CLEMSON — Susanna Ashton, chair of the English department at Clemson University, has received a national award for her recent book on Charles W. Chesnutt.

Chesnutt (1858-1932) was one of the most influential African-American writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt

Susanna Ashton

Professor and English chair Susanna Ashton was presented the Charles W. Chesnutt Society’s Sylvia Lyons Render Award, along with co-editor Bill Hardwig. Image credit: Clemson University Relations.

Ashton co-edited “Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt” with Bill Hardwig, an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

Their teaching guide, which was published in late 2017 by the Modern Language Association, was awarded the Sylvia Lyons Render Award by the Charles W. Chesnutt Society.

The award takes its name from the scholar and literary critic who was an influential authority on Chesnutt. Sylvia Lyons Render (1913-1986) also was a pioneering African-American educator who taught at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee – now part of Vanderbilt University.

“It is an honor to be recognized by the Charles W. Chesnutt Society,” Ashton said. “It, too, is a validation of our endeavor to bring renewed attention to the challenging and brilliantly rewarding works of this important literary figure.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Chesnutt addressed race in American life as a realist, stripping away the romanticism that flavored much of Southern writing after the Civil War.

A journalist, activist and author, Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to free parents of color. When he was a child, the family returned to Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Chesnutt began his career as a rural teacher in the state, educating the people who had been enslaved and their children. He later worked as a reporter in New York City and studied law before establishing a successful career as a writer.

Chesnutt’s stories, essays and novels cover issues such as segregation, class and racial passing. His novel “The House Behind the Cedars” was published in 1900 and was followed in 1901 by “The Marrow of Tradition,” which is based on the 1898 coup d’état and massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Charles W. Chesnutt

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)

“Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt” features contributions from 21 scholars, stitched together with introductory texts crafted by Ashton and Hardwig.

“Bill and I authored every sentence of our introductions together,” Ashton said.

“We worked on the book from our different universities by traveling to Asheville, North Carolina, three times a year. It was a midpoint between his university and mine,” she said. “We would sit at cafes and the public library and write alongside one another all day, swapping sentences and paragraphs as we worked out details and drafts over each other’s shoulders.”

“What makes this book a success, however, isn’t simply the concept or editorial execution, although Bill and I are proud of our collaborative work,” Ashton said. “Rather, it is the labor of 21 passionate and creative teachers who share approaches and strategies to make Chesnutt accessible and engaging for all kinds of student audiences. We are thrilled to have this award recognize all of our contributions and to know that this project will help more people read and engage with Chesnutt’s writing.”