"To Be An Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1889-1905

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Author: JULIAN MASON
Date: Fall 1998
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 51, Issue 4)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,858 words

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"To Be An Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1889-1905, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz III. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. xv, 248 pp.

To me 1966 was and is an auspicious year. In the spring the University of North Carolina Press published my edition of The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, the first scholarly edition of her works, with appropriate introduction and notes, which finally made her poems and letters readily available to and appreciated by all who might read them. (In a 1989 revised and enlarged edition it is still available and helping to accomplish those purposes.) In the fall of 1966 I read my first paper at a scholarly meeting. It was "Charles W. Chesnutt as Southern Author," on a panel on "Re-Evaluations of Southern Novelists" which also included papers on Cable, Wolfe, and Cabell, at the meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. (All four papers were published the next spring in the Mississippi Quarterly.) This may have been the first paper on Chesnutt read at such a scholarly meeting, and my purpose was to call for and make a case for Chesnutt's inclusion as a Southern writer, which from the vantage point of today would hardly seem to have been needed, but which was then "a radically different" emphasis on him (to use words from the introduction to that issue of this journal). In both cases I was trying to help serious readers become aware of and appreciate the roles of African-American writers in American literature. The "profession of letters" has come a long way down that road since then, but there still is much to be done and much being done, of which these editions of writings by Horton and Chesnutt are good demonstrations.

Another context in which both of these books can be appreciated is seen in the question raised a few years ago by a committee of the Modern Language Association about the value of scholarly editions of authors' works when their editors are being considered for promotion and tenure and for monetary considerations. That is, what is their place in academic personnel and reward considerations? I responded by pointing out that in two recent years in a row the Hugh Holman award given by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature for the best book in the study of Southern literature had gone to scholarly editions of letters which had served the extremely admirable, worthwhile, and much needed role of providing to readers-at-large important writing by significant authors to which they would not have had ready access otherwise, and doing so with careful attention to accuracy of text and to providing good contexts and understanding through introduction and annotation. Certainly this is evidence of exceptional and valuable scholarly activity which...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A54552452