Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Colonel’s Dream by Charles W. Chesnutt

The old Dixie home ain’t what it used to be
Charles W. Chesnutt
The Colonel’s Dream, published in 1905, was the last novel written by Charles W. Chesnutt, one of the great American realist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A man of mixed-race ancestry, Chesnutt wrote about black/white relations in post-Civil War America. His depictions of social, political, and economic conditions in the South are unflinchingly honest and sometimes brutally realistic. Such frank societal criticism may have been off-putting to audiences of Chesnutt’s day, but it’s that very frankness that makes his work all the more valuable to today’s readers as a literary record of American history. The Colonel’s Dream is yet another great novel in this author’s exceptional body of work.

Colonel Henry French is a former Confederate Army soldier who settled in New York City after the war and struck it rich in the business world. After selling his company, he decides to temporarily relocate to his hometown of Clarendon, North Carolina, partly to benefit the ill health of his son Phil. In Clarendon, the Colonel reconnects with some old friends and relives fond memories, but he finds the town much changed since his youth. Since the war, and the emancipation of the slaves, the town has stagnated. Many of the blacks, though free, can’t find decent work because of racial prejudice, while the whites, used to having their work done for them by slaves, have grown shiftless and idle. What’s worse, the Colonel discovers a system of servitude in place that essentially perpetuates slavery. Blacks are fined heavily for crimes like vagrancy. Their debts are then auctioned off to white employers who get their free labor for months or years. This system is supported by white supremacist William Fetters, a childhood classmate of the Colonel’s, who owns most of the town and whom almost everyone is in debt to. To reinvigorate Clarendon and break Fetters’s hold on the populace, the Colonel decides to inject some much-needed capital into the economy by building a mill.

Although Chesnutt had very liberal, progressive views on racial equality and civil rights, he sometimes expresses some rather conservative ideas about class. In his works, aristocratic “blood” and “breeding” are often cited as the true measure of a man. A specimen of poor white trash can rise above his condition and learn to run a profitable business, as Fetters has done, but he can never learn the true manners, dignity, and honor of a gentleman. The man with blue blood will always be his superior. Colonel French, the descendant of wealthy white landowners, is the epitome of this aristocratic ideal, and his every action is beyond reproach. Not only does this attitude dilute the socially conscious message of Chesnutt’s work, it also sometimes constitutes a departure from realism in favor of a romanticized ideal.

Chesnutt’s writing is not free of melodrama either. The plot contains a few love stories, a subplot about a hidden treasure, and a dramatic courthouse scene, but somehow it all works together. Given its frequent focus on economic matters, The Colonel’s Dream feels a little safe compared to other Chesnutt novels like The Marrow of Tradition, about a race riot, or The House Behind the Cedars, about mixed-race blacks passing as white. Nevertheless, it must have been quite controversial for its time, and its illumination of prejudice and exposure of injustice is still quite relevant today. The novel is extremely well-written, with an unpredictable plot and several emotionally stirring scenes. Though The House Behind the Cedars may be Chesnutt’s best novel, this one is a close second. For a writer whose every book is well worth reading, that’s saying a lot.
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