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Happy Birthday to a Literary Leader: Charles Chesnutt at 147

Documenting the American South commemorates the 147th anniversary of the birth of Charles W. Chesnutt, a pioneering voice in African American literature and scholarship and the most prominent African-American fiction writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858 to free, mixed-race African Americans in Cleveland, Ohio, but when he was eight, the family relocated to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Chesnutt was an avid reader and dedicated student. He taught his first class at age fourteen. In 1880, Chesnutt became principal of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville. Having grown frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, he moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. There he became a stenographer and passed the Ohio bar exam.

Most of Chesnutt's literary career spans from 1887 to 1905. His first major short story, "The Goophered Grapevine," appeared in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and made Chesnutt the first African American to publish a short story in this renowned magazine. This story, one of Chesnutt's "conjure" tales, was collected with similar stories in the 1899 volume The Conjure Woman. A second collection of stories The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, appeared the same year. Both were popular and critical successes.

In 1900, Houghton Mifflin published Chesnutt's first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, which examines the plight of mixed-race southerners and the dilemmas of passing for white. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, a story based on the events of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina race riots, appeared a year later in 1901. However, this novel did not meet with the same success as his earlier stories. The Colonel's Dream, Chesnutt's final novel, appeared in 1905 and also sold poorly. After this, he produced only the occasional short story and was forced to return to stenography full-time. He died in Ohio in 1932.

Critics have focused almost exclusively on Chesnutt's fiction. However, in November 1899, Chesnutt published the biography Frederick Douglass, a volume in Small Maynard's popular series Beacon Biographies of Eminent Americans. Frederick Douglass was the first African American subject in this series, and Chesnutt was the first African American writer tapped to pen a biography.

Chesnutt's works are part of the "North Carolina Experience, Beginnings to 1940" digital collection, which contains a wide variety of print and manuscript materials that tell the story of the Tar Heel State as seen through representative histories, descriptive accounts, institutional reports, fiction, and other writing.

Jennifer L. Larson