The Greatest American Short Story Ever Written is by an Author You Never Learned About

In 2019 it was my distinct pleasure (to, ironically, my own horror that it took so long)  to discover three brilliant writers that serve to illuminate the power of the curricula to limit the canon: African-American short story master Charles Chesnutt, Australia’s sketch story genius Henry Lawson, and artist of the Victorian feminist essay Augusta Webster. I’d gladly hand Hemingway his walking papers for the replacement of any one of the three.

The introduction to Chesnutt was particularly illuminating as it was his stories which familiarized me with the genre of the slave dialect story.  In particular, I was absolutely floored by “Dave’s Neckliss”. Simply put: I am absolutely amazed at the level of meaning contained within. It is quite extraordinary and I must confess that very shortly after my second reading, I was moved to consider it one of the very best short stories in the history of American literature. I mean, seriously, this thing ranks up there with “A&P” and “Bartleby” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and, yes, even “The Lottery” and if you know how I feel about Shirley Jackson, you know that is the highest praise I can possibly confer. I cannot understand how I got to my mid-fifties without knowing of the existence of this story…oh, wait, yes I can.

I have since first becoming acquainted with “Dave’s Neckliss” read this story all the way through at least two dozen times and have even written the bulk of a published study guide. The more times I went back to it for study while composing the study guide, the more convinced I became that Mr. Chesnutt here has written what is so far single greatest short story in the history of American literature. A single reading cannot possibly convey the astonishing depth of what is going on within this deceptively simple story; only multiple readings can peel back the multiple layers of its complex construction and ambiguous structure. None of that complexity makes sense without the knowledge that Charles Chesnutt was the first African-American (of mixed race heritage it must be mentioned, but who absolutely presented himself to his readers at the turn of the 20th century as “negro”) to make a living writing fiction and that his success was due to writing stories that directly had the intention of undoing the massive damage caused by the success of tales of plantation life framed by the Uncle Remus stories composed by a pure white cracker from Georgia. The meta-textual significance precedes postmodernism by more than half a century and is the central component (I think) that situates it as the most brilliant work of short fiction yet composed by an American.

Again, let me reiterate my assertion that “Dave’s Neckliss” is the single greatest short story ever written by an American writer. After having read Chesnutt’s story “The Passing of Grandison” several times for some academic writing purposes–as well as the rest of the stories in the collection titled The Conjure Woman and Other Stories–I have reached another conclusion. If Charles Waddell Chesnutt had been born to two white parents instead of one parents of mixed pigmentation, he would be as well-known as Herman Melville and would show up on more college curricula than Hemingway (oh, if only!). This man’s talent is the stuff capable of producing Salieri-level envy and I have no doubt that that aspect of his legacy also contributed to his work being secreted away by those in the white establishment that could have given him the fame and exposure he deserves.