Biography of Charles W. Chesnutt

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was an African-American author, essayist, lawyer, and activist. He is best known for groundbreaking literary works that concern racial identity in the U.S. South.

Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio to African-American parents from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Chesnutt was of mixed race—both his grandmothers were African American while both of his grandfathers were white. Though he identified as African American, he often referred to an extensive white slaveholder ancestry and claimed that issues arising from his mixed-race heritage had a profound impact on him as a young man.

Chesnutt published his first book, The Conjure Woman, in 1899. 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 Douglass. 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, 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, the Library of America published a volume of Chesnutt's work, including never-before-published stories and essays.

Study Guides on Works by Charles W. Chesnutt