Friday, February 13, 2015

The Conjure Woman by Charles W. Chesnutt

Folklore of the American South
The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, was originally published in 1899. In the opening story, the narrator explains that due to his wife’s poor health, a doctor advises him to move her to a warmer climate. So they pack up, leave Ohio, and move down to central North Carolina. The narrator, named John, has an interest in “grape-culture,” so he buys an old vineyard which he hopes to restore to prosperity. This takes place “a sufficient time” after the Civil War, yet memories of slavery and the old plantation system still linger. Soon after arriving, John and his wife meet an old black man named Julius who in former times was a slave to the vineyard’s previous owner. They hire him on as a farm hand and handyman. Whenever opportunity presents itself, old Julius regales his employers with superstitious folk tales of the old pre-war days.

The seven stories all roughly follow the same format. The couple gets a visit from Julius on their porch, or he takes them for a drive in the wagon. For whatever reason the task or errand at hand is delayed, giving Julius the opportunity to tell one of his imaginative tales. All the stories feature a conjurer—usually a woman named Aunt Peggy, but sometimes another woman or man. For the price of some corn or a chicken these conjurers will mix up their roots and perform their magic. Often this involves transforming people into animals, or putting a “goopher”—or hex—on someone. At story’s end, it’s always revealed that Julius has an ulterior motive for his narrative—he doesn’t want his boss to buy a particular piece of land or go down a certain road. The narrator is a diehard skeptic who doesn’t believe a word of Julius’s fantastical stories, but usually his wife is emotionally affected by the tales. Her husband acquiesces to her wishes, and Julius gets his way. The book’s main weakness is that it never varies from this template. Julius’s stories are always entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, but the scenes that bookend them get a little tiresome.

The stories are written in a heavy black Southern dialect, like what you might find in passages of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The “n-word” is ubiquitous. Chesnutt was a mixed race author, and I think it’s implied that the narrator and his wife have African ancestry as well. There’s no racism in Chesnutt’s telling of these tales, but there is a hint of classist condescension. John and his wife are like that couple on the old TV series Green Acres who move to the country and find themselves surrounded by bumpkins. Because these tales delve into the realm of fantasy, they don’t provide the realistic portrait of Southern life that one finds in Chesnutt’s naturalistic novel The House Behind the Cedars. The Conjure Woman does, however, provide some insight into life under slavery. Not all of the masters are depicted as cruel and heartless, yet almost every story involves the separation of slave families when husbands, wives, or children are sold or transferred to another plantation. The conjurers and their witchcraft offer the only hope of circumventing the harsh reality of slave life. They represent the hope of freedom amidst a life of bondage.

The original edition of The Conjure Woman contained seven stories. Later editions, like the one available for free at Amazon or Project Gutenberg, entitled The Conjure Woman, and Other Stories, contain three additional “uncollected Uncle Julius stories” and a short essay by Chesnutt called “Superstitions and Folk-Lore of the American South.”

Stories in this collection
The Goophered Grapevine 
Po’ Sandy 
Mars Jeems’s Nightmare 
The Conjurer’s Revenge 
Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny 
The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt 
Hot-Foot Hannibal

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