Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents were both free African Americans who moved to Cleveland from Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1856. Chesnutt was of mixed race -- both his grandmothers were African American while both of his grandfathers were white. Though he self identified as African American, he often referred to an extensive white ancestry and claimed that the issues of his mixed race had a profound impact on him as a young man. Themes of complex heritage and racial identity would be characteristic of Chesnutt's writing.
In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, Chesnutt's family moved back to Fayetteville where his father opened a grocery store. Chesnutt attended a Freedman's Bureau school and at the age of thirteen started a career as a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. At nineteen, he became Assistant Principal and, then, Principal of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville.
Chesnutt left North Carolina at the end of Reconstruction because of the increasingly harsh racial conditions of the post-war South. He returned to Cleveland where he started a successful stenography business. While in Cleveland, Chesnutt became a well-established businessman and civic leader. During this time, he also began writing stories, articles, and essays in local newspapers and magazines. In 1887, one of Chesnutt's stories, "The Goophered Grapevine", was accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. He was the first African American fiction writer to be published in that magazine.
Chesnutt published his first book in 1899, The Conjure Woman. The book was a collection of stories and was well received by the literary press of the time. He soon followed this collection of stories with a second collection as well as a biography of Frederick Douglas. His novels, The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition, were published in 1900 and 1901 respectively. Although both were critical successes and Chesnutt became well respected amongst his peers, neither novel succeeded commercially. Chesnutt's last published work was a play, Mrs. Darcy's Daughter. It also found little popular success, and in 1906, Chesnutt gave up his writing and speaking career and returned to his stenography business.
Chesnutt devoted the final decades of his life to his business and to political activism. He served on the General Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and worked with many of the leading African American intellectuals and activists of the day including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1928, Chesnutt was awarded the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal, given each year for outstanding achievement by an African American.
Chesnutt passed away in 1932. Though a well respected civic leader, his fiction did not gain attention until several decades after his death when critics reevaluated his innovative techniques of narrative, character development, and irony. In 2002, Library of America published a volume of Chesnutt's work, including never before published stories and essays. Today, critics and academics view Chesnutt's work as groundbreaking for the innovation of African American realist fiction in the twentieth century.
Study Guides on Works by Charles W. Chesnutt
The Marrow of Tradition is considered to be one of the most important works of African American realist fiction. It is a novel based upon a historical account of the Wilmington, North Carolina race riots of 1898. The riots were, actually, a coup d...
Charles W. Chestnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison” offers an exemplary lesson in why knowing your history can lend context to literature that allows a reader to enjoy things like irony and ambiguity. The story is very much a satirical take on a...