodologies to undergraduate students. That is, Simmons expertly shows how one could use Chesnutt's novel to introduce students to literary theory without showing why one should use House for this task, aside from arguing that "the relative lack of published scholarship on the novel compared with other texts frequently used in literary theory courses, afford[s] students the opportunity to practice building their own theoretical applications unhindered by the weight of established interpretations" (107). Finally, there is nothing to be found in the collection about teaching Chesnutt's posthumously published novel The Quarry. Admittedly, this was a selfish desire of mine, as I read the novel upon its publication in 1999 and was disappointed by it (1 was also disappointed to be disappointed). I will readily admit The Quarry is neither representative of Chesnutt's genius nor an especially teachable text, but I was hoping someone could convince me otherwise.
The bottom line: this collection is intended for, and invaluable to, college instructors who teach or plan to teach the works of Charles W. Chesnutt. Whether you are new to teaching Chesnutt or are a seasoned teacher of his oeuvre, you will find resources and approaches to enrich your and your students' appreciation of the author's work.
MICHAEL GERMANA, West Virginia University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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