Friday, June 3, 2016

The Kiss

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

Still Life with Money, Pipe and Letters, 1914, oil on canvas by Ohio artist Charles Alfred Meurer (1865–1955). Image courtesy of Artnet.
In 1887 Charles W. Chesnutt became the first African American writer whose fiction appeared in the pages of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. “Before Chesnutt’s,” contends the late Dean McWilliams, “no fiction written by a Negro had received serious attention from America’s white literary establishment.” He continued to place stories in The Atlantic and other national magazines and, in the seven years leading up to 1905, Chesnutt published three novels, two story collections, and a biography of Frederick Douglass. “And then silence—or so it seemed,” McWilliams continues. “Chesnutt published a few essays and several more stories, but there were no more book-length publications before his death in 1932.” He was discouraged by the poor critical and commercial reception of his last novel, The Colonel’s Dream, and the editors of the The Atlantic and other magazines increasingly declined to publish his stories.

Concerned with the ongoing struggle to support his family, Chesnutt turned his attention to his business career and social standing in his hometown. He received a law degree from Wilberforce University and became a member of the Cleveland Council of Sociology, a civic improvement group; the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce; and the exclusive Rowfant Club, a local bibliophile society that had initially turned down his application because it did not admit African Americans. A decade later, in 1916, an old acquaintance from his salad days in North Carolina wrote Chesnutt in praise of his books and wondered why he was no longer publishing. “I hope to write more,” he responded, “but a busy life along other lines, in these strenuous times, has given me of later years, little time for literary work. . . . I have enjoyed for many years an ample income, from the standpoint of a moderately successful professional man.”

He continued to deliver speeches on civil rights and woman suffrage—and, in fact, he never entirely gave up writing fiction. During the last two decades of his life he finished at least four books: two novels (Paul Marchand, FMC and The Quarry), a collection of dialect stories (titled “Aunt Hagar’s Children”), and a collection of children’s tales. Yet he was unable to find a publisher for any of them; the two novels remained unavailable until 1999 and the two collections were lost or destroyed.

In addition, sometime after 1914, he wrote “The Kiss”—but it would be sixty years before this story appeared in print.* In many ways, “The Kiss” differs from Chesnutt’s previous stories, which can seem almost Victorian in their fussiness, and shows an author grappling with the modern attitudes of a new century. Set in Cleveland (or, as Chesnutt calls the city in his other works, Groveland), it details the heart-rending consequences of an adulterous affair. The description of the liaison, acknowledges Chesnutt scholar Charles Duncan, “seems positively un-Chesnutt-like. Indeed, even the language of the passage, focusing on ‘primal passions’ and ‘guilty pleasure,’ makes one wonder what had gotten into this usually straitlaced, even prudish writer.”

* When “The Kiss” finally appeared in print, in a 1974 collection of Chesnutt’s complete stories, the editor speculated that it was written shortly after 1901. But the closing reference to a stay in the Swiss Alps (“honeymoon in the Engadine—it was long before the war”) suggests that the story could not have been finished before late 1914.

*   *   *
Mrs. Cartwright left the streetcar at the nearest corner, and walked the half of a city block that led to her own gateway, and up the flower-bordered flagged walk across the green lawn to the verandah where her two children, Talbot and Cecile, were playing, under the supervision of a white-capped nurse. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.