21 Days of Chesnutt | Day 3: “To Be an Author” (2.12.2015)

Knowing who you are and what you want to do with your life—two issues that Charles W. Chesnutt apparently toiled with throughout adulthood. Like many writers of both the past and present, Chesnutt wrestled with other careers, jobs, and methods of sustaining his life and family.


To Be An Author - Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, Ed McElrath and Leitz, 1997, Chesnutt Library, Fayetteville State University - Black History Month - 2.12 (2)

At some point or another, he called himself a principal, lawyer, reporter, teacher, stenographer…husband and father, too. But the one thing that he always came back to, the one trade that stuck with him was that of writer.

Chesnutt is (arguably) heralded as the first great Black American writer, a pioneer in African American literary history. In “To Be an Author” (1997), a collection of his letters between 1889 – 1905, readers are able to glean a restless chronicle of Chesnutt’s “frustration of a lifelong quest to transcend the limitations” (x) of wadding on the periphery. These letters were compiled to focus wholly on his pursuit to arrive as a professional author.

If you are never published or accepted in to a heavily-circulated publication, then what? Do you continue to write for the sake of sating your thirst to create? History tells us that notoriety tends to come back after we are dead and gone; this too held true for Chesnutt. So, you may find some reassurance knowing that it’s a sort of rite to endure your share of struggle and to balance thinking you are a writer with actually being one.

To Be an Author reaffirms that artists—no matter their form or genre—will forever struggle with how to create, share, and continue their art. They learn to persist, even if they are never accepted by their peers.

You can find this collection of letters in both the Reference and Main Stacks.


Source: McElrath, Joseph R. and Robert C. Leitz III, eds, “To Be an Author”: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt (1889-1905). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

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