Charles Chesnutt and the African American Adaptation of King Arthur

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  • Title: Charles Chesnutt and the African American Adaptation of King Arthur
  • Author(s): R. Baxter Miller
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: New Directions in the Humanities
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of Literary Humanities
  • Keywords: Charles Chesnutt, African American Voice, Intertextual Revision, Short Fiction, Pedagogy
  • Volume: 15
  • Issue: 3
  • Year: 2017
  • ISSN: 2327-7912 (Print)
  • ISSN: 2327-8676 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Miller, R. Baxter. 2017. "Charles Chesnutt and the African American Adaptation of King Arthur." The International Journal of Literary Humanities 15 (3): 41-49. doi:10.18848/2327-7912/CGP/v15i03/41-49.
  • Extent: 9 pages


Regarding at least half of the nine stories of “Wife of His Youth” by Charles Chesnutt, including five of the most artfully crafted, I propose that the interaction between the story and undergraduate reader benefits substantially from a comic alteration of the Arthurian romance at the text’s core. In exemplary stories such as the title work and “The Passing of Grandison,” the references are obvious. Yet elsewhere the connections prove subtler according to the provocative controversies that Arthurian romance bequeaths indirectly to the present, a consequential and eventual transformation of identity and existence, a signification of racial aesthetics and ideologies, and finally even a hierarchy of political power embedded within English (pun intended) texts. Therefore, the unifying metaphor of Arthur exists at once as reference and allusion—in other words, as figure and idea. In fact, the suggestion even recurs as loosely related themes: a dishonorable Southern chivalry and eventually an emblem of public power. Such figuration appears in “Wife” initially as a European text intruding on a black woman’s story (“Wife,” “Cicely”) and then as comic strategies that re-enliven our sense of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (1859–1885; “Grandison”). While the Arthurian figure would seem to disappear finally from Chesnutt’s finishing tales (“Bouquet,” “Web”), the scenes complete a call for revolutionary power on the student’s part. The most useful pedagogical strategies for teaching the stories then is to explore initially the degree to which the European American and African American texts provide contesting representations of American beauty. During the second stage of the learner’s developing cognition would appear the writer’s brilliant adaptation of English texts. In the final step, the learner must recognize that a nonwhite’s mastery of Standard English, both literally and figuratively, is indeed cultural power.