The Perils of Modernization: Enslaving Charles W. Chesnutt’s Julius

In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, she requests critical attention to “the way an Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity” (52). There is perhaps no better way to investigate the rhetorical assertion of modernity than to investigate the reimagination of Black dialect into a modern idiom for children. I take as my example an effort to rescue Charles W. Chesnutt’s Conjure Woman Tales in the early 1970s, while Chesnutt was little more than a footnote in the canon of American literature.

Ray Anthony Shepard “retold” the tales from Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman as an E. P. Dutton children’s book under the title Conjure Tales (1973). Shepherd’s translation of Chesnutt’s tales, which he offers as a counterpart of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, inform about slavery in a way that a “tired old history book can never do” (viii-ix). More than three decades later–after Chesnutt’s ascent into undisputed canonical status for scholars of American literature–Shepard’s re-telling is itself revealing of historical silence about the period of Reconstruction and the late 19th Century, an inevitable consequence of re-telling Chesnutt’s dialect tales as stories of the present.

Shepard’s refashioning is considerable: he omits the narrative frame of white northerners Annie and John, he translates Julius’s dialect into near standard English, and he omits racist stereotypes. Chesnutt’s opening of Julius’s story in “The Goophered Grapevine,” a catalog of racist stereotypes to mark the appeal of scuppernong grapes and their raisins, offers a formidable challenge: “Now, ef dey’s an’thing a nigger lub, nex’ ter ‘possum, en chick’n, en watermillyums, it’s scuppernon’s. Dey ain’ nuffin dat kin stan’ up side’n descuppernon’ for sweetness; sugar ain’t a suckumstance ter scuppernon’. W’en de season is nigh ’bout ober, en de grapes begin ter swivel up des a little wid de wrinkles er ole age,–w’en de skin git sot’ en brown,–den de scuppernon’ make you smack yo’ lip en roll yo’ eye en wush fer mo’; so I reckon it ain’ very ‘stonishin’ dat niggers lub scuppernon’ ” (13). In Shephard’s 1970s retelling for young readers, the implicit and seemingly naive celebration of the stereotypes of race minstrelsy are unconscionable.

Shepard modernizes the dialect, replaces offensive words–Chesnutt’s word “nigger” is translated into “slave”–and omits offensive passages: “Now if there ‘s anything a slave likes, it’s scuppernong. There ain’t nothing that can stand up ‘side the scuppernong for sweetness. And when the season is just about over the grapes swell up and the sugar is strong. So I reckon it ain’t very astonishing that slaves liked scuppernong” (61). While Shepard’s “slaves” enjoy scuppernong grapes, the reteller’s technique for dealing with with Chesnutt’s comparative contexts is to omit, so modern readers have no possum, chicken, or watermelon to compare with grapes, and no smacking lip or rolling eye.

While Shepard’s aims are laudable from a perspective on undoing the work of racist stereotypes, another aspect of Shepard’s re-telling deserves attention. Shepard’s Julius speaks in both present and past tense whereas Chesnutt’s Julius speaks in present tense. Chesnutt’s Julius lives as a late nineteenth-century freed slaves looking back to the antebellum past of slavery, but his stories reveal the horrors of slavery while also influencing John’s present-day management of the farm. In Shepard’s translation, Julius must switch tenses from present to past to accommodate Shepard’s substitution of “slave” for Chesnutt’s “nigger.”

Even someone aware of recent scholarly criticism, who knows that Chesnutt aimed to reshape the sentiments of the magazine audience by appealing to the latent racist stereotypes of even readers who express outward sympathy to the “Negro” race, could find the bald offensiveness of Julius’s assertions troubling. And yet, “The Goophered Grapevine” was Chesnutt’s breakthrough tale, the first to appear in Howells’s Atlantic and the opening tale in Chesnutt’s 1900 collection.

The Julius of Shepherd’s re-told tale ends his observations in the antebellum past, where “slaves liked scuppernong,” but he begins his remarks with an observation that applies to the storytelling present: “if there’s anything a slave likes, it’s scuppernong.” At the outset of Shepherd’s telling, Julius is trapped in a prison-house of modernized language: his present tense re-enslaves him into a past that is contemporaneous with the storytelling present. While Shepherd’s translation addresses the harm of racist language, Chesnutt’s designs on the racially progressive reader (one at best dimly aware of his her own racism) has been eviscerated in Shepard’s version of the tale. The original Julius’s tale of antebellum times, unmoored from its consequences for the late-nineteenth-century audience’s present, is shunted into the antebellum past, with Sheperd’s teller Julius, if only by accident, forced in the re-told tale to narrate the present as a “slave.”

Joseph Grigely, in a searching analysis of the Reader’s Digest revision of Tom Sawyer, commented incisively on the consequence of absent history in absent words: “The absence of a certain history is therefore a rationale for the absence of certain words; and by this process, a new history of absence is constructed, a history that is in part about purifying and cleansing” (Textualterity 43). While Shepard’s revision of Chesnutt addresses an implied audience of children in the 1970s, his work participates in a larger amnesia, in which the landmarks in American historical memory are slavery and the Civil Rights struggle. Shepard is a 1970s-era writer whose intended audience presumably knows history only as taught in primary and secondary school–it is a children’s book, after all–and one can understand his decision to avoid providing an introduction to a hundred years of African American history. But the span of nearly 100 years between the the Civil War and twentieth-century Civil Rights movement–Chesnutt wrote in the last decade of the nineteenth century–is nearly invisible.

When a text from some past moment is reprinted, it joins the present even as it echoes in altered form its previous moment in the past. When a text is prepared for engagement with present culture, some aspects of a text’s engagement with earlier historical moments are silenced. The act of editorial modernization in translating Black dialect to standard English for children provides an indisputable marker that cultural work is being done, but more subtle acts may also participate in modernizing an Africanist idiom by marking out that which cannot be translated against that which can. Perhaps even the most subtle of silent modernization–reforming typographic features thought to reflect idiosyncratic printing practices of an earlier age–have consequences for our reading of historical texts.

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Chesnutt, Charles W. The Conjure Woman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1900.

Grigely, Joseph. Textualterity : art, theory and textual criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Shepard, Ray Anthony. Conjure tales by Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: Dutton, 1973.

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A subsequent post will focus on the practices of silent modernization in texts prepared for scholars, in Kenneth S. Lynn’s (1962) and Ann Douglas’s (1986) Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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