Sunday, February 15, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 264: Charles W. Chesnutt, A Matter of Principle (#264)

Charles W. Chesnutt, A Matter of Principle (1899) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays:

I don’t know how I can say it differently, except maybe to be as explicit as possible: read Chesnutt and be a better human being.

Or maybe the second doesn’t exactly follow from the first. After all, the LoA headnote says that Chesnutt is humorous when he writes about the color line in America and sometimes tragic, whereas it seems a lot more accurate to say that Chesnutt is humorous about a tragic situation that he also emphasizes the tragedy of. 

Which reminds me of Dean Howells's response to Marrow of Tradition. I hate to go back to this (i.e., I love to go back to this), but when Chesnutt writes about a white riot and Dean Howells says that the book is “bitter, bitter,” it feels less like a problem of Chesnutt’s than a problem of Howell’s. (It’s like blaming the whistleblower for the problems of the institution. It IS blaming the whistleblower for the problems of the institution, except here that institution is American racism.)

This story is like the great movie The Women, sold with the tagline, "It’s all about the men." Here’s a story about the black community of Groveland (a disguised Cleveland) which barely mentions white people at all--but the story is really all about white-black relations. And yet, and here’s why I think you should read Chesnutt, he also brings in class awareness and gender awareness: the protagonist is a well-off, light-skinned black man who is interested in marrying off his daughter to someone who is as well-off and light-skinned.

Naturally, this being a Chesnutt story, things don’t go well for the protagonist, whose prejudice against dark-skinned blacks gets in the way of marrying off his daughter to a congressman. (Instead she marries a poor relation who has gotten into the family business, which is to say that the poor relation is marrying up and she’s marrying without moving up. So she’ll still be able to employ a white maid, like her parents do, but she’ll probably not be totally accepted by the whites.)

That praise said, I do have to note that the story does sometimes make a joke and then make sure that we understand it, which feels a little old-fashioned.

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