[On November 18, 1865, Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in The New York Saturday Press (under its original title, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “Frog” and four other local color short stories, leading up to a special weekend post on teaching such American texts.]
On the dangers and possibilities of working within a hugely popular genre.
I’ve written about Charles Chesnutt a great deal in this space, much of it through the lens of his best work and my favorite American novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901). But in this Valentine’s week post, I used the more intimate side of Chesnutt that we find in his journals to highlight his striking and important goals and ambitions for his writing career as a whole. While I would argue that Marrow alone is sufficient evidence that he achieved those goals, the frustrating truth is that Chesnutt’s writing career was cut short (he published virtually nothing for the final 25 years of his life); while there are multiple factors which contributed to that situation, one major cause was the gaps between his ambitions and the realities of the late 19th and early 20th century publishing world and literary marketplace. Much like Paul Laurence Dunbar, the popularity and demand for whose dialect poetry made it more difficult for him to publish works in other styles and forms, Chesnutt found to his frustration that many of his editors, publishers, and audiences wanted from him only a particular, stereotypical and limited version of African American writing and life.
Much of that came from outside Chesnutt and was entirely beyond his control, of course. But in one complicated way he did contribute to that pigeon-holing process: by writing and publishing a number of early stories that seemed to fall squarely within an existing, popular, stereotyping genre: the local color movement known as the “plantation tradition.” These stories, which were published throughout the 1880s and 90s and many of which were collected in The Conjure Woman (1899), featured many of the plantation tradition’s central elements: a Northern white narrator who journeys to the South; a formerly enslaved African American storyteller from whom that narrator learns about that region; threads of folklore and the supernatural interwoven with those cultural and social contexts. Indeed, so closely did Chesnutt’s conjure tales seem to resemble those included in Joel Chandler Harris’s foundational plantation tradition text Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1881) that Houghton Mifflin chose to put two grinning rabbits on either side of the African American storyteller on the Conjure Woman’s cover (despite no such rabbits appearing anywhere in the text); not Chesnutt’s choice, and an example of his frustrating relationship to publishers and publication to be sure, but also a reflection of the genre in which he firmly located these early works.
Yet as always with Chesnutt, his decision to do so was thoughtful and important. And if we read his first published conjure tale, “The Goophered Grapevine” (which appeared in The Atlantic in 1887 before becoming the opening story of The Conjure Woman), we can see just how much he used the plantation tradition genre in order to challenge and explode many of its stereotypical elements. For one thing, the stories of slavery told by Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius are consistently much darker than those told by Uncle Remus and his ilk, and the supernatural elements only serve to highlight and heighten those realistic depictions of slavery’s horrors. And for another, the relationship in the present between Julius and John (the outside white narrator) is likewise more nuanced and realistic than in most plantation tradition works—while there forms a gradual fondness between the two (along with John’s wife Annie) as the conjure tales progress, Julius also uses his acts of storytelling to advance his own agenda, often (as in “Grapevine”) in implicit but clear contrast to John’s goals. All of which is to say, if we read Chesnutt’s local color stories on their own terms, rather than giving in to the publishing perspectives that too often limited his reception and career, we find in them crucial commentaries on and challenges to local color writing itself.
Special post this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on this story? Other local color stories you’d highlight?
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