Charles W. Chesnutt was a serial transplant. He found the ancestral North Carolina inhospitable. And in the North–Washington, New York, Cleveland, he was always homesick, from his earliest departures.

By Tiffany Eberle Kriner 

An excerpt from In Thought, Word, and Seed: Reckonings from a Midwest Farm by Tiffany Eberle Kriner, published by Eerdmans Publishing.

In 1887, Charles W. Chesnutt’s story “The Goophered Grapevine” was published in the Atlantic Monthly, the first short story by an African American to appear there. In it, a couple of northern white carpetbaggers, John and Annie, meet an older Black man, Julius, as they consider a ruined plantation they want to buy and fix up.

Uncle Julius has been working the land through slavery time and since, though the master of the plantation, Dugal McAdoo, died in the war. Julius is sitting on a log eating grapes when the couple finds him, but he willingly tells them a story as they rest. His tale relates a curse on the place—a goopher—that came into being when Mars Dugal couldn’t keep the people he was enslaving from eating ripe grapes and hired a conjure woman to scare them away from the crops. Aunt Peggy goophers the vines so that a curse would fall on any field workers who eat of them, and thus Mars Dugal successfully increases his profit.

It gets worse when Mars Dugal takes advantage of the sufferings of a freedom seeker from another plantation, Henry, who has unwittingly fallen under the goopher. Henry is cursed such that his health is tied to the health of the field, waxing and waning seasonally. And each year, Mars Dugal sells Henry off the plantation after the peak of his season, making a great deal of profit because Henry is so strong. And when Henry withers in winter, Mars Dugal buys him cheaply back to his plantation, where, when spring comes, his strength will be renewed and Mars Dugal can profit from him again.

Even this doesn’t satisfy the profit appetites of Mars Dugal, though, and his greed kills both the land and Henry. When a northerner comes in with a supposed miracle process to increase the productivity of the vines, Mars Dugal jumps at the opportunity. But the northerner’s chemicals and his ill-advised agricultural method of digging around the roots destroys the cultivars and ruins the fields for good. Henry, who had been rooted to land in slavery, conjure-rooted, and uprooted again and again, withers like the field he’s tied to. He dies and is buried next to the field he worked.

John and Annie think that the story about all the magical forces over the field is a tall tale to scare them away from buying the plantation, and they buy it anyway. But they like Uncle Julius and his stories, and they hire the older man to be their driver.

Chesnutt’s story ended up being the first in a whole series of conjure stories in which Uncle Julius yarns on John and Annie. And they became a book, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales, published in 1899. Each tale contains a story Uncle Julius tells within a frame narrated by John, and each lays out something about slavery time. They instruct the northern white folks about how to farm the land, about how to deal justly and well with people in the community. They teach the carpetbaggers about slavery’s curse, what it meant and continues to mean. Together, they function as something of a manual, a handbook for healing.  Me, I’m reading it just so, here on the farm.


The first day we walked the land that would become Root and Sky Farm, we started our walk past a makeshift dump near the entrance to the field—a mountain of rain-wrecked couches now homes for critters, broken end tables, stained mattresses, plastic deck chairs, bags of diapers, endless empty cans of Monster energy drink. A massive trucking rig’s cab and a scruffy white, lure-the-children-into-sex-slavery-with-candy van. A boat in the weeds, a pickup truck cap strewn farther out in tall grass. Out deep in the field, in the jutting finger of forest, in a big crevassing hole, another, older dump with a coil-backed old refrigerator, random farm equipment, and a dangerous mesh pile of barbed wire and conduit. Boggled the mind how anyone got that trash out there—five acres from the house and barn—or how to get it back out, or whether you even should.

Were there forces at work on this field? Much had been done, we were sure, to the soil, to the beans.


Charles W. Chesnutt was a serial transplant. He found the ancestral North Carolina inhospitable. And in the North–Washington, New York, Cleveland, he was always homesick, from his earliest departures.

Though they differ from each other in social condition and race, the framing characters in Chesnutt’s conjure stories share with Chesnutt the condition of being uprooted. John and Annie, from a Northern Great Lakes shore city, are casting about for a cure for Annie and enterprise for John. Uncle Julius, formerly enslaved, was never allowed roots; he is looking to figure out his community’s postbellum place near the plantation where John and Annie decide to settle. But surely his position, too, is almost as deeply affected by the waxing and waning of the grapes as his tale’s Henry’s: his livelihood is tied to the land.

For Chesnutt, northern Ohio was not especially welcoming either. Yet not only the need for a home but also a home field, a place in the world, is behind the stories—for the characters John and Julius, and for Chesnutt.

John’s need for a home manifests in a search for a new career—the vineyard for him to work. The opening of the “The Goophered Grapevine” is full of John’s dreams of economic prosperity in grape cultivation. He is a man searching—searching for “a locality suitable,” for “what I wanted,” “a place that might suit me.” He thinks, “I might find what I wanted in some one of our own Southern States.” That proprietary, national diction, which might rankle in a postbellum context as it headlocks the South into communion, only comes to the fore more powerfully when John suggests he might be “enough of a pioneer to start a new industry” in North Carolina, if grape culture was unknown in the region.  John declares himself to be one who “had given [grape culture] much study.” The story’s language, though, suggests a sort of too-academic greenness that, if we take true the conventional wisdom that it takes one to know one, I recognize.

For John as for Chesnutt, finding a new home and a new field is a deeply “radical [that is, root-level] change.” Yet there is evidence in the story that John is viewing the chaos of the setting of the ruined plantation as opportune. John and Annie observe the “well-nigh exhausted” soil, the vineyard’s “utter neglect,” but proclaim that they will buy it if they can be “reasonably sure of making something of it.” They are full of patriotic and capitalist—and indeed, aesthetic—energy.

Chesnutt may have been long-term looking for a different sort of field to work in, a vocational field where he could put down roots too. His ambitions led him to a variety of pursuits: teaching school, stenography, languages, and education administration. But on May 29, 1880, he wrote his true longing baldly and boldly, in a manner particularly suited to a journal: “I think I must write a book.” Stark as it was, though, the sentiment had been building for months, maybe years, as he’d kept abreast of contemporary fiction and its possibilities for earning a living wage.

It might suit him, he thought. Publishing had been favoring local color and dialect fiction projects. But in the fiction then ascendant, the southern Black characters functioned as relics of the old slavery times. Uncle Remus and the plantation tradition reached back into a fantasy of slavery time with elder formerly enslaved persons telling young white women how good it was before the war, how in the good old days, the plantation was a family, Blacks and whites together, with dancing and food and laughter. Chesnutt knew he could do better than that.

His work would break the stereotype. Even more, his journal entries asserted, it would be on fire with “purpose, a high, holy purpose” that would correct and heal white racism:

The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites—for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it.

Chesnutt’s crusade is a necessary exodus toward a promised land. It centers space and the creation of an integrated community. For Chesnutt, “it is the province of literature to open the way for [Black people to get recognition and equality] . . . to accustom the public mind to the idea; to lead people out, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.” The language of leading out, step-by-step, of taking position, is in the service of a dream of interracial community. Chesnutt believes in the possibility, difficult to imagine in postbellum life even when whites and Blacks inhabited the same city, of making a culture together.

Chesnutt’s dream preceded King’s, and Chesnutt is a pioneer—not of grape culture in North Carolina, but of that kind of peace. And young Chesnutt dreamed so resolutely—“I will trust in God and work. This work I shall undertake not for myself alone, but for my children, for the people with whom I am connected, for humanity!”


I wanted us above all to do something good with Josh’s dream to try and grow Root and Sky Farm out of a scrubbed-up parcel of sixty-some acres in rural Illinois. I wrote a soaring mission statement. We would “participate in the renewal and restoration of land  hunted by the Potawatomi and for decades cultivated by the great 19th-century bee-keeper C. C. Miller” I was expansive, describing our hopes to grow “animals, grass, trees, produce, and bees to improve the land in beauty and fruitfulness.”

I thought we could help grow and raise delicious food that helped people eat in ways that align with their values. I thought we could build welcoming, diverse communities of neighbors, farmers, and artists. I even thought we might someday support research into better sustainable farming methods in a changing climate. Of course, it was a dubious plan, mostly because it sounded so good.


The story of “The Goophered Grapevine,” or rather, the story within a story, might work as a cautionary tale for eager-beaver newcomers to the neighborhood of the plantation. In contrast to nostalgic plantation tradition stories, it described life “before the war” truthfully.

The caution of the tale for John and Annie comes partly from Julius’s recounting these everyday abuses, of which any owner ought to be aware—the history of the workers they aim to hire. As if to reinforce the caution, Julius calls northern carpetbagger John “marster” when he finishes his story. It’s not quite “Mars,” like “Mars Dugal McAdoo” for the enslaver, but there’s a chilling resemblance in the term.

I’m not sure they could hear him or his cautions, though, at least not yet in this first encounter. John’s closing frame emphasizes the news coverage of his plantation, which describes it as “a striking illustration of the opportunities open to Northern capital in the development of Southern industries.” There it is again, the drive for profit, profit, profit. John says the vines are thriving, though. And the workers seem to have access to the grapes—John has “a mild suspicion that our colored assistants do not suffer from want of grapes during the season”—so maybe something got through.


That first day, we’d gotten permission to walk it from the real estate agent, who warned us, though, to NOT approach the house, because of the aforementioned hostile tenants. There were lots of vehicles and things by the house—but it was hard to tell if anyone was home.

But, as we got out and we were crossing between the barn and the garage toward where an abandoned old cell tower cage crowned a short rise, we heard sounds. We stopped, barely breathing, and I got past a giant trucker’s cab, ducking behind a nearby van, hoping the tenants wouldn’t mind us being there—or, if they would mind, that they might not see us to be able to confront us.

No luck, though. A woman’s voice shouted, “They’re behind your rig!” She had come out on the deck, a big white woman, pointing. And then a big white man—seeming, to our adrenaline-sped hearts, just as described, indeed precisely “hostile”—Can-I-Help-You-ed toward us skulkers.

Josh explained, shortly, as he was clearly also frightened, that we were told we could walk the land but not the house, and that we had permission to be there.

I was pretty much HIDING crouched behind that van during this exchange. But when the tenants turned back toward the house, in what I can only presume was some sort of pissed acquiescence to Josh’s statement of rights-to-see-land, I felt some stupid emotion rise up in me, some hunger for connection and goodwill.

“But wait!” I blundered, stumbling out from behind the van, bursting with foolish do-gooder spirit. “Can we meet you?”

Now, awkward, self-deprecating friendliness has, on the whole, tended to be one of my more successful attributes. It’s gotten me out of some scrapes. But this time I truly was ridiculous, the most bumbling person who’s ever lived—I probably even tripped as I ran out from behind my hiding spot.

He spoke, the most terrifying “WHAT!” I’ve ever heard.

I’d been thinking that if we just knew each other, we could maybe work something out. Maybe they could stay in the house for a while—surely it’d take some time to figure out what we were going to do with the land. We hadn’t sold our house at the time. Maybe there was some way to involve them in the project of saving the land? Maybe they could stay and wouldn’t have to be evicted by the bank at the time of sale? Maybe we could all work together! Who knew?

“Can we meet you?” I repeated, reaching out with as much of a smile as I could muster.

The man’s face ripped to scorn or anger or something else I couldn’t name.

He flicked his hand and said, “I got nothing to do with this place.”

They turned and walked back in the house, away from the field and the rig.

We never saw them again. They were evicted by the bank prior to the sale, and they left almost everything there—even that rig, temporarily—on the place.


What I’m discovering here is that it seems like it might make a difference to read a book from a particular field or wood. “The Goophered Grapevine,” almost everything I read, feels different here and now.

I used to teach Chesnutt’s story as a trickster tale. We would look at the way that John, the white guy, thinks that he is so smart. He thinks he sees through Uncle Julius, and calmly proceeds according to his own course of supposedly superior knowledge.

But, I would ask my students, isn’t Uncle Julius the real winner? He offers the white guy what the white guy thinks he wants: an old Black man rolling his eyes and smacking his teeth quaintly over grapes, telling Uncle Remus stories. Then he proceeds according to his,  Julius’s,  purposes. For when John buys the plantation, Julius changes from being a forage farmer to a safely employed driver. At the end of the story, he’s fully employed and safe from the Black codes. And he has some power in this position. Julius takes Annie and John not only where they want to go, but where he wants them to go, and at the pace he’d like to take them.

Teaching the story like that had been a pleasant way to have students take something from the class, the big reveal at the end.

Yet I’d been getting uncomfortable with the reading. My smarter-than-thou uncovering of Chesnutt’s duplicitous trickstering sounds an awful lot like John. He’s so proud of himself for figuring Uncle Julius out that he stops thinking about him as a person, stops engaging.

Uncle Julius’s deep well of stories can help John, but only if John drinks from it. In the rest of Chesnutt’s conjure tales, what leads him to the water? Farming troubles. When he has employee problems, crop problems, facilities problems, land problems, Uncle Julius has a story to help. They become a sort of indirect advice.

My played out reading of Julius as the trickier trickster requires us to believe that Chesnutt himself is a trickster, that, perhaps, all African American authors are required to operate in trickster roles thanks to the white frame. “We wear the mask,” after all, “that grins and lies,” or so Paul Laurence Dunbar, Chesnutt’s contemporary, wrote.

It’s not precisely improper to do so. I mean, Chesnutt’s journal entry, cited above, could function like that, as evidence for the trickster’s role. Chesnutt’s desire amounts to a plan to trick white people into going to the right place without even realizing that they are on the way. Spoonful of sugar, and so forth.

That direction of readers’ attention and opinion is maybe what all writers do, of course, but the frames that set Chesnutt up as a writer of moment, such as the ones made by William Dean Howells in the Atlantic Monthly, are particularly racialized. Howells links Uncle Julius’s trickery specifically with the author. Howells wrote that “the stories of The Conjure Woman have a wild, indigenous poetry, the creation of sincere and original imagination, which is imparted with a tender humorousness and a very artistic reticence.” See? “Sincere,” but also “reticent”—something of the trickster.

I think Howells is trying, I do. He wants to get Chesnutt into the room, ally-style, and he compares Chesnutt to Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett. But there’s this sense of power that he as the reviewer holds: he’s like John, holding himself apart. Howells will not allow the stories to touch him or the reader: “In some [stories],” he writes, “the comedy degenerates into satire, with a look in the reader’s direction which the author’s friend must deplore.” The author’s friend, Howells writes, should keep the writer from this sort of thing: there ought to be no address of the reader, no pointing finger of satire, allowed.

But at the farm, with my neighbors, I need a different relationship to Chesnutt’s stories than this constant tricking and ferreting out. I can’t reject the satire or the instruction. I need something different than a situation in which I suggest to Chesnutt which meanings are appropriate for his trickster, which meanings will align Chesnutt with a set of racial ideas that work for my political leanings or my whiteness. I need to let his stories look in my direction; I need to let them come by here.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner is associate professor of English at Wheaton College and the author of The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading.