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Available February 2001, African American History Month

Note on the Texts; Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

This volume contains two collections of short stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899); two of Chesnutt's novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901); nine stories not collected by Chesnutt; and a selection of seven essays published between 1889 and 1931.

     Three stories collected in The Conjure Woman were first published in periodicals between 1887 and 1889: "The Goophered Grapevine" (Atlantic Monthly, August 1887), "Po' Sandy" (Atlantic Monthly, May 1888), and "The Conjurer's Revenge" (Overland Monthly, June 1889). These stories are connected by the recurring figure of Uncle Julius, a former slave whose tales of conjuration, drawn from folklore and rendered in dialect, are told to a northern couple who have recently moved to North Carolina. Although Chesnutt wrote, in a letter dated September 26, 1889, "I think I have about used up the old Negro who serves as mouthpiece, and I shall drop him in future stories, as well as much of the dialect," Uncle Julius continued to appear in stories written between 1889 and 1896, including "Dave's Neckliss," "A Deep Sleeper," "Lonesome Ben," and "The Dumb Witness." These stories differ from the earlier Uncle Julius tales because they do not feature conjuration and the fantastic elements in them are less prominent.

     The seven Uncle Julius stories were among the works of short fiction that Chesnutt submitted to Houghton, Mifflin in October 1897. Walter Hines Page, a senior member of the firm and an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, rejected the proposed collection and suggested that Chesnutt seek another publisher. He then added: "There is yet a possibility of Mssrs. Houghton, Mifflin and Company's doing something for you along this line—if you had enough 'conjure' stories to make a book, even a small book. I cannot help feeling that that would succeed. All the readers who have read your stories agree on this—that 'The Goophered Grapevine' and 'Po' Sandy,' and the one or two others that have the same original quality that these show, are stories that are sure to live—in fact, I know of nothing so good of their kind anywhere. For myself, I venture unhesitatingly the prediction of a notable and lasting success with them, but the trouble at present is there are only about three of these stories which have this quality unmixed with other qualities. If you could produce five or six more like these, I think I am safe in making you a double promise—first, of magazine publication, and then the collection, I think would make a successful book."

     Chesnutt responded to Page's letter by writing six "conjure" stories in April and May of 1898. Four of these stories, "The Gray Wolf 's Ha'nt," "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," and "Hot-Foot Hannibal," were included in the collection, titled The Conjure Woman, along with "The Goophered Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," and "The Conjurer's Revenge." Chesnutt made a few changes in wording in "Po' Sandy" and significantly revised "The Goophered Grapevine" and "The Conjurer's Revenge" for inclusion in The Conjure Woman. He added several paragraphs to the opening of "The Goophered Grapevine," while leaving Julius's tale as it originally appeared in the 1887 Atlantic Monthly version of the story; also, in a letter accompanying the six new stories, Chesnutt told Page of his intention to revise "The Conjurer's Revenge," writing that the story "has a good deal of extraneous matter in it, and is a trifle coarse here and there. I shall rewrite it at once, as I think it was checked by your house as suitable for book publication." "Hot-Foot Hannibal" was published in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1899; the three other 1898 stories that were included in the collection first appeared in The Conjure Woman, published by Houghton, Mifflin in March 1899. Chesnutt did not subsequently revise The Conjure Woman after the 1899 Houghton, Mifflin edition, the text of which is printed here.

     In July 1899, Chesnutt wrote to Page inquiring whether Houghton, Mifflin would be interested in bringing out a second collection of short stories "along the line of 'The Wife of His Youth,'" a story published in Atlantic Monthly in July 1898 that had received favorable attention from critics. Houghton, Mifflin quickly agreed to the proposal, announcing a forthcoming book of Chesnutt stories in the September 1899 issue of Bookman. For the volume, Chesnutt submitted nine stories written between 1887 and the summer of 1898; in an accompanying letter, Chesnutt said, "I should like to hope that the stories, while written to depict life as it is, in certain aspects that no one has ever before attempted to adequately describe, may throw a light upon the great problem on which the stories are strung; for the backbone of this volume is not a character, like Uncle Julius in The Conjure Woman, but a subject, as indicated in the title—The Color Line."

     Three of the stories in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line first appeared in periodicals: "The Sheriff 's Children" (Independent, November 7, 1889), "The Wife of His Youth" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1898), and "The Bouquet" (Atlantic Monthly, November 1899). The other six, "Her Virginia Mammy," "A Matter of Principle," "Cicely's Dream," "The Passing of Grandison," "Uncle Wellington's Wives," and "The Web of Circumstance" first appeared in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, published by Houghton, Mifflin late in 1899. (These stories had been written at various times: "The Web of Circumstance," for example, was one of the stories Chesnutt had unsuccessfully submitted to Houghton, Mifflin in 1891 for possible book publication, and "The Bouquet," "A Matter of Principle," and "Uncle Wellington's Wives" were among the pieces sent to the publisher along with some of the "conjure" stories in 1897.) Chesnutt did not revise the stories after their publication in this collection. The text printed here is taken from the 1899 Houghton, Mifflin edition.

     The House Behind the Cedars began as "Rena," an unpublished short story that Chesnutt wrote in 1889, revised at least three times between 1889 and 1891, and had expanded into a short novel by 1895. In the latter half of the 1890s, Chesnutt continued work on the manuscript, which was submitted to Houghton, Mifflin in 1899 and rejected. After Doubleday & McClure expressed interest in a newly revised version of "Rena Walden," Houghton, Mifflin decided to have a second look at the novel. In a letter to his wife dated January 27, 1900, Chesnutt wrote that although Doubleday & McClure was "real anxious to publish Rena," he would not accept its offer until he met with Houghton, Mifflin, adding, "I don't need to worry about getting publishers at present." In March 1900, Chesnutt agreed to publish the book, which was soon retitled The House Behind the Cedars, with Houghton, Mifflin. In October 1900 Chesnutt told his daughters that he had "finished reading the proofs of The House Behind the Cedars, which has been improved by the process." The House Behind the Cedars was published by Houghton, Mifflin, in late 1900, and the text of this edition is printed here.

     Much of The Marrow of Tradition is based on an outbreak of violence against African-Americans in Wilmington, North Carolina, that took place in the wake of the election of November 1898. Chesnutt visited Wilmington early in 1901 to undertake research for the novel, which was written during the spring and early summer of that year. In July 1901 he sent his completed typescript to Houghton, Mifflin; in a letter enclosed with it, Chesnutt wrote that the novel was "entirely sincere" and "certainly a much better book" than the others he had written. The Marrow of Tradition was published in October 1901 by Houghton, Mifflin and was not subsequently revised by Chesnutt. The text printed here is taken from the 1901 edition.

     This volume prints nine stories that were not collected by Chesnutt, including the four Uncle Julius stories submitted to Houghton, Mifflin in 1897 that were not included in The Conjure Woman. Three of these were published in periodicals: "Dave's Neckliss" (Atlantic Monthly, October 1889), "A Deep Sleeper" (Two Tales, March 11, 1893), and "Lonesome Ben" (Southern Workman, March 1900). For the present volume, the texts printed here of these stories are taken from their periodical publications. "The Dumb Witness" was not published during Chesnutt's lifetime. The version that appears in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, edited by Richard Brodhead (Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), is based on two drafts of the story in the Charles Waddell Chesnutt Papers at the Fisk University Library. The earlier and more complete of these drafts is a 21-page typescript which is missing its second page; the other typescript version, comprised of eight pages, represents a later stage of revision but is fragmentary and incomplete. The Duke edition is a composite text based on these typescripts, following the later typescript wherever it exists and using the first typescript for the remainder of the story. "The Dumb Witness" was revised and incorporated with an altered ending into Chapters 19 and 35 of Chesnutt's novel The Colonel's Dream (1905). The text printed here is that of the independent story in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales.

     Three of the five remaining uncollected stories were published in periodicals: "The March of Progress" (Century, January 1901), "Baxter's Procrustes" (Atlantic Monthly, June 1904), and "The Doll" (The Crisis, April 1912). The texts printed here are taken from their periodical publications. "White Weeds" was submitted with "The Doll" and "Baxter's Procrustes" to Atlantic Monthly in early 1904; but, like "The Doll," it was not accepted for publication by that magazine. It is not clear when "The Kiss" was written, but a reference in the story's final paragraph to "the war" suggests that it was completed after 1914. Neither "White Weeds" nor "The Kiss" was published during Chesnutt's lifetime. They first appeared in The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt (Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), edited by Sylvia Lyons Render. The texts of both stories as printed here are taken from The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt.

     The texts of the seven essays included in this volume come from Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). Six of these essays were published during Chesnutt's lifetime, and the editors of Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches take the texts of "What Is a White Man?" (Independent, May 30, 1889), "Superstitions and Folk-Lore of the South" (Modern Culture, May 1901), "Charles W. Chesnutt's Own View of His New Story, The Marrow of Tradition" (Cleveland World, October 20, 1901), and "Post-Bellum—Pre-Harlem" (The Colophon, February 1931) from the periodical versions. "The Future American" was published in three parts in the Boston Evening Transcript on August 18, August 25, and September 1, 1900. The text presented in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches is based on the newspaper version and incorporates emendations taken from a typescript in the Fisk University Library that was made after the newspaper publication of the essay. "The Disfranchisement of the Negro" was published in The Negro Problem (New York: James Pott & Co., 1903). The text in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches is taken from Chesnutt's corrected copy of the galley proof, now in the library of the Western Reserve Historical Society, and includes the emendation of a reading present in both the corrected galley and the published text: at 877.26, the editors change "Jackson vs. Giles" to "Jackson W. Giles," the name of the plantiff in Giles v. Harris. The present volume does not incorporate this emendation, as explained in the notes. "The Courts and the Negro" was not published during Chesnutt's lifetime. The text in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches is taken from an undated typescript in the Fisk University Library that was signed by Chesnutt and contains his handwritten emendations. An additional emendation was made by the editors of Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches: at 898.6, "Reeves" was changed to "Rives," the correct name of the appellant in Virginia v. Rives. (In presenting texts taken from typescript sources, the editors of Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches also made emendations in the punctuation of quotations and the placement of periods and commas in relation to closing parentheses and quotation marks.)

     This volume presents the texts of the original printings chosen for inclusion here, but it does not attempt to reproduce nontextual features of their typographic design. The texts are presented without change, except for the correction of typographical errors. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are often expressive features and are not altered, even when inconsistent or irregular.

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