Though he achieved literary success in his time, Chesnutt has only recently been rediscovered and his contribution to American literature given its due. The only known private diary from a nineteenth-century African American author, these pages offer a fascinating glimpse into Chesnutt's everyday experience as he struggled to win the goods of education in the world of the post-Civil War South. An extraordinary portrait of the self-made man beset by the urgencies and difficulties of self-improvement in a racially discriminatory society, Chesnutt's journals unfold a richly detailed local history of postwar North Carolina. They also show with great force how the world of the postwar South obstructed--and, unexpectedly, assisted--a black man of driving intellectual ambitions.
About the Author
Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) is the author of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories (1899), The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Colonel's Dream (1905). The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, a collection of Charles W. Chesnutt's short stories, is also published by Duke University Press.Richard H. Brodhead, Professor of English at Yale University, is the author of numerous books about nineteenth-century American literature.
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The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt
By Richard H. Brodhead
Duke University PressCopyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
FIRST JOURNAL, 1874–1875
Charlotte, Journal and Note-book 1874.
July 1. While Mr. Harris was packing up to-day for his Northern trip, I came upon his journal, one which he kept several years ago, and obtaining his permission, I have read a part of it. In fact nearly all. After reading it, I have concluded to write a journal too. I don't know how long I shall stick to it, but I shall try and not give it up too soon.
Mr. Harris left this evening, on the 7 o'clock train for Fayetteville. From Fayetteville he intends to go to Cleveland, Ohio (my birthplace). I have been teaching with him for the last 9 mos. It is now the summer vacation, and having a First Grade Teachers Certificate, which entitles me to (40) forty dollars a month, I have concluded to stay in this country and teach during it (the vacation). I have a school 5 miles from here, on the Statesville Rail-Road. I shall begin if possible next Monday, the 5th of July. The name of the church at which I am to teach is Rockwell, and the name of the township is "Malley Creek."
July 2nd. I have been reading "A Handbook for Home Improvement." Published by Fowler & Wells, New York. It comprises "How to write," "How to Behave[,]" How to talk, and "How to do Business[.]" It is a very good book and I shall proceed to copy a few paragraphs.
The Daily Bath
"To keep clean you must bathe frequently. In the first place you should wash the whole body with pure soft water every morning on rising from your bed, rubbing it till dry with a coarse towel, and afterward using friction with the hands. If you have not been at all accustomed to cold bathing, commence with tepid water, lowering the temperature by degrees till that which is perfectly cold becomes agreeable. In warm weather, comfort and cleanliness alike require still more frequent bathing. Mohammed made frequent ablutions a religious duty; and in that he was right. The rank and fetid odors which exhale from a foul skin can hardly be neutralized by the sweetest incense of devotion.
["]The feet are particularly liable to become offensively odoriferous, especially when the perspiration is profuse. Frequent washings with cold water with the occasional use of warm water and soap, are absolutely necessary to cleanliness.
Change of Linen
"A frequent change of linen is another essential of cleanliness. It avails little to wash the body if we inclose it the next minute in soiled garments. It is not in the power of every one to wear fine and elegant clothes, but we can all, under ordinary circumstances, afford clean shirts, drawers and stockings; never sleep in any garment worn during the day; and your night[shirt] should be well aired every morning.
"You will not, of course, go into company or sit down to the table with soiled hands, but unless you can habituate yourself to a special care of them, more or less dirt will be found lodged under your nails. Clean them carefully every time you wash your hands, and keep them smoothly and evenly cut. If you allow them to get too long, they are liable to be broken off, and become uneven and ragged, and if you pare them too closely they fail to protect the ends of the fingers."
"The use of tobacco has made us a nation of spitters," as some one has truly remarked. Spitting is a private act, and tobacco users are not alone in violating good taste and good manners by hawking and spitting in company. You should never be seen to spit. Use your handkerchief carefully, and so as not to be noticed, or in case of necessity leave the room.
"Never pare or scrape your nails, pick your teeth, comb your hair, or perform any of the necessary operations of the toilet in company. All these things should be carefully attended to in the privacy of your own room. To pick the nose, dig the ears, or scratch the head or any part of the person in company is still worse[.] Watch yourself carefully, and if you have any such habits, break them up at once. These may seem little things, but they have their weight, and will go far in determining the character of the impression we make upon those around us."—How to Behave.
July 3rd. Yesterday evening I went up to the Section-House to complete the preparations for my school. As I stepped off the car, Cap't. Johnson, one of the School Committee, got off also, and addressed me. He asked me was I not the young man who was up there looking for a school. I answered in the affirmative, and he told me that he had forgotten that those people had got money for a school-house, and that there was no money for that school. That knocked my school "higher than a kite." I went down to B. Johnson's last night to see if there was a school on his circuit. He was not at home.
9 o'clock, p.m. I went to see Mr. Johnson this morning and he said he thought I could get a school on his circuit. But alas! I hired a saddle-horse, (he cost me a dollar), and rode down to Morrow's Turnout. As I crossed the boundary line between this township (Charlotte) and Pineville, I had to pass through the boundary fence, for the Fence law is in action in that township. After reaching Morrow's, I saw Mr [illegible name: Youance?], one of the school committee and he told me that all the colored schools in that Tp. were in operation. On my way back I stopped too see another of the School committee, Mr. Elliott, who was in another school district. He said there was no school house for the colored people. I returned home, paid my livery-stable bill, and here I am. I don't know what to do. I shall continue trying. As all, or nearly all the schools in Mecklenburg are filled, I think I shall try another county. I ought to make "Nil desperandum" my motto.
July 6th. Saturday, the 4th of July, was the 98 anniversary of American Independence. It was a dull day here. There was nothing going on more than usual. I went up town to look around and see the country folks about a school. Got on the track of one. It was in the same township Mr. Petty was to teach in. Yesterday, Sunday, I went out to Moore's Sanctuary to find of Mr. Petty who the school committee were. I waited until morning service was over, and he told me that he had lost his school, that there was but $89.93 in the treasury for that school, and that they were going to build a school-house with it, and that there was but $20.00 for the school I was on the track off. I started back to town about half-past 12 and got there about half-past 1 o'clock. Now, not knowing where to find a school, I have a notion of going to Raleigh, and seeing Mr. Harris to find out if there [are] any schools down about home. From thence I think I shall go home; for I have got to make my living somehow, and I am not making anything, but spending all the time. I hear that William Stokes died of fever last night. He was a fine young fellow, and I am sorry, indeed.
August 10. It has been a good while since I have written any of this journal, but I will try and make amends for my fault. When I wrote the above I was about going up to Gaston Co. to look for a school. I went, but got no school. I walked 23 mis. that day and when I reached town, very much fatigued, I met Mr. Harris at Grampy's. That evening I packed up and started home with Mr. H. Reached Raleigh and put up at Mr. Alston's. I met Mr. Robert and Mary and Mrs. H. Mr C. R. and his mother, started for Richmond at nine o'clock.
July 15th 1875 The Old, Old Story.
Tell me the old old story,
Of unseen things above
Of Jesus and his glory
Of Jesus and his love
Tell me the story simply
As to a little Child,
For I am weak and weary
And helpless and defiled.—
I thought I did not have this, but I have it in Pure Gold.
O the Old, Old Story! it shall be told forever,
"And when in scenes of glory
We sing the new, new song,
'Twill be the Old, old Story,
That I have loved so long."
"Man proud man
Dres't in a little brief authority
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep."
"'Tis sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark,
Bay deep mouthed welcome as we draw near home,
'Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming and look brighter when we come;"
Malord's Quotation Byron—Don Juan
Canto 1. [stanza] CXXIII
Green grow the rashes, O!
Green grow the rashes, O!
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend
Are spent among the lasses O.
[A further line written at the bottom of this now-crumbled page is indecipherable.—Ed.]
Adventure in the Capital
I staid over a day to look around and to attend the Educational Convention. Attended two sessions, and heard some excellent speeches and papers read. The last time I went, to hear Merrimon on Education[.] About the middle of this discourse, I went out on the verandah to cool, and fell asleep on an old sofa. When I awoke, the meeting had adjourned. I blundered downstairs, and wandered about a good while, but reac[h]ed Mr. Alston's at last. The next day I started for home. I arrived at about 8 P.M., took my valise and [indecipherable line] and the children were at home. Lilly was talking very plain, and I was surprised at her. I spent the next day (Saturday) visiting. I "bummed" around home a week or so, and then I got the School at Mt. Zion, where I am now teaching. There was a female, I can scarcely say lady, teaching a subscription school out there. But when I got the public school, she got "miffed," and stopped a week before her term was out. She wrote me an insulting letter, and in a few weeks she left for "Baston." She was a sister of ——. She did not have much reputation about here. She said she followed —— down here, because she said he had promised to marry her. She said she had a husband but had left. She "cut up quite a shine" around here for awhile. She called herself [name erased: Mary Perry.] I began to teach Monday, 26th of July. I am getting along very well now, and have 44 scholars, several from town. There are a few somewhat hard cases, but I manage to manage them. I am learning to play on the organ, at Mr. Harris'. On Thursday last, Election Day, I acted as clerk at Rockfish Village. It is a right nice little place, has a splendid water-power, which runs a fine factory, built of brick. It is named "Hope Mill." I wished very much to go and see the work, but could not, as my business would not allow me. The Democrats gained from 5 to 15 votes at Rockfish.
August 12. Yesterday I went to town after school, and lost my watch chain on the way. I bought another and a key for a quarter dollar from my old friend "Cheap John." I went to Mr. Harrises, and practiced a little. Returning home, I met Democratic Delegation from Gray's Creek, for the Grand Democratic Rally last night. I suppose they had a "large-sized" time. I hear today that Buxton is elected; and Hyman, the colored candidate for Congress in the eastern part of the state is also elected. This some what weakens the Democratic victory.
To-day I have been reading magazines, Algebra, Theory of T, U.S. History and so on. This evening I went over to Leary's, ate peaches, &c. and so on.
Lost in a swamp.
"Nathan," said my father to me after nooning-time, one day, "I want you to saddle the old gray mare, and go over to Tom Bright's after some seed-corn. Take a bag and get a bushel, in the ear." "You had better be spry or you'll not get back before night.
Tom Bright lived about five miles of[f], on the opposite side of a large swamp. The country on our side was very thinly settled at that time, but on the other side it was more thickly settled. We had made but a poor crop the year before. Farmer Bright was a celebrated farmer, and raised the best corn in the county.
I saddled the mare and started at once. In about two miles, I struck into the swamp. It was a large swamp about two miles wide and 10 miles long. After riding as I thought about two miles, I thought I ought to be getting out of it. But instead of getting out of it, I was getting deeper and deeper into it, as I soon found, to my dismay.
I did not know the roads any too well, and had taken a wrong turn. I tried to retrace my steps, but they were lost in grass, as the roads were but little used. As the weather was cloudy, I could not divine my way by the sun, and I knew not which way to go. I was lost in the swamp. I wandered on for several hours, through blind roads. Night was coming on, and the tall trees and thick underbrush made my road particularly gloomy and sombre. The frogs began to croak, and I heard the howl of wolf afar of[f] (there were a few left around that part of the country) and it sounded ominous indeed to me. What if the wolves should attack me? I had no weapon to defend myself. My horse was but a poor runner. They would overtake me, and devour me.
Filled with these gloomy reflections, I still continued my way. It had been cloudy all day, but now it began to clear off, and although the woods were so thick that I could not see it, the moon began to shine[.]
In a short time I heard the sound of falling water, and turning into a side road, soon arrived at an old deserted mill. Here the woods were somewhat closed out, and looking at the Pole-star, I found my course, and taking an old road in that direction a few miles ride brought me to a house. I stayed there during the night, and in the morning thanked the people, and inquired the way to Farmer Bright's, where I soon arrived. I related my adventure, got my corn, and one of the farmers boys carried me into the home-road, where I soon arrived, to the great relief of my parent, who didn't know what was become of me.——Chas. Chesnutt
The above is my first real attempt at literature. The reader will please pardon all faults an[d] errors and I will try and do better next time. (If any one reads it besides myself).
Aug 15th. To-day I went to Mr. Harris', worked algebra, played on the organ, read and so forth. I got a "Barnes' History of the U.S. It is arranged in epochs, each containing the history of some particular time. Epoch 1 extends from 1492, when Columbus discovered America[,] to 1607, the settlement of Jamestown Virginia. It treats of the Spanish French and English explorations, discoveries and settlements,on the continent.
Epoch 2. From 1607, the settlement of Jamestown, to 1775, the breaking out of the Revolutionary War. Its title is "The development of the colonies.
Epoch 3. The Revolutionary War. This epoch extend[s] from 1775 & the breaking out of the Revolutionary War to 1787, the adoption of the Constitution.
Epoch 4. The development of the States. This epoch extends from 1787, the adoption of the Constitution, to 1861, the breaking out of the Civil War, or Rebellion.
Epoch 5. The civil War. This epoch extends from 1861, the breaking out of the Rebellion, to 1865, Lee's surrender, and contains an account of that gigantic struggle.
Epoch 6. Reconstruction and passing Events. This epoch extends from the close of the civil war to the present time.
This is a brief one-term school history of "Our Country", but I like the arrangement of the topics, and, the whole book very well indeed. I may from time to time give an outline of some part of it from memory.
Aug. 17th. I received a letter from C. R. Harris the other day (14th) stating that he had engaged an assistant teacher, Miss Victoria Richardson, a neice of his. Unless there is funds sufficient to employ another assistant, this knocks all my chance of getting back to Charlotte "higher than a kite." But in this case I can get a school in the country, and practice government better. I am advancing steadily in my studies. Yesterday (16) I went to Mr. H's, played on the organ, and then went up to the Schoolhouse and played a tune or so on that. It is a nice one, "Mason & Hamlin" 5 octave. I like it very much. I borrowed a chair from the school house yesterday to sit in at my school.
This evening Mr. Revels, going home from his work, heard the bell of his cow, over about the back of Joe. Atkins's field, went back there after the cow, and began calling her. Joe Atkins was at home, and being "tight" he heard Mr. Revels and started over that way cursing him, and swearing he would kill him &c. Laura, his wife, and Bill, his son, started after him. Mr. Revels seeing him coming, raised his ax and stood on the defensive. Joe rushed up on him, tried to take the ax away from him, and threw him down, and got on top of him. Mr. Revels, not turning loose the ax[,] they had a tussle. Bill came up and tried to pull him off. Just then Laura came up and threw a brick at him, and, as I heard, smashed it to pieces over his head. The combined efforts of Bill and Laura got him off. I did not hear the rest of this affair, but I will conjecture it. Mr. Revels backed off a little, shook his fist, and threatened Joe largely, said he would have satisfaction, and scared Joe a little. At night Joe came down to Mr. Revels' to talk, to reason with him. But Mr. Revels would n't talk, so I don't know how they have, or will fix it. P.S. Mr. Revels got out a writ against Joe, and Joe submitted and paid the costs. Mr. Revels said "If it hadn't for that boy, 'Bill,' I expect he would have [illegible word: walloped?] me pretty Bad.
Another Incident. Yesterday Jack Pettifoot, lying asleep in the cooper shop where he works. A woman was in there joking with the men, and picked up a shaving and threw it on him. Jack jumped up, rushed out of the shop, down the hill, into the creek, and started down the stream into deep water. He fell several times, and when he got out of his depth Andy Murchison, a workman, got him out after he sank several times. When he returned to consciousness he was conveyed home. Charley went to see him last night and asked him, what was the matter. He said "nothing." Charley asked him why he was so mad[.] He said "He and the boys were playing throwing water on each other and wet him". Charley said he had quite a wild look in his eyes. He has a very ungovernable temper, and this is very strange.
Excerpted from The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt by Richard H. Brodhead. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
A Note on the Text 37
First Journal, 1874-1875 39
Second Journal, 1877-1881 85
Third Journal, 1881-1882 157