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Chronology Excerpts from The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt Introduction

The Wife of His Youth

Charles W. Chesnutt A Brief Biography


Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, the son of two free African-Americans who had moved north from Fayetteville, North Carolina, two years earlier.
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Chesnutt Biography at The North Carolina Writers' Network

Both of his grandmothers were of mixed-race, while it is probable that both of his grandfathers were white, a complex genealogy later reflected in his fiction. In 1866 his family moved to Fayetteville, where his father opened a grocery store. After attending a Freedmen's Bureau school in Fayetteville, Chesnutt taught at a school for black children in Charlotte (1873 –76) before becoming assistant principal and principal (1877 –83) of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville. In 1878, he married Susan Perry, a Fayetteville schoolteacher; they would have four children together. During this period Chesnutt continued his self-education, studying French, German, and rhetoric, and learning stenography.

     Discouraged by the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy in the South, Chesnutt returned in 1883 to Cleveland, where he eventually established a successful stenographic business. He also began publishing stories, sketches, and essays in newspapers and magazines, becoming the first African-American fiction writer to appear in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1899 Chesnutt published two story collections, The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, as well as a biography of Frederick Douglass, and decided to become a full-time writer and lecturer. His novels The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a tale of racial "passing," and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), inspired by the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, N.C., sold poorly, and in 1901 Chesnutt resumed his stenography business. He published another novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), an attack on the convict-lease system, and continued to write and speak against racial inequality. Chesnutt died in Cleveland on November 15, 1932.

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