Chesnutt Lecture

When "The Goophered Grapevine" first appeared in 1887 in the Atlantic magazine, it was CWC's first appearance before the national reading public he wanted to reach & move. How he wanted to move that audience to advance the collective cause of blacks in America is summed up by a journal entry he made in 1880. But before one can move an audience, one has to reach it -- and the larger focus of lecture today was how the story is designed rhetorically and what that suggests about the power relations between an African American writer and the majority white culture.

John tells Julius at the beginning of their relationship that "there's plenty of room for all" & that he & Annie don't want "to disturb" Julius (p. 214). But of course John will disturb Julius, by buying the vineyard & taking away both Julius' place (he's been living alone on the grounds of the McAdoo plantation for years) and his ability to live by selling the grapes. We know Julius was born & raised on the McAdoo plantation, & that his lineage is mixed -- it's not at all improbable that he has a genetic right to the name "McAdoo," & an ancestral as well as a moral claim to the land he's always worked for others as a slave. But John would never grant such a claim. Julius can't demand his rights, any more than he can insist that John & Annie listen to him. As whites, as members of the majority culture, they have almost all the power in the relationship, so he must essentially ask for their attention (cf. p. 214 -- if you don't mind listenin' while you're restin', etc.), & only has his imagination to try to keep the vineyard in his "possession." Thus his story is a complex performance with (despite John's belief that Julius "loses sight of his auditors" while telling it, p. 215) an intricate rhetorical design.

CWC as a writer is in much the same position as Julius as story-teller. Before he can move his white audience in the direction he wants it to go (toward recognizing equal rights of blacks in America) he has to reach that audience. To get what he wants, he has to start with what the majority audience in the 1880s wants -- its appetites and assumptions.

This led me to talk about the "plantation tale" as a popular magazine genre in the 1880s, as exemplified by the reactionary stories of Thomas Nelson Page. The agenda of Page's work is to reconstruct Reconstruction, to create the myth of an Old South that was edenic, even for slaves. We looked briefly at "Mars Chan" -- which like "The Goophered Grapevine" uses a white frame narrator & a tale told in black dialect by a former slave. In Page's plantation tales, former slaves talk about how noble the masters were & how happy all the slaves used to be. CWC takes those conventions & tries subtly to subvert them. He "signifies" upon the types found in stories like "Mars Chan" -- his slave owner, McAdoo, isn't chivalric & noble, but greedy & essentially ruthless (cf. 217-18). In Julius' unpolemical account, we see what slavery did to someone like Henry -- turned him into a commodity that McAdoo could exploit to build his estate. (When Annie asks Julius if his tale is "true," he offers to show her Henry's grave -- i.e. it is true that the wealth of the Old South was built on the lives of human beings who were "conjured" into commodities by slavery.)

I went on to talk about how CWC is working within other preconceptions or popular stereotypes in order to subvert them. Blacks & superstition is one such stereotypical linkage. When Julius offers to talk about "conjuh," he's doing just what John (and the readers of the Atlantic John represents) would expect a black to do (see what Twain has Huck say, for example, about blacks & witches). But as we realize by the end of the story (though John does not) Julius is exploiting the white fascination with slave superstitions in order to get his own way. He's at least as "shrewd" & intelligent as John, though he has to speak from behind the mask of the simple black because there is no other way to try to work on John. "Conjure" in CWC's stories becomes a complex metaphor that describes the various stratagems by which the politically & economically & rhetorically disenfranchised can seek some measure of power. CWC himself, for instance, is trying to conjure his readers, and also conjure, transform, racist stereotypes.

How successful this strategy can be is the last question I took up. John, for example, can see the intelligence at work in Julius' story-telling, that it had ulterior motives, etc. But John not only never grants Julius any rights to the vineyard; by naming him "Uncle Julius" at the end he effectively imposes the most conventional stereotype (Uncle Remus, etc.) back on Julius. But CWC can hope that the reader will see what John doesn't -- not as an "Uncle," but as complex, resourceful, fully human. As a whole, though, the story remains balanced between CWC's faith and his doubt about what telling a story can do. It's possible to predict even from this first of his Julius stories that he would grow impatient with the limits of dialect stories, try to write about race and racism from in front of the mask.

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