Published in 1899 by Houghton Mifflin, Chesnutt’s first book, The Conjure Woman, was a collection of seven short stories, all set in “Patesville” (Fayetteville), North Carolina. While drawing from local color traditions and relying on dialect, Chesnutt’s tales of conjuring, a form of magic rooted in African hoodoo, refused to romanticize slave life or the “Old South.” Though necessarily informed by Joel Chandler Harris’s popular Uncle Remus stories and Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation fiction, The Conjure Woman consciously moved away from these models, instead offering an almost biting examination of pre- and post-Civil War race relations.
These seven short stories use a frame narrator, John, a white carpetbagger who has moved south to protect his wife Annie’s failing health and to begin cultivating a grape vineyard. Enamored by remnants of the plantation world, John portrays the South in largely idealistic terms. Yet Uncle Julius McAdoo, the ex-slave and “trickster” figure extraordinaire who narrates the internal story lines, presents a remarkably different view of Southern life. His accounts include Aun’ Peggy’s conjure spells in “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” “Po’ Sandy,” “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” and “Hot Foot Hannibal” as well as those of free black conjure men in “The Conjurer’s Revenge” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt.” These conjure tales reveal moments of active black resistance to white oppression in addition to calculated (and even self-motivated) plots of revenge. (Introduction provided by Documenting the American South)