Dropping Voices: Southern Black Agrarian Revolt in Charles Chesnutt’s Fiction
Keywords:Charles Chesnutt, Black Populism, self-made, African-American literature, working-class studies, free-labor ideology, conjure tales, The Colonel’s Dream (1905), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), ‘The Partners’ (1901)
This essay places Charles Chesnutt’s work at the intersection of race and class in order to address the still debated question of Chesnutt’s relation to the black working-class and reinterpret his now canonical fiction as deeply entwined with the political and economic life of the black agrarian masses of the US South. I argue that the conjure tales’ centrality to turn-of-the-century American literature is in its full-throated representation of the economic demands of the black agrarian masses. Furthermore, when Chesnutt ‘dropped’ Julius as his ‘mouthpiece’ his writing ultimately left behind the masses and began to speak in the accents of metropolitan self-making. I address a range of Chesnutt’s works to demonstrate the key developments in how Chesnutt imagined racial uplift and how the black agrarian masses were to be employed in razing American apartheid. This essay then gives evidence to show Chesnutt’s growing skepticism of large dispersed political movements of the masses like Black Populism in favor of the concentrated exemplars of outstanding individuals.
Copyright (c) 2023 James O'Donoghue
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