Architecture, Race, and Memory in Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Stories
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at the second phase of Charles Chesnutt's Uncle Julius stories, the so-called “piazza tales” which centers on the southern piazza as the central imaginative location in the conjure stories. This phase of Chesnutt's conjure tales is a crucial one, for it is here that he formulates an aggressively revisionist historicism that marks his own striking contribution to what architectural historian Dolores Hayden has termed “a politics of place construction.” The chapter shows how both the politics and the place in these stories emerge from Chesnutt's earlier fiction, particularly the first phase of conjure tales. Tracing the evolution of the piazza as a central imaginative space for Chesnutt leads to an accurate measurement of the costs and capitulations exacted by his eventual return to the “preferred fictions” of the final phase of stories. Reading the conjure tales in this way helps establish Chesnutt as one of the late nineteenth century's most incisive interpreters of race and the built environment.
Architecture is not simply a mechanical contrivance but an essay in the art of communication, a complex web of memories and messages.
When Charles W. Chesnutt surveyed his literary prospects in the fall of 1889, he had every reason to be optimistic. In the previous two years Chesnutt had placed three of his conjure (or “Uncle Julius”) tales in the Atlantic Monthly, becoming the first African American fiction writer to be published by such an influential arbiter of national taste. During the same period, he had struck up fruitful correspondences with Albion Tourgée and George Washington Cable, prominent white authors and social reformers who read and commented favorably on Chesnutt’s work. New stories, including the beginning of a first novel, were flowing from Chesnutt’s pen, and a fourth conjure tale was about to appear in the Overland Monthly. Feeling sure of his talent and connections—but also ambivalent about the imaginative and professional constraints that continuing in the Uncle Julius “plantation school” vein might impose—Chesnutt plotted the next steps of his career. First, he would publish a collection of his stories, gathering the Atlantic tales together with a selection of his nondialect work to make a book. Then he would stop writing conjure tales altogether and concentrate instead on more up-to-date representations of the American color line. As Chesnutt explained to Tourgée that September, “I think I have about used up the old Negro who serves as a mouthpiece, and I shall drop him in future stories, as well as much of the dialect.”1
Uncle Julius would thus help facilitate Chesnutt’s arrival as a book author—and then disappear. But the book that Chesnutt proposed never materialized. (p.68) As critics like Richard Brodhead have shown, in the wake of that optimistic fall of 1889, Chesnutt encountered a period of “literary blockage,” not consolidated success, as white editors—even at Houghton Mifflin, the parent house of the Atlantic—rejected not only Chesnutt’s proposed collection but more signally (and despite multiple revisions) the new color line story into which he poured much of his post-1889 energy, “Rena Walden.”2 It was not until 1898, nearly ten years later, that Chesnutt would finally strike his “entering wedge” into the literary world, although not in precisely the fashion he had imagined. For after reading through yet another of Chesnutt’s story collections, Atlantic editor Walter Hines Page decided in March 1898 to commission more “‘cunjure’ stories” to fill out a possible book of North Carolina dialect tales. Chesnutt quickly complied, hammering out six tales in seven weeks, four of which Page then matched with Chesnutt’s original Atlantic stories to make The Conjure Woman, which would appear to strong reviews in 1899. The irony here, of course, as Brodhead has aptly remarked, is that Chesnutt’s success would come only through a return to the same plantation genre—and its “preferred fictions of racial life”—that he had earlier sought to leave behind.3 Chesnutt would have his collection, but he would have to resurrect Uncle Julius to do so.
But in fact Chesnutt had not stopped writing Julius tales at all. Three times during his “blocked” decade—and well before Page’s commission—Chesnutt turned of his own accord back to the plantation tale, to dialect, and to Uncle Julius. Why would the calculating author revisit a supposedly “used up” genre? Not, as one might imagine, in anticipatory deference to a proposition like Page’s. Chesnutt did so, I argue, in order to explore in more detail what he found he had not “used up” in the earlier Julius stories: what we might call (following Dell Upton) the “social experience” of American architecture.4 For what we discover when we look closely at the second phase of Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius stories—the three pieces written between his 1889 letter to Tourgée and the 1898 summons from Page—is that the meticulously framed conjure tales offered Chesnutt a surprisingly versatile form through which to elaborate a penetrating investigation into race, memory, and the built environment that, it turns out, he had been developing since his first published story. The contours of this investigation become clear only when we isolate each of the phases of Chesnutt’s conjure production.5 Doing so will shed light not only on the tales themselves, particularly the often overlooked stories of the second phase, but, more significantly, on the importance of the meanings of place to African American writers in the 1890s. An “architectural” reading of the three phases of the conjure tales, I (p.69) will suggest, brings into relief the sustained and complex inquiry that Chesnutt, foremost among his contemporaries, undertook into the ways that social relations, as historian Rhys Isaac has put it, are “incised” upon a society’s living space.6
This was an important—and risky—project to undertake in the 1890s. The closing decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a particularly rabid cycle of neocolonial enthusiasm that expressed itself not just in architectural forms but in broader social and cultural movements as well. Anti-immigrationism, for example, shared both a vocabulary and an ideology with Colonial Revivalism. So, too, did the popular genre of plantation fiction, which sought, through an equally purposeful recourse to the perceived ideals of the past, to fix its own definitions of the proper meanings of “place” for black Americans in the Jim Crow era. Chesnutt wrote in part in reaction to these movements, using his interest in the social experience of architecture to challenge their assumptions and expose their motives, often by literally and figuratively playing with their forms. As Frederick Douglass declared in 1888, “The colored people of this country are bound to keep the past in lively memory til justice shall be done them.”7 Through the vivid recollections of Uncle Julius, Chesnutt (who would become Douglass’s biographer in 1899) campaigned for a just present by marshaling countermemories of an unjust past. Given the ideological climate of the decade, it is not surprising that the second phase of conjure stories failed to put Chesnutt back on the literary map.
I have called these Chesnutt’s “piazza tales” because it is the southern piazza that becomes the central imaginative location in the conjure stories.8 Much as nearly every conjure tale is framed in precisely the same way—with an outer story set in the present introducing an inner story, told by Julius, from the plantation past—so too is nearly every tale staged in some significant way on the deck of a piazza. Ten of the thirteen conjure tales feature piazzas, which always appear in the outer story and occasionally in the inner tale. Eight of the ten open on the front porch of the frame narrator, John, the white northerner who has moved to North Carolina with his wife, Annie, and bought Julius’s former master’s plantation. Eight of Julius’s own tales are told on that same porch; a ninth begins away from the house but concludes on its back piazza. In two stories, piazzas mark important sites of action in Julius’s tale itself. Robert Stepto, the only critic to consider these insistent and intriguing sitings in any detail, rightly suggests that the piazza is a “logical revision” of the log on which Julius, John, and Annie sit in the first tale, “The Goophered Grapevine.” Stepto argues:
(p.70) The movement from the log of the first story to the carriage of the second [“Po’ Sandy”] to the piazza of the third [“The Conjurer’s Revenge”] communicates that John and Annie are now fully in residence in the South and that a traditional context for storytelling has been constructed. Moreover, it suggests a didactic strategy expressed through the siting of storytelling which plays a major role in the education of John and Annie as listeners. More so than the log or carriage, the “reconstructed” piazza of a southern plantation Big House is a “charged field,” full of reference to history and ritualized human behavior.9
Stepto’s discerning account, however, only begins to describe the multiple relays to which Chesnutt’s piazzas give access. For the story of the piazza in the conjure tales is embedded in an even denser web of American histories than Stepto’s “charged field” model suggests, histories crucial to an understanding of the ways that memories of slavery and Reconstruction were being shaped in the 1880s and 1890s. These histories include the polycultural evolution of domestic architecture; the reproduction and racialization of the southern landscape; and the nostalgic yearnings of not just the Colonial Revival but also its early nineteenth-century counterpart, the Classical Revival. What is perhaps most intriguing in the conjure tales’ engagement with these reconstructions of the past is the suggestion in “The Dumb Witness” (a second-phase story) that the cherished southern piazza, which in its grandest form becomes a conspicuous architectural marker of white power and prestige, may actually have its roots in the vernacular building traditions of West Africa, crossing the Atlantic in the minds and hands (and memories) of black slaves.
Thus in this chapter I argue that the second phase of Chesnutt’s conjure tales is a crucial one, for it is there that Chesnutt shapes an aggressively revisionist historicism that marks his own striking contribution to what architectural historian Dolores Hayden has elsewhere termed “a politics of place construction.”10 I show how both the politics and the place in these stories emerge from Chesnutt’s earlier fiction, particularly the first phase of conjure tales. Once we trace the evolution of the piazza as a central imaginative space for Chesnutt, we can then also measure more precisely the costs and capitulations exacted by his eventual return to the “preferred fictions” of the final phase of stories. And yet even amid that phase’s revisions and retreats we will be able to spot the resistances still at work within those compromised tales, as well as the ongoing interest in the forms and meanings of architecture that would mark, in different degrees, Chesnutt’s next (p.71) major projects, the novels The House behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition.
Reading the conjure tales in this way will do more than simply clarify the goals and achievements of their separate phases of composition. It will help establish Chesnutt as one of the late nineteenth century’s most incisive interpreters of race and the built environment. To confirm that Chesnutt was writing at a time when such interpretations mattered, one need look no further than the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, whose monumental public modeling of space and social order—coupled with its organizers’ refusal to permit meaningful African American self-representation—one might instructively juxtapose with Chesnutt’s insistent entwining of race and architecture. In the face of the exclusion of blacks from the exposition, for example, Chesnutt’s stories show how African Americans have been shaping, mapping, and indeed claiming ground in America since the days of slavery, whether white Americans understood those claims or not. As we shall see, the conjure tales thus commemorate what in many instances the broader culture either made little sense of—or wanted to forget. That the tales were meant to do so for a predominantly white, not black, audience further magnifies Chesnutt’s interest in integrating what historians of cultural memory have heretofore seen as separate traditions. For if in response to their exclusion from the “mainstream of retrospective consciousness” in the late nineteenth century a majority of African Americans chose to perpetuate “their own distinctive traditions and memories” (as Michael Kammen has argued), Chesnutt tried instead to cure white amnesia by writing those very memories back into American cultural history.11 Finally, and more generally, understanding Chesnutt’s interest in what we might call the “legibility” of architecture—the capacity (indeed the necessity) of buildings and other architectural forms to be “read” and interpreted—will help deepen a field of interdisciplinary inquiry that has so far concentrated primarily on high cultural forms at the expense of equally expressive American vernaculars.12
From Uncle Peter to Uncle Julius
Chesnutt’s exploration of the stories that buildings could tell—and the stories that he could tell through them—begins not in the conjure tales but in “Uncle Peter’s House,” which, though only Chesnutt’s first publication (appearing in the Cleveland News and Herald in December 1885, nearly two years before “The Goophered Grapevine”), offers a mature reflection on the potentially explosive crossings of architecture, race, and memory. The time (p.72) is Reconstruction. Peter is a freed slave in postwar North Carolina whose “dearest wish” is “to own a house.” Not just any house, but a “great,” “two-story white house.” with “green Venetian blinds” and “broad piazzas.” A replica of his master’s house, in other words—which to Peter’s young eyes had seemed “heaven” itself, and around which, as an adult, still “clustered the most vivid impressions of childhood, … fresh in his memory.” Saving the funds proves hard, but Peter eventually buys property “just beyond the limits” of town, puts up a temporary cabin, and slowly starts to build. He is “perhaps two-thirds done” when “one dark night” a gang of “jolly young” Klansmen burns the structure down. Undaunted, Peter patiently rebuilds. After many more years, as the “Klan, like Peter’s [first] house, became a thing of the past,” the second house nears completion; but Peter falls off an unsteady scaffold, breaks an arm and a rib, and never recovers, dying a few days later from an “internal injury.”13
A parable of reading and misreading, of replication and deferral, “Uncle Peter’s House” astutely engages the legibility of architectural forms and the geographies of power. The jolly “Kluckers” stop at the “tall, unpainted frame” of Peter’s house merely because “it suggested possibilities for more fun” (they “had no special program for the evening” ), but they burn it because of what they think they read between the boards. No matter that their first reading is wrong:
“What are you building here, old man?” asked one.
“Jes’ a little house to lib in, marse,” answered the trembling Peter. …
“Now yer lyin’, ain’t yer?” said another; “It’s a nigger school house, ain’t it?”
“No, Marse, I ’clare to de Lo’d it’s jes’ my own house.” (173)
The realization that Peter is not lying prompts a new reading no more socially or politically welcome than the first. Sounding much like Twain’s Pap Finn (who also appeared in print in 1885), the Klansmen sound off against the evils of “reconstruction”:
“The idee of a nigger livin’ in a two-story house is jes’ ridiculous,” remarked a tall “Klucker” with some warmth.
“Ownin’ land, too,” said another; “what with niggers runnin’ the guv’ment, and niggers buyin’ the lan’, I’m durned if I see what’s to become o’ the white people.”
“It’s chilly tonight,” suggested a little fellow, … “let’s have a fire.” (173)
(p.73) Chesnutt’s insistently ironic tone complicates the narrative’s own take on Peter’s motives for building in the first place. At times the memory of his master’s house seems to cast an almost religious spell on Peter. Even though the narrator observes, for example, that “after a little experience” Peter ceased to think of the whites in the great house as “angels” (169), his dying vision of heaven still takes the shape of the slaveowner’s mansion (“I see dat hebbenly mansion—a big white mansion, wid green blin’s on de winders, and broad piazzas all ’roun’ it” ). One might well ask whether Chesnutt means to criticize Peter’s yearning for his great white house as a form of self-destructive white-worship. It is, after all, virtually the house itself that kills him. When Peter falls off the scaffolding, his fatal wounds are delivered by the pile of bricks stacked for the chimney. But it is not the whiteness of the house that Peter yearns for; it is what the house, in situ, signifies. Like Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Peter has a shrewd understanding of architectural metaphors of power. Though “too ignorant of letters to do more than spell out the simple chapters of the Bible” (174), Peter can read territory. “From his earliest childhood” he understood the big house as “the symbol” not of whiteness per se but of “power, prosperity, and happiness” (168). Peter’s knowledge comes straight from the hierarchy of forms arranged upon the plantation landscape:
From the little group of cabins which made up the slave quarters of the large plantation on which [Peter] was born could be seen, at a short distance, the large white house, surrounded by broad piazzas, upon which opened the long windows guarded by green Venetian blinds. Standing on the highest part of the plantation, in a grove of patriarchal elms, it was the most conspicuous object in the landscape. From it the eye of the little autocrat who ruled this broad domain could overlook the acres of cotton stretching out to the edge of the distant forest, and the dark-green masses of waving corn which covered the meadows, and toward it the ear of the tired slave was turned at evening, to listen for the sound of the horn which announced a few hours’ respite from the hard toil which made up his daily life. (168)
In the design of social and economic space, perspective is everything, and Chesnutt moves us back and forth here expertly. First we look passively (it “could be seen”) up from the quarters to the house, which stands “guarded” and “patriarchal.” Then we look out from the house through “the eye of the little autocrat” over the cotton and corn, to the very edge of the plantation, (p.74) only suddenly to swing back to the perspective from below, this time to the slave’s ear in the fields cocked for a signal from on high. At the center of the description, and controlling the movement of each sentence, stands the house, an arrangement that replicates in prose what Rhys Isaac has identified as the invariable tripartite design of plantation space, in which “the elevation of a central unit by means of balanced, subordinated lateral elements” expresses a “strong sense of gradations of dominance and submission.”14 The house is both “the most conspicuous object in the landscape” and the locus of the plantation’s ruling eye.
Plantations were not always arranged this way. Not until the eighteenth century, when planters first began to communicate their social and economic status “not only by sheer scale but also by means of elaborately contrived formal relations,” Isaac observes, did this tripartite design become “invariable.” Before this moment, in many areas, plantation spatial relations were less conspicuously hierarchical. As John Michael Vlach explains, until the late 1600s slaves and masters typically lived and worked in close proximity, like a family. But this “day-to-day intimacy” was “progressively replaced by a stricter regimen of racial segregation that was expressed by greater physical separation.” Seeking clearer definitions of status, position, and authority, slaveholders gradually removed slaves and many of their functions from the main house, giving rise not only to separate slave quarters, for example, but also to the detached southern kitchens so often misperceived merely as capitulations to the sultry climate.15 Not surprisingly, it was at this same moment that the piazza took hold in the South as well, making its insistent display of white leisure—not to mention its elevated platform of surveillance—an integral component of the architecture of segregation. When the narrator of “Uncle Peter’s House” notes that the broad piazzas of the great house were but “a short distance” from the slave cabins, he clarifies not merely the size of the plantation but the necessary relationship between quarters and porches.16
Given this history, “Uncle Peter’s House” can be said to narrate the failure of Reconstruction to dismantle the architecture of segregation. Raised on these forms, and comprehending their signs, Peter nevertheless not only replicates his master’s house but—by first erecting a small cabin “a little to one side” (170)—reproduces, however unwittingly, the hierarchical buildingscape of slavery. When his first house burns, he builds another to the same specifications, with the little cabin—in which Peter finally dies—always present. But rather than blame Peter for perpetuating these forms, or lament the seeming inevitability of dominant social and political structures to reproduce themselves, Chesnutt’s story foregrounds Peter’s resolute struggle to (p.75) cross from cabin to piazza to claim the power, prosperity, and happiness so long out of reach. Even at his moment of death, though he looks to heaven, Peter’s last earthly wish is that his son “finish dat house, dat de good Lo’d didn’ ’low me to finish” (175; my emphasis).17 At the end of the story, however, after several more years “have elapsed,” the house still stands unfinished, even though Peter’s son “is now lathing the interior” (176). The shift to the present tense caustically indicts the promises of post-Reconstruction America as little more than endlessly deferred gestures of completion, houses grandly framed but profoundly empty. “Aunt Dinah is growing old,” Chesnutt’s narrator deadpans, “but is still hale and hearty, and may yet live to see the house finished. The grove of young elms which Peter planted is thriving and will probably shade the yard nicely by the time the house is painted and the green blinds hung” (176).18
The edgy tone of violence in “Uncle Peter’s House” (“hung” is indeed its ominous last word) is markedly subdued in “The Goophered Grapevine,” where, perhaps in the hope of duplicating the success of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus (whose tales Chesnutt read to his own children),19 Chesnutt replaces the socially threatening Uncle Peter with the (superficially) more innocuous Uncle Julius and turns from rebuilding the master’s house to exploring ways to dismantle it from within. Deploying the familiar moves of plantation fiction—if not always to expected ends—Chesnutt crafts his own series of Julius tales, whose reiterated sitings and recurring characters allow him to investigate, with increasing complexity, the markers that social relations leave on physical terrain.
The first four stories of the series move from architectural symbolism to more concrete imaginings of the oppressions and opportunities of the built environment. In the beginning of the original version of “The Goophered Grapevine,” for example, John and Annie drive symbolically into an “open space” where “a dwelling house had once stood,” a space in which the transplanted northerners will soon build their own house—and in which Chesnutt will compose his tales. The description of the house that follows (“nothing remained … except the brick pillars upon which the sills had rested”) invokes Shelley’s meditation in “Ozymandias” on the inevitable and ironic fate of monumental architecture, making this “fallen” house a metonym not only for the defeated South but also for the collapsed structures of slavery.20 Chesnutt then seats his characters on a “shady though somewhat hard” pine log, laying the groundwork, as Stepto argues, for their eventual transposition to John and Annie’s more comfortable piazza. But this transformation from log to porch is effected only through the story—and the body—of Sandy, the (p.76) “escaped” slave-turned-tree in Chesnutt’s second conjure tale who is accidentally milled for lumber and then used to build (and rebuild) prominent plantation outbuildings. There are echoes of “Uncle Peter’s House” here, to be sure, and Eric Sundquist is right to read “Po’ Sandy” as a revision of that tale, in which anxieties about building property become anxieties about being property.21 If the move from the pine log to the piazza is a logical one, “Po’ Sandy” reminds us that it is anything but benign, figuring as it does the historical emergence of a more strictly segregated and hierarchical chattel slavery. Chesnutt’s tales move to the piazza only after acknowledging, in blood, the costs exacted by the redesign of plantation space. The memory of Sandy’s violently “quartered” body can be said to haunt all of the built structures in the subsequent tales.
This is not to say that all the tales are similarly grim, but rather that the physical spaces they depict signify in multiple ways. In the last two stories of the first phase of tales, for example, Chesnutt uses John and Annie’s front piazza to communicate Julius’s changing status within the series. Whereas in “Po’ Sandy” Julius appears in the role of the working coachman, in “The Conjurer’s Revenge” he is on his own time, arriving in the story in his “Sunday clothes” and “advanc[ing],” according to John, “with a dignity of movement quite different from his week-day slouch.”22 This freedom and dignity, of course, do not put Julius on equal footing with his white employers, and he is at first reluctant to become too cozy with a white couple who in the space of two short tales have already rebuilt a plantation mansion, right down to the big front porch and the freshly detached kitchen. (“Reconstruction,” as Chesnutt made plain in “Uncle Peter’s House,” can look frighteningly similar to “antebellum.”) But Annie finally coaxes Julius onto the piazza, where he seats himself “somewhat awkwardly” (71) in the rocking chair from which he narrates his tale of theft and revenge. By the next story, “Dave’s Neckliss,” Julius seems much more at home on his employers’ porch. It is another Sunday afternoon, and John and Annie are “just rising from the table when Julius [comes] up the lane, and, taking off his hat, [seats] himself on the piazza” (123). If the hat-doffing connotes a certain deference, there is little trace of Julius’s former awkwardness as he sits down without needing to be asked. Indeed, after only “a momentary hesitation” (123), Julius even accepts Annie’s offer of dinner, which he takes inside their home, while John and Annie adjourn to the piazza. When Julius is done eating, he rejoins them outside and begins his tale.
Chesnutt would appear to be using the piazza here not only as an economical marker of Julius’s acceptance by (and of) John and Annie but also (p.77) as a literal and symbolic meeting ground for black and white folk in the postbellum South. Typically, historians suggest, the half-private, half-public nature of the piazza encourages only “minimally committal” interactions between resident and guest.23 But Julius’s entry onto John and Annie’s piazza from within their house in “Dave’s Neckliss” gives him more intimate standing and may make their porch more bridge than buffer. Sue Bridwell Beckham has written of the power of porches to work this way. Using anthropologist Victor Turner’s model of “liminal space,” Beckham argues that for women in particular, porches can facilitate socially liberating moments of “communitas—the temporary but vital attachment that only people caught between cultural states can establish.” On the porch, “betwixt and between absolute private and absolute public, relationships that would be impossible elsewhere can flourish for however brief a time.”24
While it may be tempting to make such claims for Chesnutt’s piazzas as well—particularly if we are thinking of the bonds forged between Julius and Annie in the Conjure Woman collection of 1899—the first phase of Julius stories complicates matters. In the original version of “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” for example, the piazza is the site of Annie’s surprisingly “zealous” proselytization of Julius.25 And in “Dave’s Neckliss” it is in his cozy hammock on the piazza that John tries to put himself in Julius’s place but fails. (“Whether [Julius] even realized, except in a vague, uncertain way, his own degradation, I do not know. I fear not,” concludes the obtuse narrator .) In addition, although he tries to laugh it off, John is clearly not comfortable with Julius’s presence inside the house. In an unsettling echo of Dave’s tale (where Dave is punished for stealing a ham), John carefully notes the exact number of ham slices Julius consumes. There is no suggestion that John will stop Julius from eating his fill; “I kept count of them,” John says, “from a lazy curiosity to see how much he could eat” (124). Yet rather than function as a zone of communitas here, the piazza is (once again) a site of ongoing surveillance of black by white—a surveillance not substantially different in form from that of Mars Dugal’ or the overseer Walker watching the smokehouses and counting the hams in Julius’s story.26 Chesnutt even fiddles with the layout of a typical nineteenth-century “country” home to make this scrutiny possible. Most builders’ plans of the era, for example, put the dining room (where Julius is said to sit) in the back of the house, where it would not be visible from a front piazza. (Indeed, it would be unusual for Julius, as the story claims, to be able to see the dinner table through the front door, even if John and Annie’s dining room were in the front of the house, since in most floor plans the front door opens onto a central hallway.)27 At the end of the story, as (p.78) though to signal the limits to the piazza’s powers of mediation, Julius’s tale is met with “a short silence,” after which Annie mumbles something about the weather, and John abruptly goes “into the house” (135).
So, too, figuratively speaking, does Chesnutt, who was determined to leave Julius and his dialect tales behind after this story. But as we know, Chesnutt gradually returned to Julius, to dialect, and to the piazza in a second set of conjure tales, well before Page’s 1898 request for more stories like “The Goophered Grapevine.” A close look at this second group of tales suggests that if Julius and dialect were “about used up,” the social experience of architecture was not.
The Return of the Oppressed
Known to critics as the “non-conjure” conjure tales, Chesnutt’s second phase of Julius stories has received relatively little discussion. The most that has been said in terms of their role in the development of the genre is that in the last of the group, “The Dumb Witness,” Chesnutt daringly experiments with having John “tell and inevitably embellish a Julius story in his own ‘literary’ English.”28 If we are thinking of the stories as contributions to Chesnutt’s ongoing examination of race, memory, and the built environment, however, they accomplish far more. For it is in these tales that Chesnutt provocatively explores the transgressive politics of location first imagined in “Po’ Sandy,” where a slave “escapes” by concealing himself on (or indeed as) his master’s property. By focusing more on territory than on conjure—and in particular by examining not only the slaves’ resistances to slavery but their often successful transformations of its very terrain—“A Deep Sleeper,” “Lonesome Ben,” and “The Dumb Witness” give voice to a revisionist historicism at times only thinly masked by what John Edgar Wideman has called Julius’s “sho nuff” role play.29
In these tales Chesnutt broadens his territorial inquiry to include not just the planter’s piazza but also the sites and spaces onto which it opens. In “A Deep Sleeper” (1893), for example, Chesnutt reexamines the seemingly contradictory notion of a slave’s “home.” The frame story alerts us to the significance of home by speaking, for the first time, of Julius’s home. Following the lead of “Dave’s Neckliss,” in which Chesnutt made Julius a character in his own tale, thereby radically personalizing his account, in “A Deep Sleeper” John reveals that Julius not only “worked on my plantation” but “lived in a small house on the place, a few rods from my own residence” (137). We also discover that Julius is not alone: “His daughter was our cook,” John explains, (p.79) “and other members of his family served us in different capacities” (137). While these descriptions provide more information about Julius than the first four tales combined, they also tell us more about John’s sense of spatial control. This is the first time, for example, that John has referred to his vineyard as his “plantation” (it is usually just “our place”  or “my vineyard” ), and while the change in terminology may simply indicate that John has more fully capitalized his property, the presence of Julius’s family members as John and Annie’s servants makes their work site more and more resemble its antebellum counterpart. And while Julius now has his own home, its proximity to John’s house (only “a few rods” away) disconcertingly recalls the spatial relations between slave quarters and planter’s mansion dramatized in “Uncle Peter’s House.”
And yet in this story the similarities between postbellum vineyard and prewar plantation usefully heighten the congruence of the inner and outer tales, for the inner story of “A Deep Sleeper,” we discover, also concerns “homes.” Recalling some of the plot elements of “Po’ Sandy,” slave lovers Skundus and Cindy are separated when their master loans Cindy to a neighboring planter. Formerly a field hand, Cindy is taken into “house-sarvice” (140), where her initial sadness over leaving Skundus is alleviated by being in such “a fine new house” (142). When Cindy realizes that these separations might be permanent, however, she stops eating and pines for home. (On his part, after Cindy leaves, Skundus disappears and is assumed to have run away.) Although she had become “kinder use’ ter” her “noo home,” Cindy is finally sent “back home” (142) when Marse Dugal’ needs more slaves to pick cotton. In short order Skundus reappears as well, claiming not to have run away at all but merely to have been asleep in the barn. Dugal’s sputtering anger is tempered by his relief at having his slave back, and the next day a pair of local doctors pronounce Skundus the victim of a trance. To prevent any such future “fits,” Dugal’ not only allows Cindy and Skundus to marry but gives them their own house, “a cabin er dey own” (144).
What the story’s almost obsessive interest in homes and locations ironically helps make visible are the acts of black resistance to planter-defined space—what Vlach would call the slaves’ “territorial appropriation”—on which the plot turns. When Cindy begins to lose her appetite, her new mistress sends her to the swamp to gather roots for a restorative tea. Gone for several hours, Cindy claims to have had trouble finding the roots, but we soon suspect that what she has found is Skundus, come a “hunderd mile” (139) to see her. To appropriate this part of the plantation for themselves, Cindy convinces her mistress to let her search the edge of the swamp “ev’y (p.80) day” for “fresh roots,” while Skundus poses as a swamp “ha’nt” (142) to frighten others away. Cindy and Skundus thus accomplish on the fringes of the plantation what many slaves were already doing in myriad ways even at its center: claiming ground. As Vlach explains, acts of landscape appropriation were not only “an important means of day-to-day resistance,” as slaves “privately remapped the domains designed by planters,” but were easier to accomplish than one might think, often right under the planter’s nose. Much as slaves who stood up physically to their overseers often found that their beatings decreased, Vlach observes,
slaves who claimed their masters’ land as their own similarly found that it virtually was theirs. Acts of territorial appropriation were exceedingly clever because they were carried out, in the main, simply by occupying the spaces to which they were assigned. Slaves gradually identified these spaces as theirs through a routine of innumerable domestic acts [such as Cindy’s daily root-gathering]. Once the quarters were identified as a black place, further claims were made to other spaces and buildings such as fields, barns, and workshops. Their owner was unlikely to resist these assertions because these outbuildings were spaces that the slaves were supposed to occupy anyway, at least during the daylight hours. (235; original emphasis)
Skundus’s successful ruse about sleeping in the barn thus further reveals that Marse Dugal’—whose “bark uz wuss’n his bite” (143)—has yielded control of his outbuildings both day and night. That Dugal’ cannot factually contradict Skundus’s claim to have been in the barn for thirty days, coupled with his immediate sponsoring of the face-saving, pseudoscientific “explanation” for Skundus’s absence, suggests that the slaveowner recognizes the limits to his “ownership” of plantation space. This is not to say by any means that Dugal’s slaves are “free” but rather, as Vlach suggests, that they have—or at least Cindy and Skundus have—successfully “established defensible social boundaries … in both pragmatic and symbolic terms.” They have, in short, claimed “their own sense of place.”30
In the frame story Chesnutt suggests that these are claims and resistances that the narrator John does not yet understand. Although in earlier tales John has been suspicious of Julius’s narrative motives, here he still cannot imagine all the ways that people might covertly disrupt, and even partially control, an institution as deeply oppressive as slavery. John’s comments in the prologue assessing Julius’s “profound contempt” for poor whites suggest the (p.81) narrator’s blindness: “[Julius] assumed that we shared this sentiment, while in fact our feeling toward this listless race was something entirely different. They were, like Julius himself, the product of a system which they had not created and which they did not know enough to resist” (137). John’s misreading of the conditions for and potential forms of resistance by the disempowered guarantees that he will not recognize Julius’s own challenge to his authority—indeed, Julius’s own appropriation of his territory—until it is too late. Although it is Sunday and presumably Julius’s day off, John, hot and bored on his piazza, asks Julius to tote a heavy watermelon up from the garden. Conspicuously dressed (again) in “Sunday clothes” (137), Julius proposes waiting until the next morning, but to no avail. He finally avoids the task by feigning a rheumatic knee spasm and arranging to have a younger relative (Skundus’s grandson, it turns out) take his place, the delay permitting Julius to tell his story. By the time Skundus’s grandson arrives with a wheelbarrow and he, John, Julius, Annie, and her sister Mabel march to the watermelon patch, the melon is gone. A heist arranged by Julius? Presumably. And yet the tale does not speculate. For the first time in the series Chesnutt ends a tale without John’s ruminatory epilogue. No turning things over, no self-satisfied interpretation of Julius’s motives. Only a “shallow concavity” where the “monarch of the patch” (145) had rested, parodying John’s shallow understanding of resistance and underscoring the subversive potential of an aggressive politics of place.
Here again the story bears comparison to “Po’ Sandy,” in which Julius appropriated one of John’s outbuildings for his own use. But Chesnutt intensifies the level of resistance by imagining, for the first time in the series, successful challenges to a planter’s control over space in both the frame tale and the inner tale. This rare double success in “A Deep Sleeper” may reflect Chesnutt’s growing interest in the 1890s in exploring the more active roles that American blacks, slave and free alike, had played and continued to play in claiming their own spaces and marking their own locations. One of the chief ironies of “A Deep Sleeper,” however, is that Cindy and Skundus use their powers not to flee their plantation but to go back to it. But if we understand their return as expressing a desire to reestablish on their own terms the life they had created together—albeit within the space of slavery—then Cindy and Skundus become legible as fictional analogues of those ex-slaves who, once emancipated, chose to return to their former plantations. Julius himself, as Brodhead points out, is such a figure, returning to the McAdoo plantation to work it “to [his] own interests and in [his] own ways.”31 If the autonomy that such claims to ownership conferred often proved tenuous (p.82) (John’s first act in the conjure tales is to buy the McAdoo plantation out from under Julius’s squatter’s claim), the impulse to return to territory one had not merely worked but remapped must have been great.
If there is family involved—as Chesnutt imagines in the next story, “Lonesome Ben”—then the impulse to claim “home” may be all the greater. Rejected by the Atlantic in February 1897, “Lonesome Ben” turns “A Deep Sleeper” inside out by detailing the crushing self-annihilation that the forfeiture of home can produce. The inner tale is told, fittingly, not on John and Annie’s piazza but away from their home, as John, Annie, and Julius wait in the rockaway to intercept Annie’s sister Mabel on (again, fittingly) her return home. In Julius’s tale, when field hand Ben is discovered drinking whiskey, he decides to run away from his plantation rather than receive a whipping. Heading north, although with little idea of how long the journey might take and no navigational resources besides the North Star, Ben quickly becomes disoriented when the night sky turns cloudy. After a week of walking, “’spectin’ ter git ter de No’th eve’y day” (151), he ends up back on his old plantation, and though he refuses to give himself up, he seems equally powerless to leave. Hiding out, eating clay to survive, he finally resolves to go, but not until he has seen his family, for whom he feels “monst’us lonesome” (152). But to his family Ben is literally unrecognizable. Turned “yaller” (153)—from his voracious clay-eating, the tale suggests—the formerly “black ez coal” (149) Ben only frightens his wife and son. Nor do the other slaves, nor even his master, recognize him, ridiculing his claims to be himself. Feeling “so lonesome” (154) that he cannot go on, Ben crumbles first emotionally (feeling “mo’ lak a stranger ’n he did lak Ben”), and then physically, as a falling tree smashes his sun-baked body and grinds him “ter powder” (156).32
Sundquist makes a compelling case for reading “Lonesome Ben” as a meditation on race, specifically the often crushing alienation of living as a mixed-race American in the late nineteenth century.33 But much as Ches-nutt’s story of “Rena Walden” in the 1890s was finding its imaginative location in a “house behind the cedars,” “Lonesome Ben” explores the vexed status of mixed-race Americans through metaphors of place and figures of home. After Ben goes unrecognized by wife, son, friend, and master, he is not merely lonesome but explicitly “homesick” and briefly contemplates going “right up ter de house [i.e., the big house] an’ gib hisse’f up an’ take his medicine” (154). But his master’s violent repudiation (“You git off’n my plantation, … er I’ll hab yer sent ter jail an’ whip’”) leaves Ben without even that recourse. “He crep’ back in de bushes an’ laid down an’ wep’ lak a baby. He didn’ hab no wife, no chile, no fren’s, no marster” (154)—in short, (p.83) no home. Ben’s lamentation recalls Sandy’s complaint in “Po’ Sandy” about the ill effects of being sent all over the county to work: “’pears to me I ain’ got no home, ner no marster, ner no mistiss, ner no nuffin” (47). But where Sandy’s misfortune is that he has to go everywhere, Ben’s dilemma is that he has “nowhar ter go” (155). Ben is not only homesick, he is homeless. In Chesnutt’s tale the loss of racial identity is experienced as a profoundly dislocating loss of place. Thus even in a tale that includes few actual buildings (indeed, their relative absence or decay, like the brickyard in the frame tale that is “all growed ober wid weeds an’ grass” , makes the story’s sense of loss even more acute), Chesnutt is still investigating not only the social experience of space but its representational power.
Chesnutt’s fullest exploration of this terrain occurs in “The Dumb Witness.” Tentatively accepted by Page for the Atlantic in October 1897 but never actually published by Chesnutt as a separate story, “The Dumb Witness” brings to a powerful confluence Chesnutt’s interests in architecture, race, and the American past. In it he folds a piazza tale within a piazza tale, making this space for the first time the site not only of Julius’s telling (in his most intimate contact yet, Julius actually joins John and Annie on their porch for dessert) but also of crucial action in the inner tale. In the frame, Julius drives John to the “old Murchison place” (158) to buy some walnut timber. John’s detailed description of the Murchison house is the most architecturally precise in the conjure tales:
As we drew nearer, the house stood clearly revealed. It was apparently of more ancient date than any I had seen in the neighborhood. It was a large two-story frame house, built in the colonial style, with a low-pitched roof, and a broad piazza along the front, running the full length of both stories and supported by huge round columns, and suggesting distantly, in its general effect, the portico of a Greek temple. (159)
John’s careful anatomization locates the Murchison house not only in place and time but also in ideology. A colonial mansion with a Greek temple front, the house recalls (though itself may have predated) the flourishing of the early nineteenth-century Classical Revival, in which American builders invoked the values of republican virtue and democratic revolution by borrowing from classical forms. If the architectural grammar of the Classical Revival was intended to allude to the ancient ideals of liberty and democracy (recently reaffirmed, many Americans felt, by their own colonial and revolutionary history), it just as frequently—and perhaps more effectively— (p.84) invoked the rule of law. Templelike porches, which typically fronted monumental public buildings, were legible chiefly as symbols of order and authority. As Alan Gowans explains, by adding a porch “decked out in some more or less classical detail,” one could turn even an ordinary dwelling into “an instant authority symbol.” This particular gesture was especially popular in the South, where temple porch fronts remained “mansion signals” up until the Civil War.34
The signal that the old Murchison place sends to John, however, is of an entirely different order. Above its huge columns, “the roof had sunk on one side, and the shingles were old and cracked and moss-grown; while several of the windows in the upper part of the house were boarded up, and others filled with sash from which the glass had apparently long since been broken” (159). The grounds surrounding the house are barren and uneven. When John notes that the porch columns “distantly” suggest the portico of a Greek temple, his choice of words signals both his distance from the house (as he drives up the long lane) and the house’s distance from its monumental past. One might be tempted to read these signals as rather conventional invocations of the once-mighty southern elite brought low, were one not to discover—as Chesnutt, who lived in Fayetteville from the age of nine until his midtwenties, surely knew—that such mansions were extremely rare in the North Carolina sandhills. Even at the height of the Classical Revival, reports Catherine Bishir, “remarkably few North Carolinians adopted the notion of building houses to resemble temples.”35 This is partly because the prime years of the Classical Revival (the 1830s) were not prosperous ones for North Carolina, which suffered from both economic decline and excessive out-migration. But North Carolina’s dangerous coastline and lack of capable ports had long made the state a poor cousin of its more prosperous neighbors Virginia and South Carolina. Where large plantation estates developed more quickly in these regions, for much of the eighteenth century North Carolina was a forest society, dominated by small farmsteads. Even after the population bursts and relative prosperity of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, North Carolina maintained a “pragmatic unpretentiousness shared by rich and poor alike.” Thus, “throughout North Carolina architecture ran … a focus on practicality and profit, a distrust of unnecessary expenditure or pretension, and even a stubborn pride in the lack of ostentation—values that would prevail even when more money was available.”36 It is not surprising that Chesnutt’s narrator John—an eminently practical and profit-minded man, as he reminds us in the first paragraph of “The Dumb Witness”—assimilates so quickly to the state.
(p.85) But what this local history also means is that Chesnutt wants us to attend to the exceptional position of the Murchisons within his fictional territory. The family “had occupied their ancestral seat on the sandhills for a hundred years or more,” John explains at the start of the inner tale, some of the “facts” of which he has obtained from Julius, the rest from his investigation into “other sources” (162). (We might say that it is John’s research impulse that in part justifies our own.) “There were not many rich families in that part of North Carolina,” John notes, “and this one, by reason of its wealth and other things, was easily the most conspicuous in several counties” (162). The founding Murchison was a Revolutionary War general and a delegate to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, his son a “distinguished jurist” (162). They embody the patriarchal authority of law and the state on both a national and a local level. And as one of the handful of families who decide to build an outsized mansion in a region leery of ostentation, the Murchisons do so not in deference to fashion but, like the actual North Carolinians Bishir describes, to deliver—locally—“powerful assertions of attainment and intent.”37
It is precisely such assertions that Viney, the slave figure of the inner tale in “The Dumb Witness,” devotes much of her adult life, even after emancipation—and even after her owner has mutilated her tongue—to undermining. Chesnutt’s decision to make the Murchisons such an exceptional North Carolina family strategically heightens Viney’s resistance to their mastery: an illiterate slave, she brings her owner, the would-be legatee of a signing partner to the Constitution (including its legal sanction of her own slavery) to his proverbial, and almost literal, knees. By interfering in Malcolm Murchison’s pending marriage to a wealthy northern widow and then refusing to disclose the location of his dead uncle’s will or the mortgages he held on neighboring plantations, Viney thwarts both the accumulation and the transmission of slaveholding capital, successfully countering the Murchisons’ aims with her own powerful (and powerfully gendered) assertions of “intent.” (By preventing the marriage, which Viney accomplishes by telling the widow, Martha Todd, “something … [that] no one but herself and the lady ever knew” —likely that she had not only been Malcolm’s slave mistress for more than a decade but was also a blood relative—Viney also blocks the reestablishment of a direct line of inheritance by narrating a tale of sexual violation, forcing the Murchison family tree to lurch once again from uncle to nephew.) Chesnutt stages this monumental battle of wills on the plantation’s immense piazza, turning the space of white authority and repose into a fractious theater of interracial conflict. “Day after day” (170), for “yeahs an’ yeahs” (161), Viney and Murchison face each other on opposite ends of (p.86) the long porch. On his visit, John witnesses the latest iteration of this “curious drama” (161). Rising from his “massive arm-chair” (159) and crossing to Viney, Murchison entreats and threatens; sitting “bolt upright” (160) in her “splint-bottom chair” (170), Viney remains stiffly silent until, fired by his threats, she unleashes a “flood of sounds” that John cannot comprehend but which causes Murchison to “bend like a reed before a storm” (160). Rebuffed yet again, he hobbles off the porch and digs “furiously” in the yard, looking for his uncle’s papers. On this occasion Viney leaves the piazza to go inside, but we are later told that she usually remains outside, “watching him” with “inscrutable eyes” (170). Her resistance thus finally reverses the expected southern tableau: from her seat on the imposing piazza the black female slave watches her white male owner labor endlessly in his own front yard.
The piazza is not merely the site and reward of Viney’s resistance; it is also in fair measure her accomplice. If she is a calculatedly “dumb witness,” refusing to name the location of the papers, so too is the porch, which turns out to be their very hiding place.38 This symbolic complicity, moreover, has a material and cultural history that makes Chesnutt’s focus on the piazza in this story all the more powerfully apt. For although the plantation piazza is ostensibly “white” space, its own origins are in fact complexly multicultural and owe more, in particular, to West African vernacular forms—translated to North America through the West Indies—than most Americans likely understood or acknowledged. As Jay Edwards has shown, “Plantation houses with Neoclassic colonnades and peristyles represent a reworking in renaissance idiom of Creole forms previously adopted by the colonial farmer and planter.” The Classical Revivalists may have thought they were merely bringing a touch of Greece or Rome to the South when they built their imposing piazzas, but they were instead reaching back along the routes of trade (particularly the slave trade) connecting the Atlantic Coast, via the West Indies, to West Africa. It was West African vernacular architecture—particularly the indigenous domestic structures of the Guinea Coast—that mixed with native Antillean and imperial European forms in the polycultural cauldron of the Caribbean to create what Ruth Little-Stokes calls the “West Indian house,” the one- or two-story structure “set on a high foundation with a long porch extending along one or more sides” that settlers from the region brought to coastal North America beginning in the late seventeenth century and which in time evolved into the magisterial plantation house.39 (For a quick sketch of this evolution in the Carolina Tidewater, from the West African and West Indian vernacular prototypes to the increasingly ornate elaborations of the local planter class, see Figs. 12–17.)40 (p.87)
(p.89) And yet as Vlach points out, if a wide veranda eventually became “the height of architectural elegance” in the U.S., particularly in the South, “this was only after almost two centuries of experimentation during which its origins were apparently forgotten.” As with far too many African cultural forms in America, Vlach argues, “the impact of African architectural concepts has ironically been disguised because their influence has been so widespread; they have been invisible because they are so obvious.”41 The professionalization of architecture in the late nineteenth century helped institutionalize this invisibility, as prominent textbooks circulated genealogies of style that excluded African forms. One of the most popular of these texts, Fletcher and Fletcher’s History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, soon codified these omissions for generations of readers in its striking frontispiece, “The Tree of Architecture,” which first appeared in 1905 and was later revised to set an American skyscraper at its apex (see Fig. 18). Heavily weighted toward European forms, the tree—like Fletcher and Fletcher’s text—nonetheless still included nearly every world region except sub-Saharan Africa.42
These origins and exclusions bear on “The Dumb Witness” in several ways. Viney’s speech, for example, the “flood of sounds that were not words, and which yet seemed now and then vaguely to suggest words” (160), may mark the irruption of a non-European vernacular consciousness (perhaps African, perhaps American Indian) into a supposedly Euro-American space. So disconcerting is this irruption that John dismisses its representational value to the white mind, although he vaguely senses that it may be “a language or dialect” of other than “European origin” (160). But he still cannot “read” Viney and never suspects the role she actually plays in the “devolution of the Murchison estate.”43 The story, moreover, consistently mocks this sort of blindness to what is right under one’s nose. Indeed, the “invisibility of the obvious” that Vlach attributes to African architectural influence in North America is also metaphorically resonant here: like Poe’s famous purloined letter, Roger Murchison’s papers are hidden virtually in plain sight, in the same massive armchair from which his nephew glowers at Viney. One almost suspects the elder Murchison of a perversely apt design. What more fitting place for the documents of power than the seat of power? Where else hide the papers that assert control over neighboring plantations than the piazza from which one might view those coveted lands?
Vlach’s discussion of the late nineteenth-century amnesia regarding the impact of African architecture on American forms further reminds us that Chesnutt wrote “The Dumb Witness” right in the midst (if not in the teeth) of a national Colonial Revival that sought aggressively to commemorate— (p.90)
But simple structures often house complex aims, and the architectural movement that first seized the national spotlight at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was driven by more than a love of clapboards and columns. As much a reaction against the supposed ills of immigration and urbanization as against an architectural style, the Colonial Revival’s call for a return to Washington’s porch was simultaneously a cry against the cultural diversity of 1890s America. Down nostalgic, tree-lined streets neocolonialism walked hand in hand with anti-immigrationism, each eagerly offering up its “purer” ideals as “antidotes to the poison[s]” of a polyglot world. The vocabulary of the Revival encoded social, not strictly material, aims: its key nouns included “proportion,” “sobriety,” “fitness,” “subtlety,” “harmony,” and “restraint.” As the spiritual descendant of early nineteenth-century neoclassicism—whose stately forms the Colonial Revivalists appropriated freely—neocolonialism “answered the same instinctive need for order.” Perhaps not surprisingly, by the early twentieth century the color white had become one of the “visual cues” for the colonial style.45 Colonial Revivalists might indeed have been the least eager to discover—as “The Dumb Witness” seems to urge us to—that their cherished “white” porches were actually polygenous to the core.46
Chesnutt’s story stages the revivalists’ ideals of balance and order only repeatedly to disrupt them. Seated decorously on opposite ends of the piazza, in chairs straight off the neocolonial porch (good solid oak, old-fashioned splint-bottom), Malcolm Murchison and Viney stand up and squabble right in front of John and Julius, oblivious to their guests’ observing presence, not to mention the expected gestures of welcome. In the unusual phrase that (p.92) John uses to describe Murchison’s relation to Viney—sitting on the porch, he is her “vis-à-vis” (160)—Chesnutt encapsulates similar tensions. Strictly speaking, John means that Murchison is the person seated opposite Viney, “facing” her, a balance disrupted every time Murchison stalks off the porch in frustration. But as a phrase that originally meant a carriage in which two persons sit face-to-face and is often used to describe a dance partner, vis-à-vis also denotes the miscegenational and incestuous intimacy forced by Murchison on Viney—an intimacy whose violent renunciation will bring the well-ordered estate to near ruin.
As the narrator who painstakingly reassembles the pieces of this shattered history “in orderly sequence” (162), John resembles not only the Murchisons of his tale (both Malcolm, the expert manager, and young Roger, who at the end of the story has “reduced” the plantation “to some degree of order” ) but also the Colonial Revivalists themselves. John recognizes “colonial style” architecture, appraisingly admires Murchison’s massive oak chair (which “looked as though it might be of ancient make, perhaps an heirloom” ), and takes the same interest in precise genealogy that motivated late nineteenth-century preservationists and the newly popular American hereditary societies. He might even have had his own southern home built in what would have been identified in the 1890s as the colonial style, depending on how literally we take Julius’s comments about the younger Murchison’s intentions at the end of the story. “He be’n ober ter yo’ place lookin’ ’roun’,” Julius tells John, “an’ he say he’s gwineter hab his’n lookin’ lak yo’n befo’ de yeah’s ober” (171; my emphasis).
If John is arguably complicit with many of the goals of the Colonial Revivalists, can the same be said of Viney? After all, although denying Malcolm Murchison access to the estate’s legal documents for years, once he is dead she tells his nephew where they are, allowing Roger to put the plantation back in “order.” Viney would appear to remain little more than a servant in her new master’s home, her “victory” over Murchison seeming more a private act of vengeance than a public disruption of a system of oppression. But if one reads Viney’s story in the context of one of the dominant motifs of the other two tales in this group—the return of the slave to the site of enslavement and the subsequent attempt to claim that territory as his or her own—then perhaps Viney, too, can be said to claim ground that is rightfully hers. Rather than say she is returned to servitude, one might say that she chooses to remain on Murchison property, instead of as Murchison property. What John naively reads as Viney’s “home instinct” (170) we might see as a much more willful and complicated decision, especially for a female ex-slave. For (p.93) Viney’s struggle all along had been, in part, to sit on the piazza, not merely to sweep it—to be the “house-keeper” in a very different sense from what her master had ever intended, or from what John, despite his own “digging” through her past, ever perceives.47
“Similar Enough and Yet Unlike Enough”
Page’s 1898 request for more stories in the “cunjure” vein presented Chesnutt with an equally complicated decision regarding his own fictional terrain. However disappointed he must have been at Houghton Mifflin’s desire to remand him to conjure—an imaginative territory he had left behind beginning with “Dave’s Neckliss”—Chesnutt chose to reclaim that ground and make it his own. If it would take more conjure tales to make a book, he would write more conjure tales. Yet it remains to be seen how this decision compromised the revisionist historicism taking shape in the non-conjure Julius stories of the 1890s. If works like “A Deep Sleeper” and “The Dumb Witness” were out, how sharply would Chesnutt have to curtail his exploration of the social experience of the built environment? What new strategies would he have to develop to avoid complete capitulation to the preferred fictions of white American memory? As we shall see, the restrictions presented by Page’s request will make the third phase of the Julius cycle much less adventuresome, on the whole, than the first two. There are serious costs to the return to conjure that are perhaps best measured in what eventually became the capstone story to The Conjure Woman, “Hot-Foot Hannibal.” But this does not mean that Chesnutt simply surrendered. In the tales that he hoped were “similar enough and yet unlike enough, to make a book,”48 there are still carefully coded if much subdued depictions of resistance to racial configurations of space—resistances that emerge from the experimentation of the second phase of tales much as that group took its lead from “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss.” If the age demanded a nostalgic simplicity, Chesnutt would try only partly—and purposefully—to provide it.
A good place to begin an account of Chesnutt’s strategies in the commissioned tales is the updated version of “The Goophered Grapevine,” the 1887 story that would now head up the new collection and whose revisions thus not only reflect but also help organize the spatial concerns of the third phase of tales. Most of the changes to “The Goophered Grapevine” occur in the opening frame and might superficially be described as providing more background detail for the collection. But this detail is of a kind: it gives more concrete shape to many of the larger social, economic, political, and physical (p.94) contours that the plantation genre wants to forget.49 The lengthy and precise description of “Patesville” (a fictional Fayetteville), for example, provides an unusually urban backdrop for a pastoral form:
There was a red brick market-house in the public square, with a tall tower, which held a four-faced clock that struck the hours, and from which there pealed out a curfew at nine o’clock. There were two or three hotels, a courthouse, a jail, stores, offices, and all the appurtenances of a county seat and a commercial emporium; for while Patesville numbered only four or five thousand inhabitants, of all shades and complexions, it was one of the principal towns in North Carolina, and had a considerable trade in cotton and naval stores. (32)
This is more than scene-setting; this is detail that links physical structures to the social and economic practices they embody—or, as in the case of the bell tower, enforce. More than merely a county seat, Patesville is a commercial hub whose primary function is to provide planters with a market for their goods. The “considerable trade in cotton and naval stores” comes straight from the rural plantations, and Chesnutt is reminding us (as we head off to visit those plantations in his stories) that they are sites for the production of raw materials that will someday pass through the red brick market-house—the same building whose tower still chimes curfew even though slavery is over. “This business activity was not immediately apparent to my unaccustomed eyes” (32), John observes, as Chesnutt slyly stresses the importance of paying attention to that very activity. Even though it never reappears in the tales, in subtle ways it is the “four-faced” market-house that broods over the third phase of stories, much as it dominates the landscape of Patesville.50
The second major place marker that Chesnutt adds to “The Goophered Grapevine,” ironically, has the initial effect of making his story more closely resemble the plantation reminiscences it strategically mimicked. Between what had been consecutive sentences in the 1887 version—“One day I went over with my wife, to show her the place. We drove between the decayed gate-posts”—Chesnutt inserts a detailed description of the transitional drive from town to country, providing a clearer sense of what it was like to approach these stately plantations along winding rural roads:
We drove out of the town over a long wooden bridge … passed the long whitewashed fence surrounding the county fair-ground, and struck into a (p.95) road so sandy that the horse’s feet sank to the fetlocks. Our route lay partly up hill and partly down, for we were in the sand-hill country; we drove past cultivated farms, and then by abandoned fields … and once or twice through the solemn aisles of the virgin forest, where the tall pines, wellnigh meeting over the narrow road, shut out the sun, and wrapped us in cloistral solitude. (33)
On one level this is Chesnutt the dutiful regionalist giving his readers a more richly imagined sense of “the sand-hill country.” Thomas Nelson Page’s “Marse Chan,” the lead story to his own collection In Ole Virginia (1887), begins similarly: “One afternoon, in the autumn of 1872, I was riding leisurely down the sandy road that winds along the top of the water-shed between two of the smaller rivers of eastern Virginia.” And Patty B. Semple’s “Old Kentucky Home,” a nostalgic account of an “old stone homestead” in “the heart of the Blue Grass Country” that appeared in the Atlantic in July 1887, just one month before “The Goophered Grapevine,” could almost be Chesnutt’s prototype:
We jolted along for a time through the streets; then the houses became fewer and meaner … and soon [we] were fairly on “the pike,” making our way over the bulwark of hills that shut in the town. The ride was full of interest: we knew every farmhouse, every turning; we watched for the bridge. … Before long we escaped from the white glare of the turnpike, and the wheels rolled smoothly over the soft brown clay of shaded lanes.51
If these are stock gestures of southern regionalism, however, they are gestures with a meaning—and a history—that Chesnutt now exploits. For in the antebellum South the approach to a plantation was as significant an expression of power and standing as the big house itself. Setting their principal buildings back from the roads, down “shaded lanes” like Semple’s, planters communicated their spatial dominance through a carefully staged series of “threshold devices”: the “gates, drives, forecourts, steps, terraces, porches, [and] passageways … which were intended to make the house, and its owner, appear more impressive.”52 And as the Semple, Page, and Ches-nutt stories show, one does not even arrive at the plantation gate without first passing along the open public roads that gradually give way to the privately bounded spaces of the planters. (Indeed, as Upton points out, planters even “felt free to alter the public road courses for their own convenience.”) The whole trip matters, in other words, progressing as it does along a (p.96) consciously “articulated” and “processional” landscape. As Upton explains, this is an expressly white landscape; it is the route of access that the planter wants his visitors to follow. But the slave’s plantation landscape—although part of the same physical terrain—“took a different form.” Not bound in the same way to protocol as white guests, slaves worked “to alter and even to undercut the intended effects of the processional landscape” by moving around the plantation via routes that literally circumvented the preferred approaches.53 Chesnutt’s revisions to “The Goophered Grapevine” work analogously. In the course of laying out this processional approach, for example, Chesnutt quietly refigures one of the genre’s key threshold devices. Instead of meeting, as in Semple’s story, a stereotypically enthusiastic group of “a dozen little negroes … tumbling over each other in their zeal to open” the plantation gate, John and Annie—lost in the unfamiliar southern landscape—have this solitary encounter: “At length a little negro girl appeared, walking straight as an arrow, with a piggin of water on her head. After a little patient investigation, necessary to overcome the child’s shyness, we learned what we wished to know, and … reached our destination.”54 This is the last major addition to the revised version of “The Goophered Grapevine” and a signal reminder that in the tales to follow, despite constraints of form, Chesnutt will still be trying to reimagine the spatial and social givens of his narrative terrain.
One very subtle way that Chesnutt marks these reimaginings in the six Page-sponsored stories is literally by changing Julius’s routes of access to John and Annie’s house. Julius, who has heretofore approached their home from the front, in plain sight, and typically “up the lane” (123, 137)—that is, along the “approved” path—now varies his approach, as often as not arriving obliquely from “around the house” (173, 184). Small details, to be sure, but symbolic reminders that in these tales most of the successful acts of black resistance to white control now occur in the frames, not in the stories Julius tells. Call this an expected result of the return to conjure: reliance on magic as a way to advance plot leaves less room for slave agency. Seeking the aid of an Aunt Peggy (the local conjure woman) to resolve disputes or to improve conditions on the plantation is of course active, but markedly less so (and more easily explained away) than the unaided daring of a Skundus or a Viney.55 Julius’s stories now almost always coax a sought-for action out of John or Annie, a strategy that had worked in three of the four tales of the first phase, but only once in the second. One could argue that Julius’s varieties of approach to the house merely signal his increased familiarity with the new plantation, but this is precisely my point: like the slaves who knew their white owners’ property well enough to mark (and conceal) their (p.97) own trails upon it, Julius moves about the plantation grounds largely as he pleases. Chesnutt may not deliberately have sought to disrupt John’s “articulated” landscape, but it is not surprising that in tales where Julius frequently undermines John’s management of his property the underminer would no longer walk straight “up the lane” into every story. Certainly Chesnutt’s characters understand the uses of space to express (or hide) themselves; as we have seen, when John is discomfited by Julius’s tales, for example, he quits the piazza and goes inside.
Chesnutt’s more elaborate descriptions of the piazza itself, which appears as the site of narration in four of the six phase three tales and in either the opening or the closing frame of the other two, provide further evidence of his continued effort to analyze social relations in spatial terms. If now obligatory, John and Annie’s piazza is by no means static. We learn more about its features and functions in these tales than in the first seven combined: it is a quiet place to smoke (“A Victim of Heredity”), to read (“The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt”), or just to sit (“Tobe’s Tribulations”); it is “broad and dry” (“The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” 94) and offers a pleasant view, albeit of “somewhat monotonous scenery” (“Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” 82). It is large—John is somewhat surprised in “Hot-Foot Hannibal” that his guest can clear it “in two strides” (108)—and abuts the parlor (whose presence confirms our suspicions about the size of John and Annie’s house). And it is comfortably and decoratively appointed: in addition to the armchairs and hammock (where John now naps), there is a honeysuckle vine large enough to sit “behind” (174, 107). If John and Annie have become more comfortable on the piazza, however, Julius seems less so. Whereas in the earlier stories he progressed from the top step, to a rocking chair, then finally to a seat at the piazza dessert table, in the six new tales he sits on the top step, if at all, and only when asked. Although present on the piazza in four of the tales, Julius is never described as sitting in a chair, nor even sitting on the steps without permission. For all we know, he narrates “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” standing up.56
We can interpret these changes in several ways. Chesnutt may be trying in these commissioned tales to mime more closely the preferred fictions of his anticipated audience by finding ways to limit Julius’s familiarity with his white employers. Caste hierarchies are more clearly preserved with Julius restricted to the porch steps. Or Chesnutt may simply be more interested in exploring the attitudes, responses, and even postures of his white characters, a move perhaps anticipated by his shift to John’s narration in “The Dumb Witness.” For his part, Julius projects a decidedly warier attitude toward the piazza, as suggested by the deceptively comic opening to “The Gray Wolf’s (p.98) Ha’nt.” Approaching the piazza in a rainstorm, Julius lowers his umbrella before climbing the steps, receiving “a good dash of the rain as he stepped up on the porch” (95). “Why in the world, Julius,” asks John, “didn’t you keep the umbrella up until you got under cover?” Julius’s response could easily express Chesnutt’s own more cautious approach in these tales: “It’s bad luck, suh, ter raise a’ umbrella in de house,” he explains, “an w’iles I dunno wuther it’s bad luck ter kyar one inter de piazzer er no, I ’lows it’s alluz bes’ ter be on de safe side” (95). It is possible that Julius’s “safe” soaking is only another deliberately staged event, performed to convince John that Julius is merely a superstitious ex-slave. But it also suggests that Julius (like Chesnutt) has decided to treat the piazza as “white” space—and may even figure Chesnutt’s wry acknowledgment that in so doing he himself is writing on the “safe side.”57
The story in which one can read the costs of this safer writing most clearly is the one that Chesnutt felt would leave “a good taste in the mouth” in the final collection.58 He was probably right: the North-South reconciliation embodied in the end-frame marriage of Annie’s sister Mabel to a Carolina planter in “Hot-Foot Hannibal” would likely have pleased Chesnutt’s largely white audience. But later readers, familiar with the brilliant explorations of race and architecture in the previous tales, particularly in “The Dumb Witness,” might find the taste far more disappointing. Of all the new stories Chesnutt wrote for Page, “Hot-Foot Hannibal” ranges most energetically over the antebellum and postbellum plantation landscapes. For the first time since “The Dumb Witness,” piazzas figure prominently in both the frame and Julius’s tale. For the first time in all the stories Chesnutt’s characters draw sharp social distinctions between house slaves and field slaves.59 The spatial markers are in place for another probing critique of race and the built environment—yet it never comes. What develops instead is not only a reconciliatory tale but a disturbingly upbeat revision of “The Dumb Witness” in which Annie’s sister marries a man named for the same Murchison who brutalized Viney. Chesnutt’s pretty-picture ending to The Conjure Woman reawakens some pretty ugly memories, not to mention sexual politics.
At the beginning of “Hot-Foot Hannibal” it is John who is rudely awakened from a nap on his piazza. This is part of the story’s promising start; not only does the scene signal John’s decline from energetic “pioneer” (in “The Goophered Grapevine”) to leisured capitalist, it dramatizes the disruption of John’s newfound southern comfort, as the harshly recriminatory squabble between his sister-in-law and her fiancé spills out onto the front porch and threatens to undo what in John’s words “had promised to be another link binding me to the kindly Southern people” (108). By reintroducing Mabel, (p.99) the scene also explicitly links “Hot-Foot Hannibal” to “A Deep Sleeper” and “The Dumb Witness” (the only other stories in which Annie’s “sweet young sister”  appears) and suggests that a similar treatment of plantation space may follow. But Chesnutt’s decision to engage Mabel not to Roger Murchison—who, according to the careful genealogy of “The Dumb Witness,” should be the surviving heir—but to Malcolm Murchison is the first signal that “Hot-Foot Hannibal” will itself undo the historical revisionism of the second phase of tales.
The inner tale in “Hot-Foot Hannibal” also begins promisingly. Field slave Chloe is tapped for service in the big house and works so capably that she soon “run[s] de house herse’f” (110). When Mars’ Dugal’ decides that he wants a “house boy”—the phrase concisely encapsulating the intimate relations between slaves, property, and space—he calls two slaves from the quarters for evaluation and, to Chloe’s disappointment, selects Hannibal over her preference, Jeff. Julius’s inside knowledge of the tale comes from his own position on Dugal’s property: “I wuz a young boy den, en use’ ter wuk ’bout de stables, so I knowed eve’ythin’ dat wuz gwine on ’roun’ de plantation” (110). Given this concentration of slaves in and around the big house, it seems not only fitting but potentially quite subversive to place the story’s main goopher beneath Dugal’s own home, as (per Aunt Peggy’s directive) Chloe shows Jeff “how ter git unner de house” (112) to hide a conjure doll that will make Hannibal unfit for service. But the story fails to turn this infiltration of the master’s home into either a critique of white privilege or an assertion of covert spatial control by the slaves. Even though the goopher briefly unsettles the lives of the Dugal’ household (spilled food, a ruined garden, disturbed sleep), its ill effects are felt most severely by Hannibal, who is whipped and sent back to the quarters. When the doll is later forgotten and left under the house, its “monst’us powerful” spell rebounds only on Chloe and Jeff themselves, as Jeff is sold and commits suicide and Chloe dies of grief. The whites are not only untroubled, they are sought for succor: when Chloe believes she has seen Jeff hugging another woman (actually the disguised Hannibal), she rushes to tell Mars’ Dugal’ about the doll, hoping he will punish Jeff. As though to highlight the story’s reluctance to challenge white control of plantation space, Chesnutt stages this crucial scene on Dugal’s front piazza, where he and “de ladies” are seated after supper (115). Chloe’s impetuous betrayal of Jeff is thus simultaneously a rejection of Aunt Peggy and the resources of her cabin for the supposed powers of the white slaver’s porch.
Chloe’s subsequent regret at this course, I would suggest, expresses Chesnutt’s as well; in her figurative “I wish I hadn’t done that” one can read his (p.100) own lament, “I wish I hadn’t had to do that” Further clues to Chesnutt’s awareness of the painful retreats he has to stage in this story lie in the closing frame’s overdetermined rewriting of “The Dumb Witness.” Here again Mabel appears as Martha Todd—the northerner visiting a relative who has moved to the South—but this time she intends to marry Malcolm Murchison, not renounce him. Unlike Martha in “The Dumb Witness,” who “learned some things about” Murchison that made it “impossible” for her to marry him (165), in “Hot-Foot Hannibal” Mabel is ready to excuse “things said that no woman of any spirit could stand” (108). Fair enough; though Mabel and young Murchison had had “something more than a mere lovers’ quarrel” (108), she had not (like Martha) been told tales of rape, incest, and miscegenation. But John’s final description in “Hot-Foot Hannibal” of the newly happy couple bears ominous traces of this repressed past that register for the knowing reader—or the regretful writer—what Chesnutt has been forced to unwrite. “They were walking arm in arm,” John observes, “and their faces were aglow with the light of love” (119). “Arm in arm” with Murchison (recalling “vis-à-vis”) describes just what Viney, both figuratively and literally, resists in the opening frame of “The Dumb Witness.” (As Murchison begs Viney to tell him where the papers are, he offers to “take her hand, which lay on the arm of the chair”—but Viney “drew her hand away” .) Even more tellingly, “faces … aglow with the light of love” conspicuously recasts Viney’s powerfully angry eyes—the earlier tale’s central image of black resistance, which “glow … like the ashes of a dying fire” (160) whenever Murchison threatens Viney—as the radiant countenance of sanctioned union. If the silent changing of “young Murchison’s” name from Roger to Malcolm (metaphorically marrying Mabel to the worst of the clan) could be said to mark Chesnutt’s private protest against the literary “family” into which he has been co-opted, “They were walking arm in arm, and their faces were aglow with the light of love” might bitingly parody Chesnutt’s public display of cheerful complicity with the preferred fictions of his white readers.60
Preferring to Leave
“Hot-Foot Hannibal” does not end on this parodic note, however. Chesnutt instead appends a narrative postscript that subtly reemphasizes the importance for African Americans in the late nineteenth century of validating memory by claiming ground. In the last paragraph of the story a befuddled John wonders why Julius, who apparently has not only “a most excellent understanding” with Murchison but also an offer of employment, declines (p.101) to enter Murchison’s service after his marriage to Mabel. Why would Julius decide to stay where he was? Why not take the presumably better offer? “For some reason or other,” John concludes, Julius “preferred to remain with us” (120), meaning himself and Annie. But given the preoccupations of the earlier conjure tales, particularly the stories of the second phase that “Hot-Foot Hannibal” seems so regretfully to revise, it is more likely that what Julius prefers—like Cindy and Skundus, Lonesome Ben, and Viney before him—is to remain in his home, with his family, on the land he has known all his life. It is the power of place and memory—good and bad—that Julius reaffirms by preferring to remain where he is instead of following the prevailing winds of economic opportunity. That is not what Julius’s dealings with John have been all about anyway. Indeed, rather than claim that Julius “disappears as a coherent pragmatic character” at the end of “Hot-Foot Hannibal,” one might instead say that he reemerges as one.61
Of course this is not where Chesnutt preferred to remain. As interested in the politics of his own literary “place construction” as the politics within his stories, Chesnutt was ready once again to leave Julius behind for more contemporary ground. More than two decades would pass before he wrote another conjure tale. But the evidence of Chesnutt’s imaginative investment in the social experience of American architecture, much muted in the third phase of the conjure stories, would reappear in the major work that soon followed, his color line novels The House behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901). The House behind the Cedars, in particular, bears heavy traces of Chesnutt’s deepening interest in architectural form, social relations, and narrative construction. Initially drafted in 1889 as the short story “Rena,” the tale would go through multiple revisions, expansions, and reorganizations during the 1890s—the precise years Chesnutt was exploring the complex crossings of race, memory, and the built environment we have been reviewing—before finally being accepted for publication by Houghton Mifflin in March 1900 under its new, architecturally resonant title.62 No longer primarily a character study but instead a layered investigation into the lived structures of racism, The House behind the Cedars pays conspicuous attention to architectural space as both setting and symbol. The detailed description in the opening chapter of John Walden’s walk through Patesville past exactly the same market-house that preoccupies the narrator at the beginning of the revised version of “The Goophered Grapevine,” for example, carefully marks the debt in Chesnutt’s first published novel to the socio-spatial interests of the conjure tales. In the novel, moreover, the market-house comes in for even closer scrutiny. Comparing the structure of the (p.102) Reconstruction present with John Walden’s memories of the antebellum past, the narrator muses, “Perhaps the surface of the red brick, long unpainted, had scaled off a little more here and there. There might have been a slight accretion of the moss and lichen on the shingled roof. But the tall tower, with its four-faced clock, rose as majestically and uncompromisingly as though the land had never been subjugated.”63
As William Andrews aptly notes, the narrator’s description makes clear that Patesville’s simultaneously decaying and indomitable monuments “weigh heavily, not nostalgically, on the South’s moral slate.”64 These monuments also weigh heavily on the narrative itself. Whereas in The Conjure Woman, as I have suggested, the market-house and its four-faced clock tower brood over the final collection despite appearing only in the opening story, in The House behind the Cedars this structure appears repeatedly (like clockwork, one might almost say), chiming again and again what Daniel Worden has characterized as the novel’s architectural allegorization of racial hierarchy.65 Counterpointed against these public edifices stands the text’s eponymous “house behind the cedars,” an ostensibly private space whose visual vulnerability—passersby can look onto the front and rear piazzas as well as into the house itself through gaps in the cedar hedge—further allegorizes both the precariousness of black homeownership and the instability of racial categorization by skin color. Although screened and shaded as picturesquely as any Downingesque cottage, complete with its own “honeysuckle vine” and “Virginia creeper” (11), the “gray, unpainted” (10) house shields no one, inside or out, from the deadly legacies of racial segregation.66
Whereas The House behind the Cedars nearly overflows with architectural signification, repeatedly invoking the preoccupations of the conjure tales (whose temporal frames the novel also shares), The Marrow of Tradition, set at the end of the century, consolidates its socio-spatial interests into a smaller range of representative sites.67 The later novel nonetheless powerfully suggests that what is fundamentally at stake in its fictionalized account of the 1898 coup by the white residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, is nothing less than the right of African Americans to occupy—to own, to inhabit, and to shape—public and private space. The “trope of violated inheritance” that Eric Sundquist discerns at the core of the novel, in other words, is spatial as well as genealogical.68 Framed as a story of architectural dispossession, the ancestral home of the impoverished slaveowning Carteret family having been sold after the war to the industrious father of the novel’s contemporary black protagonist, Dr. William Miller (whose own constrained access to “white” spaces the text similarly foregrounds), The Marrow of Tradition (p.103) builds to a scene of destruction that revisits Chesnutt’s very first architectural narrative, “Uncle Peter’s House.” In the earlier story, the Klan burns Peter’s house as a protest against black advancement. At the end of Chesnutt’s novel, Wellington’s modern white avengers analogously, and far more dramatically, incinerate Dr. Miller’s hospital—the town’s most prominent black structure—in an act that illuminates the true face of racist violence. “The flames soon completed their work,” Chesnutt’s narrator reflects,
and this handsome structure, the fruit of old Adam Miller’s industry, the monument of his son’s philanthropy, a promise of good things for the future of the city, lay smouldering in ruins, a melancholy witness to the fact that our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passion. (310)
It was undoubtedly passages like this that led William Dean Howells, who only a year earlier had hailed the artistry of The Conjure Woman in a glowing review, to reject the “bitter, bitter” tone of Chesnutt’s latest work. Indeed, the novel suffered from poor sales, ultimately moving only a handful more copies than The House behind the Cedars, a disappointing showing that precipitated Chesnutt’s sudden literary decline. Incisive commentary on race and the built environment—perhaps particularly when carried uncomfortably close to contemporary readers’ own historical moment—did no more to bring a reluctant white audience to Chesnutt’s novels than it did to his middle phase of conjure tales. If many of Julius’s stories commemorated a past white readers wanted to forget, the color line fictions of The House behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition, we might say, inversely re-created a present those same readers wanted to ignore. And largely did.69
Despite his white audience’s lukewarm embrace of his work, in Chesnutt’s hands the landscapes of slavery and segregation could function as instructive sites of both remembrance and resistance at the precise moment that American collective memory, energized by resurgent national myths of racial superiority, aggressively sought to muffle that landscape in pastoral nostalgia. (Even Howells had to admit that, for all its bitterness, The Marrow of Tradition was also both powerful and just.) Countering historical amnesia with concrete memories, and doing so, as it were, from the very porch that symbolized the hoped-for return to a time of less complicated social relations, Chesnutt’s conjure stories in particular challenge the dominant culture’s revisionism by articulating revisions of their own. The piazzas in these tales thus operate, in the end, as powerful African American lieux de mémoire, sites of (p.104) memory willfully recalled in order to “block the work of forgetting,” in the words of Pierre Nora.70 And yet they do so, as we have seen, not simply to establish a countertradition but to try to reframe white understandings of race and the built environment. That the task of this reframing was both difficult and crucial is made even more clear, as we will see in the next chapter, by the role that racialized space was already beginning to play in U.S. imperial adventurism in the Americas and beyond.
(1.) Charles W. Chesnutt to Albion W. Tourgée, 26 September 1889, McElrath and Leitz, eds., “To Be an Author,” 44–45.
(3.) Chesnutt announced his plan to “strike for an entering wedge in the literary world” in a journal entry of 26 March 1881 (Brodhead, ed., The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt, 155). Page’s term “cunjure” appears in a letter to Chesnutt, 30 March 1898 (Chesnutt, McElrath and Leitz, eds., “To Be an Author,” 106n). The phrase “preferred fictions of racial life” is Brodhead’s, from Cultures of Letters, 210.
(5.) The three phases of Chesnutt’s conjure tale production divide as follows (initial publication dates, where applicable, follow each story in parentheses; the seven tales that Page selected for The Conjure Woman volume in 1899 are further designated by an asterisk): (1) first phase (1887–89): “The Goophered Grapevine”* (1887), “Po’ Sandy”* (1888), “The Conjurer’s Revenge”* (1889), “Dave’s Neckliss” (1889); (2) second phase (1893–97): “A Deep Sleeper” (1893), “Lonesome Ben” (1900), “The Dumb Witness”; (3) third phase (March–May 1898): “A Victim of Heredity” (1900), “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt”* (1899), “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare”* (1899), “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny”* (1899), “Tobe’s Tribulations” (1900), “Hot-Foot Hannibal”* (1899). For more detailed publication information, see Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, 23–26.
(8.) Clearly I am also invoking Herman Melville’s collection The Piazza Tales (1856) in my naming both of this chapter and of Chesnutt’s stories, though a full account of the relation of Chesnutt’s imaginative investment in the piazza to Melville’s is beyond the scope of this chapter. In brief, I read Melville’s Tales (and particularly his lead story, “The Piazza”) as at once an affirmation of what I call the “legibility” of architecture and an indictment of the ideological assumptions of midcentury pattern book design theory, such as that expressed in the works of Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. What Chesnutt does (insistently, provocatively) is make the matters of race and memory even more central to these inquiries.
(9.) Stepto, “‘The Simple but Intensely Human Inner Life of Slavery,’” 31, 46. Brodhead also briefly discusses the piazza in his introduction to The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (see p. 11). For broader analyses of southern architecture in literary texts, see, for example, Gaines, The Southern Plantation; Guttmann, “Images of Value and the Sense of the Past”; Cardwell, “The Plantation House”; Ruzicka, Faulkner’s Fictive Architecture; and Hines, William Faulkner and the Tangible Past. For a more focused study of the role of the porch in African American storytelling, see Harris, The Power of the Porch.
A word on terminology: following Stepto, in this chapter I use the terms “piazza” and “porch” as synonyms for the same basic structure, a covered shelter “supported by columns or pillars and attached to the outside of a building” (Lounsbury, ed., An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape, 269). According to Lounsbury’s Glossary, while “porch” was the earliest word for such structures, beginning in the 1730s the term “piazza” began to designate those coverings that stretched “the full length of (p.217) the facade,” a style that soon became “the most common form of entrance shelter” in the South. In the antebellum period, under the influence of the Classical Revival, the term “portico” gained popularity (as did “veranda”), while “porch” was finally revived in the late nineteenth century “to indiscriminately describe most varieties of sheltered entrance structures” (285). Chesnutt uses “piazza” and occasionally “porch” in his Uncle Julius tales.
(12.) As noted in the introduction, nearly all the current work at the interdisciplinary crossroads of architecture and literature, though illuminating, focuses primarily on white writers, grand spaces, and/or genteel traditions. Only Fryer’s Felicitous Space and Hines’s William Faulkner and the Tangible Past are particularly attentive, for example, to vernacular American structures, though neither discusses nonwhite writers.
(13.) Chesnutt, “Uncle Peter’s House,” 168, 169, 170, 172, 174, 175. Subsequent references are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.
(15.) Ibid., 36; Vlach, Back of the Big House, 43. Bishir’s comprehensive study of architecture in North Carolina suggests that detached kitchens had moved inside southern homes by the late nineteenth century, corresponding, presumably, to social, not climatic, change. See her North Carolina Architecture, 291, 304.
(16.) On the possible English roots of these changes in plantation design, see Carson, “Segregation in Vernacular Buildings,” 24–29, where he suggests that the reorganization of interior domestic space in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (to separate servants from masters) may have influenced later colonial developments. For further discussion of the impact of architectural design on the regulation of slave life, see Wright, “The ‘Big House’ and the Slave Quarters,” in Building the Dream, 41–57. Wright also explains how the slaves’ use of African American craft traditions and construction techniques in assembling their quarters, while not necessarily forging “a secret weapon of active resistance to white domination,” did help “mediate between two very different ways of viewing black culture in the South” (48).
(17.) We might also say that Chesnutt’s story foregrounds the historical presence and skill of black carpenters, house builders, and other artisans (slave and free) who played “central role[s]” in the creation of architecture throughout the South (Bishir, “Black Builders in Antebellum North Carolina,” 424). As Bishir reports, although black craftsmen were widely recognized for their talent and ingenuity, black construction sites (like Peter’s) were also at times sabotaged by angry white mechanics. For more on the history of black craftsmen during this period, see DuBois, “The Ante-bellum Negro Artisan,” 175–82; Vlach, By the Work of Their Hands, esp. 86–89.
(18.) I would suggest that it is predominantly this deadpan irony and neither a “superior and self-consciously ‘literary’ point of view” nor excessive sentimentality, as William L. Andrews has suggested, that not only guides the narrative but makes its political allegiances hard to read (The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, 18–19). And rather than adopt this irony in an effort to maintain a “strict detachment from his subject,” as Andrews has argued (though Andrews views “Uncle Peter’s House” more favorably in this regard than he does Chesnutt’s other early sketches), Chesnutt in my view is trying on irony here, if not always successfully, as a possible vehicle for his social criticism.
(20.) Chesnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” 254. Shelley’s poem, which early on describes “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand[ing] in the desert,” closes with these lines: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
(22.) Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, 70. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent citations from the conjure tales will come from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.
(25.) Chesnutt, “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” 623. In the original version of this story Annie is described as a “strict Presbyterian” who “employed her time reading religious books and playing sacred music on the parlor organ.” She is “quite a zealous missionary,” John says, “but confined her ministrations chiefly to the colored element of the population.” Julius is a particular target: “Sometimes old Julius McAdoo, our colored man-of-all-work, would come up to the house and sit on the piazza and listen to the music; and Annie would come out and exchange religious experiences with him, and supply him with religious literature, although she was aware that he did not know his letters.” On this Sunday afternoon Annie gives Julius a hymn book, announcing, “If you know of any of your friends who would like to have one, I have several others which were sent to me for distribution.” Julius mocks her zeal by making much of paging through the book while holding it conspicuously upside down. He also asks for one without red edges (even though it is supposedly his favorite color), because “folks”—in this case, Annie—“is alluz sayin’ cullud people lubs red so” (623–24).
Many critics have commented on the importance of the connection between Julius and Annie; see, for example, Selinger, “Aunts, Uncles, Audience.” Selinger’s intriguing reading of Julius as a “metaphorical conjure woman” would also make Julius’s connection with Annie resemble the woman-to-woman bonding that Beckham argues takes place in the “liminal space” of the porch.
(26.) Chesnutt varied his spelling of “Mars” from story to story, writing “Mars,” “Marse,” or “Mars’.” My spellings will change as Chesnutt’s do, depending on the story.
(27.) See, for example, the house designs in such popular nineteenth-century books as Downing’s Cottage Residences (1842) and his Architecture of Country Houses (1850); Vaux’s Villas and Cottages (1857); Woodward and Thompson’s Victorian Housebuilder’s Guide (1869); and Bicknell’s Victorian Buildings, 5th ed. (1878); or in recent collections like Berg’s Country Patterns, 1841–1883. Even when house plans do put dining rooms in the fronts of houses, there are often no windows looking out onto the front piazzas.
(28.) Stepto, “The Simple but Intensely Human Inner Life of Slavery,” 51. Recent critics to treat one or more of these tales include Sundquist on “The Dumb Witness” and “Lonesome Ben” (To Wake the Nations, 389–92, 404–6), and Wideman on “A Deep Sleeper” (“Charles Chesnutt and the WPA Narratives”). My reading of “A Deep Sleeper” is particularly indebted to Wideman’s essay. Stepto has called these three tales “slight,” though “fascinating in terms of Chesnutt’s struggle to vary his form” (“The Simple but Intensely Human Inner Life of Slavery,” 30).
(32.) Ironically, in the end Ben figuratively receives the beating that he had tried to avoid: “He laid dere ’til he died, an’ de sun beat down on ’im, an’ beat down on ’im, an’ beat down on ’im, fer th’ee er fo’ days” (156).
(34.) Gowans, Styles and Types of North American Architecture, 101, 94. Vlach’s discussion of plantation architecture points up an ironic permutation of this zeal for porches: to embellish the appearance of his own house an antebellum planter might also build his big house quarters (for nearby house slaves) not only with better materials than those used for field quarters but in scaled-down imitation of his own mansion—including miniature porches, that is, themselves squared to look back at the big house. See Back of the Big House, 23.
(38.) Another “dumb witness” is Murchison, who does not seem able to imagine the piazza as a possible hiding place. In catechizing Viney he skips right over it: “Is it in the house? … In the yard? … In the barn? … In the fields?” (167). As “between” space, the piazza disappears from view in this catalog of the plantation grounds even as Chesnutt underscores its importance by hiding the papers there.
(39.) Edwards, “The Complex Origins,” 48; Little-Stokes, “The North Carolina Porch,” 105. As Little-Stokes explains, the “mature Southern porch” is “Classical” in its “decorative detail” but “dependent upon the West Indian model in overall form” (105). For more on the Caribbean origins of the North Carolina/Southern porch, see also Johnston and Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina, 41–42. Edwards presents by far the most thorough history of the full-length piazza, outlining a five-stage process of “American Architectural Creolization”: (1) ca. 1518–1630: proto-Creole culture; (2) ca. 1630–80: Antillian Creole cultural florescence; (3) ca. 1680–1730: the creolization of coastal North America; (4) ca. 1730–1830: diffusion of the veranda within North America; (5) ca. 1830–1920: modeling on the vernacular.
(40.) The Caribbean influence on the vernacular architecture of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century southeastern North America was also strongly felt in the Creole cottages of the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana, albeit primarily as a result of French rather than English settlement. See Edwards, “The Origins of Creole Architecture.” A note on the dating of the Old Plantation House in Figure 15: although it was originally dated 1742 (and so listed in the 1990 edition of Bishir’s North Carolina Architecture), dendrochronology in the early 1990s indicates that the timbers were actually cut in 1786. See Bishir, North Carolina Architecture, portable edition, 27.
(42.) First published in 1896, Fletcher and Fletcher’s tome (cowritten by Banister Fletcher and his son, Banister F. Fletcher, who was responsible for revisions after his father’s death in 1899) was “unrivaled as a textbook for architectural history” until the 1940s (Gowan, Styles and Types of North American Architecture, x). The original 1905 version of the tree is drawn with less ornamentation and does not include the all-white (p.220) Greco-Roman figures at the bottom, but otherwise presents the same array of nations and regions as depicted in Figure 18 excepting the very top branch, which had not yet sprouted its American shoot. The tree reproduced here (from the sixth edition) first appeared in 1921—ironically at almost precisely the moment that Chesnutt returned to the conjure (and piazza) genre to blast “the trope of the family tree” (Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 378) in his story “The Marked Tree” (1924). The 1905 frontispiece does appear with a cautionary caption—“The Tree must be taken as suggestive only, for minor influences cannot be indicated in a diagram of this kind”—but the reader will not find African forms in the main text either. The first discussion of African architecture in Fletcher and Fletcher’s History would not appear until 1987, in the nineteenth edition.
(43.) Luke Bresky, untitled seminar presentation (Department of English, UCLA, 10 March 1992), 1.
(44.) Marling, George Washington Slept Here, 155, 158, 90. On architecture and the Colonial Revival, see also Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, esp. 146–53; May, “Progressivism and the Colonial Revival”; and Schlereth, “American Homes and American Scholars.” Beginning in the early 1890s, “an unabashed and pervasive craze for colonial furniture, silver, various other artifacts, and entire homes … became an absorbing passion of American society, the upper crust as well as segments of the middle class, for more than a decade,” Kammen reports (148). On the shifting meanings of “colonial” beginning in the 1870s, see also Scully, The Shingle Style and the Stick Style, 38–39.
(45.) In “purer” I am quoting Mary H. Northend, a prominent turn-of-the-century neocolonialist who used such phrases as the “purest colonial type” in identifying American buildings. See, for example, her Colonial Homes and Their Furnishings, 7. The phrase “antidotes to the poison[s]” is Marling’s (George Washington Slept Here, 76). The list of neocolonial keywords is drawn from both Northend’s Colonial Homes and Their Furnishings (e.g., 6, 17, 57) and May’s “Progressivism and the Colonial Revival,” 110. The phrase “instinctive need for order” is Marling’s (89), and “visual cues” is May’s (117).
(46.) While it is difficult to say how aware Chesnutt himself may have been of the polycultural origins of the piazza, critics have affirmed his “emblematic” role in “the drama of African retentions and black cultural survival” taking place in the late nineteenth century (Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 312). I would suggest that architecture offers yet one more field in which Chesnutt plays his part in this drama. We do know that in the 1890s he was reading Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies (1890), a lengthy travel narrative that often lingers over architectural detail. See Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 63; Hearn, Two Years in the French West Indies, e.g., 23, 36, 73. It also appears that Chesnutt had an interest in contemporary public architecture, including structures with racial and political significance; in an 1897 letter to his daughter Ethel upon returning from Boston (where he met with Page to discuss his literary prospects), Chesnutt writes, “I saw the [Robert Gould] Shaw Memorial and the new Public Library building, which are ‘out of sight’” (Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 81).
(47.) My reading of Viney’s “house-keeping” is indebted to Bresky’s.
(49.) See Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters for a description of the ways that the “social markers” Chesnutt adds to this paragraph give John “an unusual precision of historical identification” (197). My reading of the significant place markers that Chesnutt (p.221) also adds is partly influenced by Brodhead’s subsequent discussion of the “sense of space” in the conjure tales (199–200), although Brodhead does not discuss Patesville specifically.
(50.) For more on the political, economic, and architectural history of the Fayetteville Market House (particularly its dominance of the city’s “trade, its government, and the pace of daily life”), see Bishir, North Carolina Architecture, 172. Other discussions of Chesnutt’s treatment of Fayetteville in his fiction include Andrews, “Chesnutt’s Patesville”; and Render, “Tarheelia in Chesnutt.” Chesnutt calls further attention to the historical actuality of Patesville in his revisions to “The Goophered Grapevine” when he has John announce that he “shall call [it] Patesville, because, for one reason, that is not its name” (32). On the significance of Fayetteville to Chesnutt, see also his letter to Page of 4 April 1898, in which Chesnutt describes it as “the town where I spent my own boyhood and early manhood, and where my own forbears have lived and died and laid their bones” (McElrath and Leitz, eds., “To Be an Author.” 107). For another account of Chesnutt’s revisions to “The Goophered Grapevine,” see Burnette, “Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman Revisited.”
(53.) Upton, “White and Black Landscapes,” 64, 66. Semple’s story offers a remarkably detailed processional narrative, moving stage by stage from town to plantation, through numerous gates and stiles, up steps, down steps, onto the porch, into the house, around the house, behind the house, and so on. And even though as a family relative the speaker is a house “insider,” not merely a guest, and appears to move around the grounds by her own routes, in the end her experience of the plantation matches the planter’s desired “articulation”: “Slavery had its shadowed side in Kentucky as elsewhere,” she observes, “but what we saw of it here was bright and sunny” (“Old Kentucky Home,” 37).
(54.) Semple, “Old Kentucky Home,” 33; Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, 33. Upton’s analysis is useful here: “Since the meaning of spaces depends as much on how we got to them as it does on our being in them—on the shifting states of awareness as we pass one barrier after another—it is evident that in circumventing the formal barriers of the processional entrance, … the slaves’ route undercut the social statement made by the formal approach” (“White and Black Landscapes,” 68). Here Chesnutt’s replacement of the dozen tumbling slaves with the “straight” and solitary black girl (pointedly a “human being” , not a caricature) undercuts the social statement about black character typically made by stories like Semple’s.
(55.) In drawing this contrast I do not mean to slight the importance of Aunt Peggy as a powerful female narrative counterpart (and sometimes rival) to Uncle Julius. For a reading of the gender relations inscribed in the conjure tales (and their writing), see Selinger, “Aunts, Uncles, Audience.”
(56.) Where Julius is seated in “Tobe’s Tribulations” is not clear; in every other story from this phase, however, when John asks Julius “to sit down,” he means the top step.
(57.) The one significant new space that Chesnutt does elaborate in the six tales from 1898 is Aunt Peggy’s cabin, which becomes almost as obligatory a site for Julius’s stories as John and Annie’s piazza had already become for Chesnutt’s frames. Though an insignificant character in the first two phases of tales (appearing only in “The Goophered Grapevine”), Peggy appears in every tale of the third set, even naming the final collection, (p.222) as characters visit her cabin to enlist (or, more accurately, to purchase) her aid. Chesnutt does not anatomize the cabin or its contents as fully as he does John and Annie’s piazza, but what he does do is affirm—through insistent reiteration—Peggy’s address. In every tale he identifies her as the conjure woman who lives “down by de Wim’l’ton Road.” The exact language may differ, but the point is the same: Peggy has a location outside of slavery. Her cabin thus complicates any simplistic division of the antebellum South into “white” space and “black” space. Though Peggy is not part of any plantation, she consistently influences plantation space, much as the presence of free blacks (and even non-slave-owning whites) shaped the conceptual if not the physical landscape of southern slavery. The endlessly repeated signature of Peggy’s (business) address thus allegorizes a crucial space of free black female enterprise, if not racial independence, that Chesnutt was also trying to explore in his non-Julius work and that conventional southern fictions summarily excluded.
(60.) Evidence that Chesnutt may privately have scorned the reconciliatory North-marries-South endings of popular fictions like his own “Hot-Foot Hannibal” surfaces in a 1901 letter to Booker T. Washington in which Chesnutt reports being unable to finish Winston Churchill’s novel The Crisis (1901), which features such a denouement. “It is in the popular vein,” Chesnutt writes, “which is sufficient to account in large measure for its popularity” (McElrath and Leitz, eds., “To Be an Author,” 167–68).
(61.) Selinger, “Aunts, Uncles, Audience,” 685. In my use of the term “pragmatic” here I am recalling Vlach’s description of territorial appropriation as a way for slaves to establish “defensible social boundaries” in both “pragmatic and symbolic terms” (Back of the Big House, 235).
(62.) On the multiple versions of the story that would eventually become The House behind the Cedars, see Sedlack, “The Evolution of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars.” According to Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., the final title change appears to have been the suggestion of Chesnutt’s editor, Walter Hines Page. See McElrath, “Collaborative Authorship,” 163.
(66.) While a full reading of the architectural resonances of the novel are beyond the scope of this chapter, I disagree with Worden’s conclusion that the house behind the cedars “remains illegible” in the novel (“Birth in the Briar Patch,” 14). I would argue instead that it is far too legible (whether the “reading” produced by each character is mistaken or not), to too many people, to preserve any sense of safety for its occupants. For additional readings of the architectural significance of The House behind the Cedars, see Leveen, “The Race Home” (Diss. UCLA, 1999), 259–99; and Moddelmog, Reconstituting Authority, 129–59. Moddelmog also helpfully compares Chesnutt’s treatment of race, place, and property in House with similar tropes found in “The Sway-Backed House,” which appeared in Outlook in November 1900. The publication of this latter story shows Chesnutt’s architectural imagination continuing to move out of the conjure tales into his color line fiction.
(p.223) (67.) These representative sites include Olivia Carteret’s estate (“saved” by Polly Ochiltree from grasping black hands); the historic Clarendon Club, housed in a “dignified old colonial mansion”); the house of William and Jane Miller; and the “little group of public institutions”—hospital, schoolhouse, and church—that will become the locus of black resistance at the end of the novel. See Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition, 138, 155, 299. Subsequent references are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.
(69.) Howells, “A Psychological Counter-current in Fiction,” 882. According to McElrath and Leitz, by the end of 1904 The Marrow of Tradition had sold only 3,387 copies, The House behind the Cedars only 3,244 copies. See “To Be an Author,” 214n6. Chesnutt would publish only one more novel, The Colonel’s Dream, in 1905. Ironically, it was in this final novel that he would bring the piazza back to narrative prominence, in part by weaving a new version of “The Dumb Witness” (which was still unpublished) into the text—although he revised the earlier story in such a way as to soften much of its critique. For more on Chesnutt’s “dilution” of the original story’s import through revision, see Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 90n.