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Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt.

Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. 306 pp. $49.00.

Charles W. Chesnutt's career demonstrates that the myth of the talented artist who is not fully appreciated in his own time has a real basis in fact, especially if the artist in question is African American.

It was not always that way, as Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt documents. Early contemporary reviews of his short story collections praised the "high literary quality of his work" and predicted that readers "shall hear from Mr. Chesnutt more fully ... in future work." W.D. Howells praised Chesnutt's early stories, writing that "one of the places at the top is open to him." But with the publication of The Marrow of Tradition (1901) Howells expressed some reservations about the literary quality of that work, and the publication of The Colonel's Dream (1905) marked the end of Chesnutt's literary career. The author lived for another twenty-five years and continued to write for his own enjoyment, but he had given up his dream of supporting himself by his art.

Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., has set out to reclaim Chesnutt as an important figure in the American literary canon, not just the African American canon. He has co-edited To Be an Author, a collection of Chesnutt's letters which sadly traces the writer's rise and fall, and a collection of Chesnutt's speeches and essays. The current volume in the C. K. Hall/Twayne Critical Essays series further illustrates the significance of this misunderstood figure.

Following the general outline of the series, Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt begins with reviews and concludes with essays, chapters, and articles that explore Chesnutt's work in greater depth. It also includes a brief section, "Interviews and Personal Statements," that sympathetically depict Chesnutt at the height of his career, 1899-1901.

The reviews are noteworthy for their positive tone, for their abundance, and for the quality of the majority of the journals and newspapers in which they appeared. Not unexpectedly, many liberal contemporary reviewers praised Chesnutt for his portrayal of African American characters, a portrayal that introduced such characters to a white reading audience that encountered their models infrequently and often not under the best of circumstances. But as the quotations in the second paragraph of this review demonstrate, Chesnutt's work was prized for its considerable literary skill as well as for its content.

The more analytical "Essays and Articles" section spans the years from 1905 through 1997 and concludes with three essays written expressly for Critical Essays. The reprinted essays and chapters include pieces by Benjamin Brawley, William Stanley Braithwaite, and Sterling Brown, but McElrath wisely omits readily available "classics" of African American criticism such as the coverage of Chesnutt by critics such as Hugh M. Gloster, Robert A. Bone, and William L. Andrews. Instead he has collected a group of essays which appeared in periodicals.

Especially useful among these selections are "The Art of The Conjure Woman," by Richard E. Baldwin, and "Charles W. Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the Black Storyteller," by Lorne Fienberg, on Chesnutt as short story writer; essays on individual novels by Robert P. Sedlack and Susan L. Blake; and overviews of Chesnutt's career by William Gleason and by McElrath himself.

The three new essays with which the collection concludes provide a strong ending for the book. Charles L. Crow's "Under the Upas Tree: Charles Chesnutt's Gothic" focuses on three short stories--"The Marked Tree," "The Dumb Witness," and "The Sheriff's Children"--to show how Chesnult's use of gothic elements to comment on race relations anticipates that technique in the work of later American writers such as Faulkner and Morrison.

Gary Scharnhorst's " 'The Growth of a Dozen Tendrils': The Polyglot Satire of Chesnutt's The Colonel's Dream" defends Chesnutt's last novel by reading it as a "remarkably modern, multilayered experiment" which deconstructs prevalent literary formulas of the turn of the century. Finally, Charles Duncan's "Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth" demonstrates how Chesnutt struggles to "reimagine the American family" as a unit "able to resist... or... transcend the racial and social pressures of American social history," a struggle that Duncan judges as a failure because of the realities of American society.

McElrath's collection is a fine addition to the growing body of Chesnutt criticism. Future scholars will be indebted to him and to his contributors.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Fleming, Robert E.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:738
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