Wednesday, February 24, 2010

He kep' on wukkin' de roots - Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman

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.


  1. "The pompous, Latinate, tedious, paternalistic" narrator appears in various works. What's surprising is that the tales they "tell" aren't that way.

    The narrators of Mann's _Doctor Faustus_ and also of the horror/fantasy tale I'm writing about now on my blog are the same. Somehow their voices change once they get into the tale proper.

  2. Could these stories have been first published in magazines? Perhaps they were never meant to be read one following another.

    At present, I'm just finishing up a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov about a small demon whose various attempts to fulfill the wishes of the human who summons him always go bad. The stories have a frame and are repetitious.

    I begin each story wondering what the wish will be this time and how the demon will manage to screw it up. The basic moral is that having one's wishes come true may be worse than not having them come true.

    The eighteen stories were actually first published in a magazine many months apart--just enough time for a feeling of familiarity to develop but not, perhaps, for it to become formulaic, if that makes any sense.

  3. I'm wondering what the lighter side of slavery might be! Oh dear.

    I did like the excerpt though. I had to mumble it to myself.

  4. Oh, sad! I just read Chesnutt's House Behind the Cedars and while I don't think I'd say it was formulaic, I think the plot and the characters took a back seat to the Message. I was not fully engaged. I was hoping The Conjure Woman would be better, but it appears not to be the case.

  5. Look, the kind-hearted commenters are trying to strengthen my limping post.

    Fred - You've described just what Chesnutt is doing with the voices the frame is parody, Uncle Julius is the real thing.

    The frame might even be a parody of The Atlantic Monthly, where the first two of the stories appeared. But the last four were actually written just for the book. Chesnutt wanted to publish a book of stories, a publisher wanted more of the "conjure" stories, and Chesnutt obliged. So he kept the frame specifically for the book, which is kind of interesting.

    Marieke - I like the excerpt, too, and like you, a little reading aloud helped me get used to the conventions of Julius's speech. Chesnutt and Julius are parodying sentimental portrayals of slave life - minstrel stuff. The narrator thinks he's too sophisticated for that sort of thing, and is wrong.

    Aarti - tomorrow, I will defend the formula! It's like a scientific experiment. Chesnutt can change one element at a time and see what happens. The Conjure Woman is really saved by Uncle Julius, its one great character. Some - not all - of Chesnutt's later stories are exactly like you describe the novel.

  6. Hmmmmm. Sounds like it didn't live up to expectation! I was looking forward to reading Chestnutt, but it sounds like I should wait and read you defense of the formula first!

    Thanks for joining the Circuit.

  7. Rebecca - no, please, don't blame Charles Chesnutt for my confusion! Just read as American ghost stories, most of The Conjure Woman works fine. But there's something else I'm trying to get at, however poorly.

    I have posted my defense, but I suspect I am just going in circles.