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Conference Proceeding

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Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1997) once wrote: “Speaking of dialect, it is almost a despairing task to write it.” His supposed frustration with the treatment of dialect, specifically the black plantation dialect of the 19th century, presents a view of Chesnutt‟s own treatment of written dialect in regards to lexical choices he made in his fiction. Within the constructs of 19th century America, Chesnutt‟s ability to employ black dialect as a metaphor for social change contrasts with his ambivalence in using traditional diction as a weapon to affect this transition. Many critics have postulated that the historical context of Chesnutt‟s time relegated him to the realm of Plantation Fiction, that is, a genre of framed narratives that glorified the pre-Civil War South and its fractured cultural values. Other critics herald Chesnutt as the founder of African-American fiction, arguing that he was forced by societal context to accomplish this goal through non-offensive lexical choices that nonetheless proved effective in creating an African-American opposition to a lesser caste status. My study examines how Chesnutt not only operated within a sphere of literary racism, but that he further used his alleged “place” within this system to create a body of dialectal diction that actually subverted 19th century white values and stereotypes, even while he maintained his marketability to his predominately white readers. His juxtaposition of white and black dialects and lexical choices provide a framework for the very real cultural metaphor of white man as master and black man as servant.


Presented at Graduate English Association New Voices Conference 2008, pp. 1-13.