Friday, April 13, 2012

The Doll

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

In 1904 Charles W. Chesnutt submitted three stories to The Atlantic Monthly; one, “Baxter's Procrustes,” (a light, humorous satire about book collectors’ societies that we previously featured on Story of the Week) was accepted and immediately published; the other two, including “The Doll,” were turned down. During the previous two decades, Chesnutt’s fiction had appeared widely in national magazines (in 1887 he became the first African American fiction writer to appear in The Atlantic), he published two story collections, two novels, and a biography between 1899 and 1904, his work had been critically acclaimed—but his writing didn’t sell well enough to support his family. The three stories sent to The Atlantic were among Chesnutt’s last writings before he called it quits as a full-time author and turned his attention to political activism and his far more lucrative stenography business.

One hundred years ago this month, “The Doll” was dusted off and finally published—in the April 1912 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. (Chesnutt does not appear to have accepted compensation for it.) The story had been advertised by the magazine’s editors in the previous issue as “one of the literary events of the year . . . Mr. Chesnutt’s only published work since [his 1905 novel] ‘The Colonel’s Dream.’” It would be one of just four stories Chesnutt would publish during the last twenty years of his life—all in The Crisis.

A few recent scholars have suggested that the editors of The Atlantic may have found “The Doll” too provocative for its readership. The year he wrote it, a race riot in Springfield, Ohio, had culminated with a lynching. Similar incidents had occurred in Illinois and Delaware. In a speech he gave before an unidentified organization in Ohio, Chesnutt touched on these events and implored his white (and probably female) audience:
This is an incident, as indeed as are all others like it, which might well be considered with no reference to the question of race, were it not for the fact of the many similar things with which it is correlated, and the further fact that they are directed almost entirely against colored men. White criminals are not burned or otherwise lynched. But your duty here is concerned with something more important than the issue of race. Our laws are defied, our state disgraced, our civilization besmirched.
Yet Chesnutt remained optimistic that respect for the law could, at least in the North, help heal the racial divide: “the hope of humanity still lies in the doctrine of equality of all men before the law.”

In “The Doll,” as in his speech, Chesnutt examines further this distress over racial conflict and the lack of equitable justice for black citizens. The lead character is a successful black barber in Ohio; years earlier, his father was murdered—not by a lynch mob but by a lone, white, self-appointed executioner. One of the barber’s customers, a southern Democratic politician aiming to prove a point to another white friend, goads the barber with a diatribe vile in content and in language (including the calculated, aggressive repetition of what today’s readers refer to as the “n-word”). Through the surprising twists and improbable turns of his melodrama, Chesnutt forces his barber into making a stark choice: “society against self, civilization against the primitive instinct.”

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When Tom Taylor, proprietor of the Wyandot Hotel barber shop, was leaving home, after his noonday luncheon, to return to his work, his daughter, a sprightly, diminutive brown maid, with very bright black eyes and very curly, black hair, thrust into his coat pocket a little jointed doll somewhat the worse for wear. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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