Ryan Simmons
Department of English and Literature

Utah Valley University
800 W. University Parkway
Orem, UT 84058-5999
(801) 863-6290

"This is life, new and strange; strange, because we fear it; new, because we have kept our eyes turned from it.” --Richard Wright, Native Son


Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels

(University of Alabama Press, 2006)


Read full text of reviews here


Since his reintroduction to the canon of American literature over the last twenty years, Charles W. Chesnutt has typically been regarded as a realist author. The critics who locate him in the tradition of literary realism, however, have not consistently served his writing well. Too often, he is regarded as a mere imitator of writers such as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, and the question becomes whether he succeeded or failed in mimicking them. Chesnutt, however, was himself a substantial contributor to the ideals and techniques of literary realism, and in particular worked through the problem of depicting race relations in a realistic manner—a problem with which his contemporaries frequently, and often vainly, struggled. In this book of approximately 90,000 words, I explore how realism may be defined in order to recognize the cultural work Chesnutt’s fiction performs, particularly in his novels. In other words, rather than assessing how well Chesnutt measures up as a realist author, I explore ways in which our understanding of realism helps (and hinders) critics in recognizing Chesnutt’s actual achievement. Chesnutt and Realism explores historical and theoretical contexts for Chesnutt’s fiction, and offers close readings of each of his novels.

Introduction: Of Race and Realism: This chapter surveys various theories of literary realism and previous criticism on Chesnutt’s novels. I argue that Chesnutt was a greater contributor to realist methods than has previously been recognized, creating possibilities for political change through narrative that his contemporaries did not realize.

Chapter One: Learning to Be a Realist: Chesnutt’s Northern Novels: This chapter uncovers the roots of Chesnutt’s aspirations for realism through a close reading of his earliest attempts at a novel, which only recently have been published. In these early novels, we see Chesnutt locating the limitations of romance and the possibilities of realism as a means of achieving his ends as a novelist. I also identify the novels (which seem to avoid all mention of race) as early examples of Chesnutt’s subtle, often covert analysis of racial codes.

Chapter Two: Time Passing: Chesnutt’s Revisions of the “Tragic Mulatta” Tale: This chapter explores Chesnutt’s two attempts at a novel in the “tragic mulatta" tradition, the long-unpublished Mandy Oxendine and the more conventional (and successful) The House Behind the Cedars. Specifically, I examine the relative success of these two works in challenging their readers to recognize reality in ways other than the dominant society constructs for public consumption.

Chapter Three: Simple and Complex Discourse in The Marrow of Tradition: Though Chesnutt’s employment of realism has usually been defined in terms of his development of deep historical context, this chapter demonstrates that another tenet of realism—the claim that an objective world exists and is accessible to everyone—is equally important to an understanding of his most significant novel. In The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt creates a dialectic between historically contextual truths and what Bakhtin calls “internally persuasive” discourse, and both of these modes must be recognized in order to understand the novel.

Chapter Four: The Colonel’s Dream: Reconsidering a Radical Text: Chesnutt’s final published novel is usually dismissed by critics as offering a weak and compromised vision, whereas I argue that the reverse is more true: The Colonel’s Dream offers a sustained, unflinching analysis of racial politics after Reconstruction. I contend that it also represents Chesnutt’s abandonment of an appeal to middle-class white readers and a turn to a more radical position that, he concluded, was demanded by a realistic assessment of racial politics.

Chapter Five: “The Category of Surreptitious Things”: Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and The Quarry: By the 1920s, Chesnutt’s career as a published writer was essentially finished, despite the author's attempt to revive his career with two new novels. These works, although rejected during his lifetime, extended and complicated critics’ understanding of his career upon their publication in the 1990s. While Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and The Quarry can come across to readers as both old-fashioned and contrived, I argue that they are extensions of the challenging realism he advanced throughout his career as well as being strongly engaged with the aesthetic and political questions brought to the surface by the Harlem Renaissance.

Other Publications


"How to Teach an Unauthored Text: Reviving The Mysterious Stranger in the Classroom." Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice 1.3 (Summer 2007).

"'The Hierarchy Itself': Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority." African American Review 36.2 (Summer 2002): 181-94.

“What Is a Terrorist? Contemporary Authorship, the Unabomber, and DeLillo’s Mao II.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (Fall 1999): 675-95. (Online version requires Project MUSE access)

“The Problem of Politics in Feminist Literary Criticism: Contending Voices in Two Contemporary Novels.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41.4 (Summer 2000): 319-34.

“Naming Names: Clotel and Behind the Scenes.” College Language Association Journal 43.1 (Sept. 1999): 19-37.

Book Reviews

Stempel, Tom. American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing. Reviewed for The Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 56.1 (Spring 2002): 121-3.

Adamson, Joni. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Reviewed for The Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 56.2 (Fall 2002): 113-5.

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