Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Bouquet

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

“For white people only. Others please keep out.” Detail from drawing by American illustrator Clyde O. De Land (1872–1947) for “The Bouquet” in The Wife of the Youth & Other Stories of the Color Line (1899). Click on image to see full drawing. Courtesy Documenting the American South / UNC–Chapel Hill.
The short stories of Charles W. Chesnutt had been appearing in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly for a decade when, in October 1897, the author sent two more new works to Walter Hines Page, an editor at the magazine and a reader for the book publisher Houghton Mifflin. Page responded that he enjoyed both stories but felt obliged to decline them because the magazine already had two previous works by Chesnutt in its backlog of yet-to-be-published fiction. But Page concluded his letter with a tantalizing proposal: “I have thought, too, that a skillfully selected list of your short stories might make a book. Whenever you are in the humor to talk about things, let me hear from you.”

Few authors would ignore such a hint. Within days Chesnutt responded with a list of stories, both published and unpublished, that might be gathered into a book. Page told him to send all except two novella-length works to Houghton Mifflin, and staff readers would review them with the goal of creating “a book of sufficient unity to be put upon the market.” Just three weeks after Page first broached the idea, Chesnutt sent off a bundle of twenty stories for his first collection.

After mulling over the proposal for several months, Houghton Mifflin decided against publication, but the editors suggested that three or four of the “conjure stories” (tales featuring black folklore and superstitions), if supplemented by new pieces, “might make a book, even a small book.” In April and May 1898 Chesnutt wrote a handful of new pieces to add to the previous tales, and a selection of seven stories, all told by former slave Uncle Julius McAdoo, appeared as The Conjure Woman the following March.

Suddenly, things were coming together for Chesnutt’s writing career. The previous summer The Atlantic had finally published “The Wife of His Youth,” one of the two stories in the backlog mentioned by Page. Its appearance in the July 1898 issue caused a sensation, capturing the attention of both the magazine’s readers and national reviewers. The publicity from the story, combined with the positive critical attention generated by The Conjure Woman, emboldened Chesnutt to suggest that Houghton Mifflin editors might issue a collection of stories similar in theme and subject to “The Wife of His Youth,” including a few of the selections they had rejected the first time around. “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.” His proposal was immediately accepted, and the new book was issued only eight months after his first collection appeared.

As an African American author seeking a national audience, Chesnutt faced a dilemma each time he wrote about racial injustice. He wanted to expose the inequities and pretenses of the so-called “New South,” among other topics of the “color line”—but editors scorned anything that seemed polemical in stories about race. Or, as Chesnutt biographer William L. Andrews put it, “Somehow Chesnutt had to adapt his most original but most potentially controversial subject matter, the caste system in the South, to the exigencies of the genteel white literary market.” In some stories Chesnutt met that challenge by diluting the social message with a dose of pathos. “Segregation is not pictured as a socioeconomic system in ‘The Bouquet,’” Andrews writes of one the collection’s tales. “It is a moral blight which ultimately thwarts the [American reader’s] love of little children.”

When the editors of The Atlantic selected a story from the collection to coincide with the book’s publication, they chose “The Bouquet”—which, as it happens, was one of the two stories Page had returned to Chesnutt two years earlier. After The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line appeared in November 1899, the story proved to be a favorite among readers and critics; one reviewer called it “the simplest of them all [and] the most perfect.” Yet both its simplicity and its sentimentality are deceptive; as literary scholar Eugene Terry argued four decades ago in a groundbreaking study of Chesnutt’s fiction, the schoolchild, in her abject loyalty to her teacher, is living a nightmare, one in which she has less status than the teacher’s devoted dog.

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Mary Myrover’s friends were somewhat surprised when she began to teach a colored school. . . . 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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