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Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932.

Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2002. 368 pp. $65.00.

This volume complements the 1997 collection of Chesnutt's letters, "To Be an Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905, edited by Joseph R. McElrath and Robert C. Leitz III. Whereas the first collection of letters concentrated on Chesnutt's most fruitful period as a writer, this book (edited as well by Jesse S. Crisler) deals with his least productive period, when he came to see his writing as an "avocation" rather than a "vocation" and produced a disappointing series of unpublished novels and short story collections.

This beautifully edited book is an invaluable resource for those seeking a deeper understanding of Chesnutt and the problems faced by African American writers from the early part of the twentieth century to the Great Depression. Letters Chesnutt wrote during this period provide important insights into the complexities of his multi-faceted personality and the difficult times in which he lived. He emerges, these editors assert, as "a public-spirited man in harmony with Progressive Era ideals," committing himself on local and national levels to fighting what he called the "pathological" conditions of the South and the subtler but no less pernicious racism that had become entrenched in the North. His letters to Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White reflect an unusually generous and broadminded person who was open to a variety of political strategies and who believed that racial progress must come from a wide range of ideas and techniques. As he revealed in a 1908 letter to Carrie Clifford, an activist for the Niagara Movement, he welcomed both conservative and militant approaches to racial change: "But we need both--some to fan the flame and others to furnish the fuel."

The bulk of letters in this book illuminate Chesnutt the public man, one who enacted in exemplary fashion a broad variety of important social roles--husband, father, businessman, and civic leader. This Chesnutt takes pride in being a member of both the NAACP and Cleveland's most exclusive men's clubs and can say with satisfaction that he had acquired more wealth and influence than any other colored man in Cleveland. Then there are a few extraordinary letters, however, that shed light on another Chesnutt, the private man who sometimes had nagging second thoughts about his "busy life" in "strenuous times" that left "little time for literary work."

Like Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Dorothy West, and Ralph Ellison, Chesnutt had real difficulty following early literary triumphs with successful work in his later career. A large part of this imbalance can be explained by his exceptionally active life in politics and business, which most of his letters from 1906 to 1932 emphatically document. But his inability to sustain imaginative work of high quality in the second half of his career also can be traced to serious doubts and inward conflicts that several letters of this period reveal. For example, in a 1924 letter to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, he accepts their refusal to bring out new editions of The Wife of His Youth and The House Behind the Cedars, conceding that they are "novels of minor importance." He acknowledges in a 1924 letter to Stanley Braithwaite that "there are several reasons why I have not written, some of them psychological." His letters to Carl Van Vechten and John Chamberlain give a clearer idea of what these psychological problems were. In 1926 he tells Van Vechten, "Between you and me, I suspect that I write like a white man because by blood I am white, with a slight and imperceptible dark strain," and then adds, "I write like an American studying a certain group." Four years later, he confides to Chamberlain: "The fact is I never wrote or tried to write as a Negro," and points out that he examined racial experience "from an impersonal point of view ... with, of course, a friendly slant toward my Negro cousins."

Further complicating matters were white readers' strict demands on African American writers throughout Chesnutt's career. White readers in the U. S. expected black writers to provide amusing local color or uplifting optimism, though this same period is marked by the profound racism of lynchings, race riots, and segregation--all of which Chesnutt responds to with indignation. For example, Chesnutt was asked in 1930 to write an article detailing Cleveland's racial history for the Chamber of Commerce magazine, but it was made clear that such a piece must be "non-combative" and should treat the "uninformed white's point of view" with "perfect kindness." One can imagine Chesnutt's inner conflicts as he reluctantly produced the article; there is no doubt but that such demands could and would short-circuit his literary imagination. In an early journal entry, Chesnutt defined his writing as a "high holy cause"; the later letters indicate that he, like other African American novelists well into the 1950s, found it increasingly painful to pursue the cause of "the color line."

This second volume of Chesnutt's letters, therefore, is an invaluable tool not only for Chesnutt specialists and graduate libraries, but for anyone seeking a deeper grasp of American and African American literature. The editors' superb contextualization of the Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932, with an incisive introduction and carefully detailed annotations, illuminates with considerable clarity the difficult times of such an exemplary citizen.

Robert Butler

Canisius College
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Author:Butler, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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