Saturday, July 14, 2018

White Weeds

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

Detail from a study for The Wedding, c. 1895, by American painter Gari Melchers (1860–1932). Click here to see the full version of the study and here to see the final painting. Images courtesy of The Athenaeum and the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
Cleveland resident Charles W. Chesnutt published his first three books in a single year; the story collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth & Other Stories of the Color Line and a biography of Frederick Douglass all appeared in 1899. During the previous dozen years Chesnutt’s stories had been published in The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, and many (probably most) of his readers, critics, and editors had assumed he was white. In fact, both of his parents were free blacks of mixed race ancestry from North Carolina, and the realization that he was African American became more commonly known when his books appeared. Although sales were moderate, the books—particularly the story collections—received widespread attention and acclaim.

In February 1900 Chesnutt met one of his admirers, the novelist and critic William Dean Howells, who published a largely positive (if somewhat patronizing) essay in the May issue of the Atlantic.
Now, however, it is known that the author of this story is of negro blood—diluted, indeed, in such measure that if he did not admit this descent few would imagine it, but still quite of that middle world which lies next, though wholly outside, our own. . . . [His stories] are new and fresh and strong, as life always is, and fable never is; and the stories of The Conjure Woman have a wild, indigenous poetry, the creation of sincere and original imagination, which is imparted with a tender humorousness and a very artistic reticence. As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins. . . .

But that is his personal affair. Our own more universal interest in him arises from the more than promise he has given in a department of literature where Americans hold the foremost place.
In spite of his early success, Chesnutt found it increasingly difficult to find publishers for his fiction. During the early months of 1904 he sent three very different stories to the Atlantic, which accepted only “Baxter's Procrustes,” a clever (and still quite funny) satire about book collectors. One of the rejected selections, “The Doll,” did not appear until April 1912, when the NAACP included it in its magazine, The Crisis. The third story, “White Weeds,” was rejected because Atlantic editor Bliss Perry believed that the aggrieved woman at the center of the story was too headstrong. In his rejection letter, Perry argued that Chesnutt’s portrait of the widow did not exhibit a proper “reverence for the innate reticences of a woman’s nature.”* Chesnutt does not seem to have submitted the manuscript elsewhere, and so this remarkable and riveting story remained unpublished until 1974, when Sylvia Lyons Render recovered it from his papers and included it in her edition of his complete stories.

“The story qualifies as one of Chesnutt’s oddest productions,” writes literary scholar Charles Duncan. Although it deals with many of the themes of Chesnutt’s earlier fiction, the plot and style recall “the kind of chilling story one might expect from Hawthorne or Poe.” The story’s title refers not only to the heroine’s unusual attire—her rebellious version of widow’s weeds—but also to the suspicions that germinate in her husband’s mind and grow into an obsession overwhelming the couple’s marriage. As biographer William L. Andrews puts it, what seems to be a “northern-based story of white upper-class life” ultimately becomes a “study of a wronged woman’s sexual revenge against her husband.”

* Quoted in William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt

Notes: The two lines of verse on page 809 are from Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”; the reference is to the arm that holds the sword Excalibur. The word distrait, an English word borrowed from the French, means inattentive or preoccupied. At the funeral, the orchestra plays Richard Wagner’s “O du mein holder Abendstern [Oh you, my lovely evening star],” an aria from the opera Tannhäuser. A quartet sings “Der schoenste Engel [The Most Beautiful Angel]” by German composer Gustav Heinrich Graben-Hoffmann.

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Students of Danforth University during the late Nineties may remember the remarkable events following the death of Professor Carson of that institution. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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