Tuesday, February 12, 2013
February 12, 2013: I Love Chesnutt in His Journals
[In honor of Valentine’s Day, this week I’ll be highlighting a handful of the many things—moments, voices, interesting little details that mean a lot—that I love about America. I’d love if it you’d share some of your loves for the heart-y weekend post!]
On the honesty, self-reflection, and unabashed ambition contained in the personal journals of my favorite American author.
I daresay most of us—including this AmericanStudier to be sure—have kept a youthful journal (or diary, as I called it), have recorded in secret, for our eyes only, our fears and hopes, our doubts and goals, and above all our constant romantic frustrations and failures (no, just me?). But the private journal of a young professional writer? That’s an entirely different proposition. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Nature” (1836), that “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me”; while he was arguing that that is the case for all people, I would say that it’s infinitely more true for those who hope that their writing will find a public audience. Even if the young professional writer doesn’t plan for his or her journal to be read—and honestly, it seems likely to me for many to secretly hope that they’ll become famous enough that it will—that journal nonetheless becomes an extension of the burgeoning career, a space where its possibilities and problems can be addressed, engaged with, given explicit shape and definition. And I don’t know of a more exemplary, nor more compelling and American, such young professional writer’s journal than that of Charles W. Chesnutt.
When I give my brief introduction to Chesnutt in my American Literature II survey course (on the first of our four days with The Marrow of Tradition ), I focus on many of the ways in which his life and identity existed on a complex border between different realities: born in Ohio, just before the Civil War, to parents who had been slaves in North Carolina, he then moved back to North Carolina after the war and lived there most of his adult life; born to African American parents but with both grandfathers white men (likely his parents’ owners), he was light-skinned enough to pass for white but apparently chose to self-identify as African American throughout his life; he began his career writing dialect historical fiction in the plantation tradition (although in a far more complex and subversive vein than most of the tradition’s authors), then shifted abruptly to contemporary political and social novels; and so on. One thing that makes Chesnutt’s journals so darn loveable is that he was apparently fully aware of those many complex liminal spaces he identified, and numerous moments reflect his nuanced engagement with them. One of the richest is when he takes on the task of revising and compiling a collection of African American spirituals for a charismatic local minister: Chesnutt on the one hand acknowledges that the spirituals represent a vernacular and somewhat lowbrow literary form, but on the other hand recognizes that they have a power denied much highbrow literature; he also both takes pride in his authorly role in revising and reshaping them (and the recognition he might receive) and yet admits that the minister is the real driving force behind the project (as well as in the community).
It’s on that latter theme, Chesnutt’s hopes and fears, his goals and concerns, for his literary career, that I find the journals most impressive and loveable. “My principal object,” the 19 year old Chesnutt wrote in the first entry of the journal (in 1877), is to improve myself in the art of composition”; that meant in part specific readings of and responses to rhetorical and composition advice manuals, such as Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), but also and more crucially honest and yet deeply ambitious self-reflections on his strengths and weaknesses, his potential and challenges, and above all his goals and purposes, as a writer. Some of those reflections are full of the confidence required to make it as a professional writer: responding to Albion Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand (1881), Chesnutt wonders, “Why could not a colored man write a far better book about the South?” Some are far more humble and poignant, as when Chesnutt admits that, despite having “so little experience in composition, … I think I must write a book.” Some are particularly ambitious and inspiring, as when Chesnutt frames two distinct yet interconnected social purposes for his career: “If I can exalt my race”; “The object of my writings would be the elevation of the whites.” And all, all these personal yet professional revelations, make me love Chesnutt that much more.
My next American love tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Loves you’d share for the weekend post?