Today's post is part of the Harlem Renaissance branch of the Classics Circuit, ably organized by Rebecca Reid and others.
The Conjure Woman (1899) is a slender book of seven formulaic stories. That sounds so negative. True, though. Each story works like this:
Our narrator, a white Northerner who has relocated to North Carolina, relates a story told to him by his employee and former slave Uncle Julius. In each story, told in dialect, a slave gets assistance from the magic powers of a conjure woman. Usually, some sort of strange transformation occurs - a slave is turned into a tree or a mule, or a master is turned into a slave. The clever narrator discovers Julius's ulterior motive, but is thwarted by his kind-hearted wife, who always does what Julius wants. Frame, story, frame.
Three reasons to read The Conjure Woman:
1. The varied and accurate (aside, I suppose, from the magic spells) portrait of slave life. The advantage of reading Chesnutt over a historian like Eugene Genovese (see Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)) escapes me.
2. The voice of Uncle Julius. In "The Goophered Grapevine" a slave becomes one with nature:
All dis time de goopher wuz a-wukkin'. When de vimes sta'ted ter wither, Henry 'mence' ter complain er his rheumatiz; en when de leaves begin ter dry up, his ha'r 'mence' ter drap out. When de vimes fresh' up a bit, Henry 'd git peart ag'in, en when de vimes wither' ag'in, Henry 'd git ole ag'in, en des kep' gittin' mo' en mo' fitten fer nuffin; he des pined away, en pined away, en fine'ly tuk ter his cabin; en when de big vime whar he got de sap ter 'n'int his head withered en turned yaller en died, Henry died too,--des went out sorter like a cannel.
Despisers of dialect writing will despise this. I have to say, I love the conceit of this story, the man who turns into a human grapevine and changes with the seasons. It feels like the eruption of an old pagan story. In each tale, Julius, and Chesnutt, are good storytellers. For some reason, Chesnutt wrote one Uncle Julius story (in the Library of America Stories, Novels, an Essays (2002), but not in The Conjure Woman) without the dialect, but as a sort of summary, and it could not have been duller.
And speaking of dull, the narrator's voice is pompous, Latinate, tedious, paternalistic. I suspect parody.
3. Because the other reason to read The Conjure Woman, the reason that the formula is useful for Chesnutt, is that the sophisticated reader is allowed to enjoy the big joke played on the narrator and his wife. In "Po' Sandy," the narrator tells us, and the readers of The Atlantic Monthly, that Julius's stories are "quaintly humorous," an reveal "the Oriental cast of the negro's imagination," but also "disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery." So the well-intentioned reader can feel both condescending and virtuous. He can, like the narrator, enjoy his chuckle when he discovers that Julius tells us that the grapevines are haunted because he wants to protect his own grape supply. Julius is crafty, but we see through him, and indulge him.
The joke, though, is that Julius is joking himself. He does not believe that his haunted grapevine story will prevent the sale of the vineyard. The ex-slave is creating an ironic history of the vineyard, and of slavery.
I don't think I have explained this at all. Let's try again tomorrow.