"THE GHOSTS OF ONE ERA HAUNT THE HOUSES OF THE NEXT": EXCEPTIONAL FIRST EDITION OF CHARLES CHESNUTT'S BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, 1899, WITH FRONTISPIECE OF DOUGLASS, IN ORIGINAL CLOTH
CHESNUTT, Charles W. Frederick Douglass. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1899. Small octavo (4 by 5-3/4 inches), original gilt-stamped navy cloth, decorative endpapers, top edge gilt, uncut: pp. (1-4), (i-vii), viii-x, (xi), xii-xix, (xx-xxii), (1), 2-141 (142), (2). $2500.
First edition of Chesnutt's biography that "shows Douglass' influence on one of America's greatest Black writers" —a "double first" for Beacon Biographies, its "first volume on an African American subject" and its first "by an African American biographer"—a beautiful copy.
In 1899 Chesnutt published two inaugural volumes of short prose: Conjure Woman in March and Wife of His Youth in November. That same month also saw the publication of this biography of Frederick Douglass, as Chesnutt continued to work on House Behind the Cedars (1900), his first novel, and began research for his novel, Marrow of Tradition (1901). This extraordinary year not only confirmed a decision to make writing his sole career, deemed impossible for a Black author, it also marked the centennial of George Washington's inauguration and the celebration of "a century of prosperous progress" (Barnard, Outsider Classicism, 71). In 1845 Douglass had written, "'You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man," but in post-Reconstruction America Chesnutt saw in that celebration of "progress" a sign that historical amnesia over slavery, together with punishing enforcement of Jim Crow, ruled a nation in which "the ghosts of one era haunt the houses of the next" (Trodd, Vanished Past, 123).
Chesnutt's biography was prompted by a request from Beacon Biographies. Their proposal "represented a double first for the series: the first volume on an African American subject and the first volume by an African American biographer." Here Chesnutt "describes a man deeply committed to the Black cause… the fiery orator, but he also reminds us that Douglass was a skilled and pragmatic tactician." This often overlooked biography offers, as well, a "more complete picture of Chesnutt's literary career and its guiding themes, and it shows Douglass' influence on one of America's greatest Black writers" (McWilliams, Review: Centenary Edition, 429-32). Yet, to Chesnutt, writing in the generation after Douglass, "a Black writer could no longer expect to get a hearing simply by rehearsing the familiar horrors of antebellum southern life" (Andrews, Autobiographies, 11). The eloquent testimony of Douglass, in his autobiographies and speeches, would "not insure that African Americans were considered in any sense equal to white Americans." Chesnutt realized he had "to find a new genre" (Wilson, Who Has the Right, 32, 21). This biography points to how Chesnutt expands "our view of what constitutes the political in African American literature" (Barnard, 73). Just as Douglass had feared the "the old snake" of slavery might "come forth again" (Need for Continuing Antislavery Work), this biography and Chesnutt's other defining works fight a sense of how "antebellum American slavery seems to have resurfaced in the wake of Reconstruction" (Barnard, 78). First edition, first printing: issued in Beacons Biographies' trademark pocket-size format. With frontispiece of Douglass; containing Beacon Bibliographies engraved title page; Chesnutt's Frederick Douglass letterpress title page. As issued without dust jacket. Blockson 2859.
Text pristine, rear inner paper hinge expertly reinforced, lightest edge-wear to spine ends of original cloth. A rare about-fine copy.