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Charles Chesnutt: Biography & Short Stories

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This article discusses the author Charles Chesnutt, detailing his biography and his collection of short stories. Read the article, then test yourself with the quiz!

Introduction

In the period immediately proceeding and following the Civil War, African American freedom went from almost non-existent to common, due to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the reality of the North winning the Civil War. However, conditions were still not ideal for African Americans, particularly in the South. Some African Americans who could pass for white did so, trying to improve life for them and their families. Charles Chesnutt was self reportedly 'seven-eighths white' and could have easily passed for white. Instead, he chose to identify with his African American heritage and wrote short stories and novels about race in America.

Portrait of Charles Chesnutt at age 40
Portrait of Charles Chesnutt

Biography and Work

Charles Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1858. His family, originally from North Carolina, had relocated to Ohio prior to his birth to escape unfair treatment in the South. His family was of mixed race, and although he appeared to be Caucasian, the family chose to identify as black. Following the Civil War, Chesnutt and his family moved back to North Carolina, where his father opened a grocery store. This endeavor failed. Chesnutt then began teaching and also studying at the Howard School. Chesnutt loved to learn and this characteristic followed him throughout his life. He worked in various schools in North Carolina and even became principal of one in 1880. At this time, he met and married his wife, Susan Perry.

Due to a lack of jobs in the South, Chesnutt moved to New York to work as a court reporter, and then moved with his family to Cleveland in 1884 to study law. The court reporting business he established in New York made the Chesnutt family financially comfortable and set the stage for his later writing. He was successful at both court reporting, and in law, but felt that his writing was his true passion.

In 1887, his short story, and his most recognizable work to date, The Goophered Grapevine, was published in Atlantic Monthly. He was, unbeknownst to the editors, the first African American to publish a piece in the magazine. He kept writing stories, and in 1899, published his book, The Conjure Woman, containing more short stories involving the concept of former slaves and their relationships with their mostly unkind masters.

The Conjure Woman
The Conjure Woman cover

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