by Mary Getchell
The recent publication of four previously unpublished novels by Charles Chesnutt provides fertile ground for new holistic examinations of Chesnutt’s novels in terms of thematic, generic, and aesthetic elements. Ryan Simmons’s Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels signals this new era in Chesnutt scholarship; it traces the development of Chesnutt’s use of realist strategies throughout his career as a novelist to attack racism in post-bellum America and motivate his readers to participate in progressive civil rights reform. Simmons explores each novel with a shifting definition of realism that reflects Chesnutt’s own developing sense of the importance of truthful storytelling, paying particular attention to the way Chesnutt’s depiction of moral and political aspects of contemporary race relations is meant to lead readers to “an understanding of such issues that must not be merely abstract” (3). Simmons works with an unorthodox definition of realism that acknowledges Chesnutt’s tendency to feature implausible events and symbolic characters, while foregrounding the novels’ realist aversion to escapism and their insistence that readers “shift perspective so that they acknowledge, understand, and respond to the world’s realities rather than averting their eyes”—a definition of realism which “implicitly demands change” (5). Responding to those who would take issue with Chesnutt’s inclusion as a major figure in the realist canon, given the strong political register of what are often read as his “purpose novels,” Simmons asserts that “[c]entral to Chesnutt’s realism is the conviction that understanding reality rightly requires action” (15), thus denying the mutual exclusivity of realism and political directive.
Among the book’s most significant contributions to Chesnutt criticism is the first chapter’s analysis of the seldom-discussed “Northern novels,” A Business Career (1898), The Rainbow Chasers (1900), and Evelyn’s Husband (1903), which seemingly evade race politics altogether. Simmons makes the compelling claim that some of the main characters in these novels might be—unobviously—of mixed race, but that the racial backgrounds of these characters remain equivocal, or submerged, for both the novels’ other characters and their readers, since the revelation would have proven unpalatable for a contemporary audience. By analyzing these lesser-known novels for their subversive (though perhaps timid) suggestions about the interpretive nature of race, Simmons convincingly unites them with Chesnutt’s major works, especially the more overtly polemical treatments of racial and class conflicts of The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901).
Chapter 2 continues to emphasize Chesnutt’s “realist” approach to his audience throughout his detailed analyses of The House Behind the Cedars and the novella Mandy Oxendine (1897). The discussion here of the ‘tragic mulatta’ device in Mandy Oxendine perhaps does not quite sufficiently account for the “absurdities” and “tidy resolutions” of its suspense plot; the suggestion that Chesnutt “cleverly attempted to write the novella in a way that would be palatable at a superficial level” while “reward[ing] closer reading with uncanny depths” (60-62) seems somewhat apologetic. The argument about The House Behind the Cedars is far more salient, as Simmons makes the intriguing claim that since Chesnutt sets the novel in the past, his contemporary readers become “future readers,” aware of the failures of Reconstruction and un-innocently implicated in the further progress of civil rights efforts.
Simmons’s most persuasive moments can be found in Chapter 3, “Simple and Complex Discourse in The Marrow of Tradition.” Here, Simmons elucidates his earlier claims about Chesnutt’s refusal to explore racism in abstract terms. The Marrow of Tradition clearly demonstrates Chesnutt’s insistence upon physical realities and actual historical events, such as the 1898 murderous race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina fictionalized in the novel. Central to Simmons’s argument is his location of Chesnutt’s realism in the demand for direct political action from his readers; the essence of The Marrow of Tradition’s realism is that it seeks to “make the fight against racial injustice…central to one’s consciousness, and as a result, to one’s decisions and actions as well” (95). Simmons extends this argument in Chapter 4 to The Colonel’s Dream (1905), in which he deftly manages the paradoxical claim that, in spite of a mostly white cast of main characters, “Chesnutt places the impetus for reform on African-Americans.” If Chesnutt exhibits less faith in the reform power of white liberalism in this novel than in previous work, then, Simmons argues, he has adopted a more realistic outlook of the “uncertain” future as inherited by the “disempowered African American community” (129). The book breaks new ground in the final chapter with its exploration of two late novels only recently published, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (c. 1921) and The Quarry (c. 1928), for similar rhetorical techniques, pointing out Chesnutt’s focus on cultural environment and his continued project of connecting the experience of the reader with future action.
Part of the Studies in American Literary Realism and Naturalism series edited by Gary Scharnhorst, Chesnutt and Realism challenges traditional definitions of realism by carefully redefining its terms to circumscribe the many shifts in Chesnutt’s writing career. Further, Simmons emphasizes the neglect of realism as a useful category for Chesnutt scholarship while remaining in conversation with pertinent scholarship on realism and race, including that of Joseph McElrath, Brook Thomas, William L. Andrews, and Kenneth Warren. In doing so he creates a portrait of Charles Chesnutt that reflects his attentiveness to the moral and political power of literature and his commitment to realism in his depiction of race matters in American culture.
Vol. 34, No. 2 (Autumn 2006)
by Cynthia A. Callahan
In the last decade, several novels by Charles W. Chesnutt have been released posthumously, resulting in a wealth of scholarship that analyzes them in the context of Chesnutt's previously known body of work and attempts to locate his place in American literary history. In Chesnutt and Realism, Ryan Simmons advances both of these scholarly projects, reading Chesnutt's most recently published novels alongside his better-known work to argue that Chesnutt was not a marginal figure in American realism but rather a significant practitioner of realist methods. Scholars of realism will engage with--and perhaps be challenged by--Simmons's inclusion of race in defining the genre's parameters while Chesnutt scholars will appreciate this study's insights into Chesnutt's politics as well as his narrative techniques.
In the introduction, Simmons describes the centrality of race to Chesnutt's practice of realism. For Chesnutt, writing as a realist demanded a careful balance between objectivity and political advocacy. As a committed realist, Chesnutt wanted to represent human experience factually and objectively, yet he also recognized that the racial bigotry of his time was so culturally entrenched that, as Simmons puts it, "convention was blinding readers to the truth" (11). In order to perceive African American experiences accurately, Chesnutt would need to train his mostly-white audience to read against its own interests. Because Chesnutt believed that exposure to the realities of black experience could motivate his readers to act for social justice, their failure to see these truths would have not only artistic consequences but political ones as well. The subsequent chapters of Chesnutt and Realism give examples of how Chesnutt linked realism with action by creating emotionally compelling characters, employing familiar literary tropes--such as the "tragic mulatta"--and exposing the deep contradictions in the period's racial norms in order to move readers to think beyond their own racialized perceptions and act accordingly.
In Chesnutt's lifetime--and, indeed, at any time--what constituted "truth" or "reality" was very much contested. Simmons accounts for the slippery nature of these terms by showing how Chesnutt situated racial inequality in the context of uneven power relations, racist discourse, and economic disparity in order to illustrate the myriad ways that individual realities were circumscribed by race. Likewise, Simmons urges that literary scholars adopt a similar practice of contextualization by considering how an author's racial identity may shape his or her use of realism. Treating white male representatives of the realist canon such as Twain or Howells as models for what constitutes literary "reality" limits our understanding of the tradition by excluding authors whose lived experiences inevitably yield alternative perspectives.
The chapters in Chesnutt and Realism proceed chronologically, tracing the evolution of Chesnutt's use of realism to expose racial disparities during his time. The first chapter focuses on Rainbow Chasers (c. 1900), A Business Career (c. 1898), and Evelyn's Husband (c. 1903), three novels that Chesnutt failed to publish in his lifetime though the latter two were published in 2005. While not obviously realist on the surface, these early novels reveal Chesnutt's experimentation with the realist techniques that would become more recognizable in his later work, such as examining the meaning of race, maintaining an objective narrative perspective, and carefully documenting the facts of social realities. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter, however, is the reading of these supposedly nonracial novels as containing white characters described in terms that imply secret African American ancestry. Although the hints about unnoticed racial mixing may be too covert for easy detection, this interpretation exposes the deep roots of Chesnutt's desire to play with racial categories, a practice that becomes more explicit and effective in his novels about passing and switched children.
Subsequent chapters examine Chesnutt's most well-known novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), as well as The Colonel's Dream (1905), Paul Marchand, FMC (c. 1921, published in 1998) and The Quarry (c. 1928, published in 1999). In each of these texts, Chesnutt employed realism to achieve his own ends, sometimes in ways that critics have previously misread as too sentimental or emotional to qualify as realism and at other times as exhibiting recognizable realist methods.
One of the real strengths of this study is Simmons's treatment of The Marrow of Tradition. He claims that the novel serves as a test case for realism in order to explore whether or not its presumed narrative objectivity could be applied to violently racist acts like the Wilmington race riot of 1898. Marrow illustrates how Chesnutt modified traditional realism to accomplish his artistic and political goals, and as his most overtly realist (and political) text, it lends itself particularly well to Simmons's discussion of the relativity of reality in both Chesnutt's work and in the creation of a realist canon.
Throughout the book, Simmons shows that understanding Chesnutt's realist method has implications beyond the definition of realism itself; such an understanding helps mediate certain debates in Chesnutt scholarship. For instance, scholars sometimes question Chesnutt's political stance, concerned that his focus on mixed-race people reflects a lack of commitment to race politics. Simmons cites a common manifestation of this issue in regard to The Marrow of Tradition: with whom do Chesnutt's political impulses lie? Bourgeois doctor William Miller or radical black dockworker Josh Green? Simmons declares this debate to be "a dubious use of resources" (3), since one of Chesnutt's strategies as a realist was to present many narrative voices without privileging any single one so that readers could come to their own conclusions. When read in the context of his realist technique, this and other moments of apparent ambivalence can be reconciled with the more political (though still sometimes ambiguous) statements on race that Chesnutt made elsewhere.
Insightful and informative, Chesnutt and Realism outlines a practice of realism that, if applied to other authors of color or those on the margins of the realist canon, might alter that canon even further. Simmons's introduction alludes to this intriguing possibility, but because the book lacks a concluding chapter, these and other implications of Chesnutt's place in the realist tradition remain unexplored, a disappointment in an otherwise fine study.
Vol. 40, No. 3 (Fall 2008)
by Wiley Cash
Before his fame waned into obscurity in the early years of the twentieth century, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) was popularly known as the first African American fiction writer to receive sustained critical attention from the literary world, and only since the publication of William Andrews’s The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt in 1980 have Chesnutt studies experienced a renaissance. The three novels and two short story collections published during Chesnutt’s lifetime have been reissued in several editions, and his essays, speeches, journals, and letters have also been collected and published to an increasing amount of critical attention. In just the past decade, five of Chesnutt’s published novel manuscripts have been edited and published. As a result of this renewed interest in Chesnutt’s life and work, critics are beginning to reconsider long-standing arguments concerning Chesnutt’s literary approaches to race prejudice. In Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels, an excellent addition to this reestablished discussion, Ryan Simmons attempts to locate Chesnutt’s place in the genre of realism and the larger canon of American literature.
Simmons’s book has two major strengths. First, it is the only study of Chesnutt’s work that considers all his novels. In addition to dedicating individual chapters to the novels published during Chesnutt’s lifetime—The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905)—Simmons opens the book with a chapter considering the role of realism in Chesnutt’s “white, northern novels”: Evelyn’s Husband (2005), A Business Career (2005), and the still unpublished The Rainbow Chasers. The book closes with a study of two recently published novels that were written later in Chesnutt’s life: Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998) and The Quarry (1999). Normally, this narrow focus could be seen as a shortcoming in a literary study, but because Simmons considers each work so thoroughly, his decision to focus only on the novels lends the book a continuity and unity that is lacking in many other book-length studies. Second, he displays the rare ability to capitalize on his research with a highly readable writing style.
In the book’s introduction, Simmons takes issue with critics who argue against Chesnutt’s designation as a realist, and he directly challenges Joseph McElrath, who contends that “Chesnutt consistently draws characters as ‘allegorical figures’ rather than realistic ones” (14). Simmons counters by arguing that Chesnutt’s characters are not representative extremes of good or evil and that “you can take your pick of major characters, and any of them will be found upon close examination to demonstrate both favorable and unfavorable characteristics” (15). Simmons further contends that these well-balanced and realistically portrayed characters fly in the face of the non-white characters found in the works of earlier writers of American romance like Cooper and Stowe. Race and ethnicity, for these writers, was a fixed, static concept that culminated in both Stowe’s portrayal of the cherubic slave and Cooper’s presentation of the Native American as either noble or vicious savage. Simmons argues that, unlike William Dean Howells and the aforementioned authors who would leave racial representations seeming “untroubled” in the nineteenth century, Chesnutt constantly sought to reconsider, question, and redefine the concepts and categorizations of race in America. Similarly, “Chesnutt recognized reality to be problematic, always contested,” and he viewed America’s concept of race in those same terms (2). Simmons makes clear that Chesnutt believed that to write in a realist vein was not the most efficient way to represent the reality of a black life in America but also the best way for black Americans to represent themselves.
According to Simmons, Chesnutt “recognized [that] the ability to portray the life of a culture, and to have that portrayal be accepted as truthful by the literary establishment, was a critical factor in that culture’s prospects for self-determination” (10). Also, Chesnutt, a light-skinned African American who could have passed for white, felt that if “readers understood racism anything like the way he understood it, they could not help but act toward its eradication” (3). It is interesting to note that in the first two novels Chesnutt wrote, Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars, he relies solely on his experience as an inhabitant of the color line to challenge concepts of race prejudice. However, as Simmons argues, it is in The Marrow of Tradition that Chesnutt steps away from autobiographical protagonists imbued with his personal knowledge and opts for a more community-centered perspective in his fiction.
This shift in perspective leads Simmons to highlight Marrow as Chesnutt’s most-successful attempt at realism, and he argues that the novel’s aim in embracing realism was to ensure that white readers could see the evils of racism with the same clarity that African Americans experienced it, a choice that often left white readers uncomfortable with Chesnutt’s too realistic rendering of racism’s effect on communities. As Simmons details in his book’s introduction, much of Howell’s split with Chesnutt is often blamed on Howell’s critique of Marrow as a bitter book driven by racial invective. Along with many current critics, Howells felt the book overtly didactic and its narrator heavy handed in the novel’s declamation of white supremacy. Understanding that with his vision Chesnutt walked the fine line of didacticism, Simmons contends that Chesnutt attempted to alert white readers to the problems of racism in three ways. First, Chesnutt aimed to affect his white readers indirectly and subtly. He also wished to press upon his white readers that their fate and the fate of the nation was forever intertwined with the success of African Americans after the failures of Reconstruction. Third and most important, he attempted to adopt the perspective of both the white supremacist and the black rebel in the same novel, never privileging one voice over the other.
As much as it depends on elements of realism for its purpose, Marrow, according to Simmons, also challenges the preconceived idea that white supremacy is an accepted and irrefutable form of reality. Just as the mixed race characters in Chesnutt’s earlier and later novels are expected to reassess their perceptions of reality in their ever-changing worlds, Marrow, along with much of Chesnutt’s fiction, implores its readers to do the same.
It is this reading of Chesnutt’s use of realism to portray the evils of prejudice and the absurdity of white supremacy that fuses much of Simmons’s argument. By incorporating elements of realism with his now famous “high, holy purpose” of elevating both the self-possession of blacks and sentiment whites, Chesnutt was able to expose notions of race and race prejudice as constructs of reality while questioning the social elements that fed them both. Ryan Simmons’s Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels is an excellent addition to a critical conversation on Charles W. Chesnutt that was far too long in being reinitiated and is just as far from being over.
Vol. 40., No. 1 (Spring 2007)
by Susana M. Morris
Ryan Simmons’s Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels is a timely work that proposes a key paradigm shift in critical studies about Charles W. Chesnutt. Simmons argues that all too often Chesnutt is on the periphery of studies on realism when he should be considered as a major contributor to the genre, alongside William Dean Howells, Henry James, and others. Nonetheless, Simmons’ goal is not to simply judge Chesnutt against canonical white authors. Rather, Simmons contends that criticism should recognize Chesnutt for his challenge to white readers to reconsider their racial politics and his life-long career goal to determine the best way to sway an often indifferent mainstream audience. For Simmons, labeling Chesnutt as a realist is not posthumous classification, but rather a recognition of how Chesnutt viewed himself as a writer.
Chesnutt and Realism combines criticism on Chesnutt’s most famous works, such as The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition, with analysis on his unpublished and posthumously published novels. Simmons’ study focuses only on novels, which he contends were Chesnutt’s most successful realizations of realist techniques. Simmons begins with Chesnutt’s undervalued novels of urban life in the North: A Business Career, Evelyn’s Husband and The Rainbow Chasers. These novels, unlike Chesnutt’s most famous works, focused on upper-class Northern whites, and issues of racial problems were conspicuously absent. Simmons argues that although these Northern novels were markedly different from their successors they served a key purpose in Chesnutt’s development as a writer: they helped him hone his skills as a realist. Simmons insists that these works should not be dismissed as commercial flops that ignored racial politics and were unable to be published, but as the training ground for Chesnutt’s later, more successful, ventures into realist fiction. Furthermore, Simmons provocatively contends that these novels do include racial issues through a covert subtext of miscegenation, which Chesnutt inserts so subtly that readers and critics alike have inadvertently overlooked them.
Simmons explores the “tragic mulatta” in the posthumously released novella Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars and argues that while these texts may, on the surface, recycle the oft-told tragic nature of the mixed-race woman, they actually reveal a more complex negotiation about race, identity, and community. Characters in these texts upset rigid classifications of race and, for Chesnutt, the very possibility of the passing motif illustrates both “cultural fluidity” and the fragility of the foundations of race-based discrimination (78). Thus, these works are part of Chesnutt’s mission to have his readers recognize that while they cannot change the history of slavery and oppression, they do have the power not to let these circumstances overdetermine their society’s future. While Simmons champions Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars as complex renderings of race, he does, however, find fault with what he sees as Chesnutt’s inability to forward solutions to the problems that he documents. This critique is a running commentary for Simmons and he cites it as one of Chesnutt’s major critical shortcomings.
Simmons devotes an entire chapter to The Marrow of Tradition, where he argues that it is too simplistic to designate the novel as propaganda because that dismisses Chesnutt’s narrative restraint in his retelling of the bloody 1898 Wilmington race riots. The novel reflects Chesnutt’s persistent goal to undermine the “naturalness” of social practices such as racial discrimination and to jolt readers into antiracist action. Most important for Simmons is that The Marrow of Tradition was in many ways Chesnutt’s test case for marrying race to a more explicitly realist novel than his previous efforts. Simmons sees this experiment continuing in The Colonel’s Dream, which he argues deserves more the scant critical attention it has heretofore received. The novel marks a significant shift in Chesnutt’s racial politics, whereby it seems he began to abandon his hope of morally revolutionizing whites, in favor of a dismantling the corrupt social system in the United States.
Chesnutt and Realism ends with a discussion of two unpublished novels, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and The Quarry. Simmons masterfully uses these texts to argue that Chesnutt did indeed write significant racial novels in the wake of the commercial failure of The Colonel’s Dream. Simmons links Chesnutt’s evolving moral project in his writing to his engagement with the literary movements in Harlem Renaissance. When Chesnutt, like W. E. B. Du Bois, admonished the new generation of writers to construct idealized black characters, he is not abandoning realism, argues Simmons. Instead, this reflects Chesnutt’s technique of using the absurd and the unreal to denote the real. In illuminating the passing narrative in Paul Marchand, Simmons makes a provocative connection to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, asserting that Chesnutt is more successful than Twain in asserting that identity is shaped by one’s environment. Simmons convincingly asserts that even in the decline of his career, Chesnutt’s novels had the power to highlight race as a social construction that had tangible and often destructive effects.
Simmons’ text persuasively urges readers to reassess Chesnutt’s placement in the canon of realist writers. While his work is not the first to call for Chesnutt’s inclusion, it is significant in its attempts to address the fullness of Chesnutt’s realist mechanics over time. Indeed, what is perhaps most useful about Chesnutt and Realism is Simmons’ serious attention to the author’s unpublished and under-regarded works. In tracing the trajectory of Chesnutt’s intellectual commitment to realism, Simmons underscores that Chesnutt did not seemingly desire realism’s so-called detachment and objectivity and that the overriding question of Chesnutt’s career was to discover whether realism was in fact the best literary mode to fight for social justice. Ultimately, Simmons asks us to reconsider Chesnutt’s contribution to realism and recognize that he consistently contested reality and understood that the ability to understand different perspectives could inform one’s moral power. Chesnutt and Realism may indeed fulfill Simmons’ desire to advance deeper discussions of writers of color, such as Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson, into criticism regarding realism.
Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring 2007)
by Charles Duncan
Charles W. Chesnutt and his works have long confounded scholars who seek easy taxonomies of writers and their works. More than sixty years ago, for example, J. Saunders Redding asked, “What is Chesnutt’s conviction as an artist? … Of what is he trying to convince us? … one always seems at the point of making a discovery about the author, but the discovery never matures.”1 More recently, Joe McElrath and Robert Leitz ask even more directly: “What was Charles Chesnutt?”2 Now, Ryan Simmons takes up the attempt to classify Chesnutt in his refreshing and welcome book, Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels.
Simmons actually asks a much narrower question than many of his predecessors—Is Chesnutt a Realist? The question (and Simmons’ answers) reveals both the value of this study and the extent to which Chesnutt scholarship continues to mature. Rather than trying to use his fictions to de-code Chesnutt’s racial and political views or to justify the author’s presence in conversations of “major” writers, Simmons investigates his subject’s credentials as a Realist by looking principally at Chesnutt’s eight published novels. This relatively brief book provides a concise overview of the novels and, especially, how they exemplify Chesnutt’s complex, racialized version of Realism.
Simmons’ approach is a welcome one for a number of reasons. First, Chesnutt’s reputation is built primarily on his short fiction, and those works have received—in my view deservedly so—the bulk of critical attention paid to the author. But, as Simmons makes clear, the novels also warrant the kind of careful and sustained consideration this book provides. And, his timing couldn’t have been much better; in January of 2008, the United States Post Office honored Chesnutt with a commemorative stamp, the thirty-first in its Black Heritage series in advance of Black History Month.
In addition, a comprehensive study of all of Chesnutt’s novels only became possible very recently. Indeed, only three of his novels—The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905)—reached print during Chesnutt’s lifetime. The remaining five—Mandy Oxendine (1997), Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998), The Quarry (1999), A Business Career (2005), and Evelyn’s Husband (2005)—have been published since 1997, all long after the author’s death. Simmons’ book thus both addresses a significant gap in Chesnutt studies and offers a re-contextualization of an important writer’s works. By looking at the novels in a systematic, more or less chronological manner, Simmons also offers readers another perspective from which to view Chesnutt’s writing career; Simmons, for example, rightly dismisses the notion that Chesnutt abandoned writing after The Colonel’s Dream.
The most original element of the book—and in some ways its least satisfying—has to do with Simmons’ efforts to re-imagine the concept of “literary Realism” and his concomitant assertions that Chesnutt fits his model. In his introduction, Simmons vows to “initiate a new line of discussion about the cultural work done by American literary realism” and to consider Realism in terms of its contributions to the “racial discourse in this nation” (1). Certainly, such an endeavor is bold and worthwhile, and Simmons’ claim that “Chesnutt’s novels are both sophisticated in questioning the validity of racial categories and ambitious in analyzing race in the context of cultural histories and economic conditions” seems to me just right.
Nevertheless, for Simmons to establish Chesnutt’s credentials as a Realist requires a lot of heavy lifting, much of which has to do with re-defining Realism from the standpoint of “contemporary literary theory.” While Simmons admits, for example, that “Chesnutt’s fiction can seem manipulative, and unrealistic, because of his propensity to create unlikely situations”—none of which seems to align with traditional definitions of Realism—he nevertheless finds the inner-Realist in Chesnutt by arguing that “the absurd racial landscape with which he struggled often required, in response, a warping of the probabilities of time and space to instill in readers a sense of what he recognized to be true” (134). Thus, Chesnutt practices a new kind of Realism, one whose “purpose is not to document histories but to disassemble and re-create readers’ methods for understanding these histories, all with the intent of changing not only what readers know, but also how they know it and how they are capable of responding to it” (3). This is not, in short, the Realism of Howells, James, Cady, and McElrath.
While Simmons’ re-definition of Realism is debatable—which in itself is a good thing—his attention to the novels is thoughtful, steady, and at times methodical. He makes his points with clarity and poise, and his interpretations of Chesnutt’s novels uniformly offer compelling insights. He frequently mentions the “complexity” of Chesnutt’s writings, and his commentary on those writings fully deserves the term as well. My only complaint is Simmons’ tendency to over-rely on other commentators; it’s of course a good thing to offer the context of previous scholarship, but at times the book has too much the feeling of an overview of criticism, and I occasionally found myself wishing he would spend less time summarizing others’ views and more on developing his own.
In many ways, Simmons’ Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels stakes out new, rich territory for others to continue to explore. For, this study of Chesnutt’s novels in terms of their relation to Realism challenges us to re-calibrate our understanding of literary Realism and contributes significantly to Chesnutt scholarship, two not inconsequential achievements. Ultimately, though, Chesnutt continues to delight, in part, precisely because he resists the kind of classifications—even carefully wrought ones—like the Realism Simmons finds in his novels. Even after reading this fascinating, often persuasive book, I still find myself perplexed (but happily so) by the author’s works. Who, indeed was Charles Chesnutt, and what did he mean?
1J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (Ithaca, NY: University Press, 1988), 71.
2Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III, ‘To Be an Author’: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 4.
Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring 2008)
by Amina Gautier
Previously hailed and celebrated by William Dean Howells as a realist and later denounced, Charles Waddell Chesnutt has long occupied an untenable position in the camp of American literary realism. Ever since Howells, one of the most noted practitioners of that genre, claimed Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a fictionalized account of the recent Wilmington Riot of 1898, was “bitter,” have critics been challenged to locate Chesnutt’s place in the canon of realist writers, among whom Cable, Howells, James and Twain are counted. Comparing Chesnutt to such writers and attempting to define his position in relationship to them has led many scholars to conclude that Chesnutt’s work is imitative at best or else to exclude him from the realist tradition entirely.
In Chesnutt and Realism: a Study of the Novels, Ryan Simmons addresses this long-standing problem in his readings of Chesnutt’s novels, to ask “do traditional definitions of realism allow room for useful and productive depictions of race and racism?” (106). He examines the parameters of Chesnutt’s uses and adaptations of realism, arguing not only that Chesnutt was a major contributor to realism but also that he challenged white audiences to consider race relations in America more fully. Taking into account the hotly debated questions surrounding the formation and concerns of American literary realism, he offers us a genre in the process of being fluidly defined at the time of Chesnutt’s writings, and importantly shows the ways in which Chesnutt’s emphases on language, perspective, and readers’ awareness and reception contributed to the field.
As the Chesnutt canon of work expands, such a book as Simmons’s becomes more obviously useful. Following closely as it does on the heels of Matthew Wilson’s recent editions of Chesnutt’s previously unpublished “Northern novels” A Business Career and Evelyn’s Husband, Chesnutt and Realism is one of the first monographs to treat in depth Chesnutt’s works featuring predominantly white characters, and one of a few that “considers the presence of race in realist texts” in a full length study of an African American writer (7). The expansion of the canon allows Simmons to read Chesnutt’s longer works in a linear way, seeing his earlier works (which admittedly are not as well crafted or as sophisticated as later works such as The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition) as part of a lifelong project in which Chesnutt experiments with form, character, and subject matter to ask “what justifies the production of fiction?” (21). By finding common ground that links Chesnutt’s earlier unpublished commercial novels to his growth and development as a writer of realism, Simmons argues persuasively that Chesnutt’s work reveals both a logical progression and a natural trajectory, so that even those novels which failed to achieve publication or acclaim allowed Chesnutt to consider the aims and reaches of realism.
Simmons’s first chapter studies the three commercial novels Chesnutt wrote early in his career, namely A Business Career, The Rainbow Chasers, and Evelyn’s Husband. Simmons reads the three Northern novels as a group of commercial failures that nonetheless represents the beginnings of the complex treatments Chesnutt would incorporate into his later and more successful novels. Despite the seeming predominance of white characters in all three texts, Simmons suggests that Chesnutt subtly introduces race (or the ambiguous specter of it) and racially indeterminate characters in each text. Simmons reads these three texts together as novels that explore concerns of interpretation and the ways in which characters learn to read one another and the cultural and social situations in which they find themselves (whether successfully or not), themes he argues will be more firmly and strategically developed in Chesnutt’s later novels.
The second chapter provides a brief analysis of Mandy Oxendine (which remained unpublished during Chesnutt’s lifetime) as a work which consciously plays with the idea of form and offers readers a tragic mulatta tale that was anything but tragic. This reading segues into a fuller reading of The House Behind the Cedars as a novel that deconstructs racial categories while examining the social fluidity of race. In his third chapter, Simmons reads The Marrow of Tradition as a novel which attempts to “wrest away some of the discursive control that the white ‘victors’ in Wilmington had successfully asserted” (88) and examines the way Chesnutt’s treatment of the Wilmington “riot” and his use of language complicate simple matters in order to reveal the way social practices are informed by racial concerns.
In the fourth chapter, Simmons’ analysis of The Colonel’s Dream is linked most closely to his analyses of Chesnutt’s earlier Northern novels. The Colonel’s Dream, aesthetically inferior to his two previously published novels, represents for Simmons “the culmination of Chesnutt’s efforts to reform realism” (115) while calling into question critics’ tendency to ignore analyses of race in novels that do not feature characters of color. He links the critical attention to The Colonel’s Dream to similar overlooking of Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee and Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday. Simmons argues that The Colonel’s Dream is a reform novel which expresses Chesnutt’s disappointment in capitalism and he disagrees with criticism that takes Colonel French as Chesnutt’s role model for whites. Reading this novel as inevitable in the trajectory of the Chesnutt project, Simmons compellingly examines the reasons why The Colonel’s Dream signaled the end of Chesnutt’s visible writing career.
The last chapter groups readings of Paul Marchand FMC and The Quarry and offers protagonists Paul Marchand and Donald Glover as “the least mercifully compromised, strongest African American character of any of his novels” (133). Simmons suggests that the Harlem Renaissance would usher in a change in artistic and aesthetic principles and that an increased interest in honest representations of black life would make audiences look more favorably on his own work.
Several of the chapters offer readings of texts in relation to each other. Although the groupings are sensible, they are not always evenly balanced. For example, Simmons’s reading of Mandy Oxendine is extremely brief in relation to that of The House Behind the Cedars in the same chapter, so that the reading of Mandy Oxendine seems simply introductory. This notwithstanding, Simmons’s book is a worthy addition and a major contribution to an expanding field on a significant American author which challenges the way readers and scholars view American literary realism and thus the way they understand the important fiction of Charles Chesnutt.
Wilson, Matthew, ed. A Business Career. By Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
----. Evelyn's Husband. By Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sept. 2008)
by SallyAnn Ferguson
In his new study, Ryan Simmons makes an admirable--and largely successful--attempt to return Charles W. Chesnutt to his rightful position as a literary realist, after a recent critical backlash apparently generated by scholarship such as Eric Sundquist's stunning "Charles Chesnutt's Cakewalk" chapter on To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993). This particular section further unmasked Chesnutt's signifying response to mainstream America's centuries-old white supremacy hoax. Conditioned by earlier research to regard the author more as a racial accommodationist than an erudite moralist harboring deep-seated disgust at white folks who try to elevate themselves at the expense of people naturally programmed to color their skins, some contemporary critics--e.g., Joseph R. McElrath's "Why Charles W. Chesnutt Is Not a Realist" (ALR Winter 2000)--saw romantic views of Chesnutt discredited and aggressively sought to discount the writer's subtle brand of realism, which enlarges upon (rather than merely duplicates) the literary realism they knew. But as Simmons perceptively notes, whether or not scholars call this author a realist, the debate has been largely constructed in such a way that "the effect is almost inevitably to make Chesnutt a minor figure, mimicking--with greater or lesser degrees of success--the techniques of his more important peers...[when, in fact, Chesnutt] ought to be considered a major contributor to the realist movement." To the degree that it highlights Chesnutt's determination and ability to cause "readers to shift perspectives so that they acknowledge, understand, and respond to the world's realities rather than averting their eyes," Simmons's volume becomes noteworthy, even while occasionally falling prey to the very same racial fictions its author condemns.
In general, Simmons persuasively argues that, despite seeming oddities of plot, theme, and character, Chesnutt's fiction moves beyond traditional realism. For instance, in discussing the posthumously published Mandy Oxendine (1997), he, unlike Matthew Wilson in Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt (2004), does not jump to conclusions about Chesnutt's supposed inability to achieve his artistic goals, but understandingly wonders out loud "whether or not Chesnutt's failure [my emphasis]...was, in some sense, purposeful--whether his uncontrolled, haphazard appeals to readers' hearts and heads are...just possibly, a more sophisticated attempt to work through the uncontrolled, ugly nature of the world he was depicting." Simmons also shows that in an unpublished typescript entitled "The Rainbow Chasers," Chesnutt's "use of external events not only to reveal elements of its protagonist's personality but to dramatize its evolution" does indeed take the writer's "pursuit of realistic narrative one important step forward." Unfortunately, Simmons's failure to interrogate sufficiently other Chesnutt "oddities"--even though he knows that this author's trademark "narrators tend to have a canny, slippery quality, simultaneously adopting and skewering the particular perspectives they may seem to hold"--leads him to slight the novelist's signifying black perspective (what Simmons calls Chesnutt's "subdued presence of blackness") on the white lives he depicts in fiction like the also posthumously published Evelyn's Husband (2005). Consequently, he misses the novelist's cue that he is not changing his theme but switching settings in order to continue "his realist critique of romance"--a specific exploration of human nature--in "an imagined native state." The deserted island of Evelyn's Husband permits Chesnutt to further dissect westernized concepts of love and culture by comparing them with a more primitive counterpart and thus signify on the former's presumed civilization.
In the final analysis, Chesnutt and Realism does not always capture the breadth of Chesnutt's realism, which unequivocally refuses to concede to white American racism, even as it appears to do so. In his novels, Chesnutt repeatedly asks why uncolored people paradoxically target, abuse, and lust after skin-coloring human beings, answering in essays like the three that comprise his "Future American" series (1900) that Americans cannot escape evolutionary history--contrary to the racist suppositions of the Founding Fathers, who expected to nurture Benjamin Franklin's phenotypic "lovely white" in a virgin land. The fact that the human race began with a black African female--that is, without a white woman or a male of any color--apparently generated among whites as well as black males a deep resentment of nature and its human prototype. Thus, it is not surprising that Simmons' analysis continues to employ a variety of socially constructed but biologically untenable concepts such as "race" (meaning black folks only, as if whites have somehow become "raceless" or "unraced"), "mixed race," and "biracial"--all of which are based on the unfounded assumption that human beings had multiple geneses. Chesnutt himself, however, emphasizes racial wholeness, longetivity, and, most significantly, peace achieved amid heterogeneous peoples who amalgamate naturally; he refuses to accord privilege to those who perpetually seek superiority and exclusivity through genetic mythmaking. Still, the virtues of Chesnutt and Realism far oughtweigh its flaws and Simmons' volume is perhaps the best research lately that directs readers toward new ways of envisioning Chesnutt's conception of realism.
Vol. 42, No. 1 (Fall 2009)