Commencement May 19

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Presented by Rafael Walker, Baruch College, City University of New York.

In the 1890s—the decade that yielded the Plessy decision allowing segregation in the U.S.—Charles Waddell Chesnutt and Mark Twain wrote fiction demonstrating the arbitrariness of race, at a time when many of their compatriots were insisting on its primacy. Interestingly, both sought to subvert racial and racist thinking through writing stories about mixed-race people, a demographic straddling the deepening color line that W.E.B. Du Bois would designate a decade later as the “problem of the twentieth century.” Obviously, for these two writers, the stakes were different: Mark Twain was trying to be a good citizen while Chesnutt (a man fair enough to pass for white but who let himself be identified as black) was fighting for his life and the lives of others like him. Despite these differences, however, Mark Twain, along with Chesnutt, is now counted among the first to have moved beyond propaganda in portraying mixed-race characters. And yet his most-sustained attempt at rendering such lives, his 1894 novel Puddn’head Wilson, has remained among his least-liked works. In this lecture, I bring this novel into conversation with Chesnutt’s own oft-maligned novel about mixed-race siblings, The House behind the Cedars (1900), to suggest that the disorderliness of both their works is less the result of carelessness than the product of the disorderliness of their subject matter—race in an era convinced that the concept mattered yet couldn’t even consistently define it.

Rafael Walker is Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, where he is also affiliate faculty in both the Department of Black and Latino Studies and in the Program and Women and Gender Studies. He has published on many topics both in American literature and in higher education, his work appearing in varied venues, such as MELUS, Arizona Quarterly, J19, Twentieth-Century Literature, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, to name a few. He has put together a critical edition of Kate Chopin’s work, The Awakening and Other Stories (published with Warbler Press Classics) and a new edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing for Broadview Press. Walker is working on two book-length monographs—one on the American realist novel and the other on biraciality in American culture. He also has served on the editorial board for J19: The Journal for the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.

The 2024 Trouble Begins Lecture Series and Park Church Summer Lecture Series are made possible by the generous support of The Mark Twain Foundation.


Wednesday, May 15, 2024
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM


Quarry Farm Barn
131 Crane Road

Elmira, NY 14901

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2024 Trouble Begins Lecture Series: The Mixed-Race Fiction of Charles Chesnutt and Mark Twain


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