Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Necessary Fictions of Charles Chesnutt's the Colonel's Dream

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Necessary Fictions of Charles Chesnutt's the Colonel's Dream

Article excerpt

MUCH OF CHARLES CHESNUTT'S WORK IMPLIES THAT POLITICALLY AND socially progressive ends are made possible by emotional means, particularly when feelings cross the color line. These interracial expressions of feelings are a significant pattern in Chesnutt's fiction, a fact that becomes all the more important given his belief, stated in an off-quoted journal entry of 1880, that "the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro ... cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it" (Journals 140). Here, Chesnutt implies that countering negative feelings by drawing out principles that are felt in the "heart" (140) can challenge the ideas about African Americans that maintain racial barriers and thereby create meaningful connections between blacks and whites. This assumption underlies Chesnutt's hope that the effects of his fiction would emulate those of earlier works like Uncle Torn's Cabin (1852), in which both the plot and the reader's imagined response rely upon feelings of sympathy and love that cross the color line. Like Uncle Tom "s Cabin, Chesnutt's fiction often depicts the very feelings and ensuing actions that he hopes reading his work will inspire. Characters like Annie, the wife of John, who narrates the conjure tales; George Tryon of The House Behind the Cedars (1900); and Olivia Carteret of The Marrow of Tradition (1901) model ethical and emotional transformations that Chesnutt hoped his readers could attain. He writes of such effects that "it is the province of literature to open the way for [the African American] to get [social recognition and equality]--to accustom the public mind to the idea; and by while amusing them to [begin strikethrough]familiarize[end strikethrough] lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling" (140). (1)

What happens to this "province of literature" in Chesnutt's final published novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905)? In the novel, the idealistic protagonist, Colonel French, approaches the socioeconomic reformation of his Southern hometown with an agenda akin to that of Chesnutt's fiction writer: Colonel French attempts to "accustom the public mind to the idea" of reform, and he similarly accepts the incremental nature of social change. This connection between the colonel and fiction is intensified by Chesnutt's emphasis on the fictional quality of the colonel's ideas about the South. The novel makes clear that the colonel's actions are influenced by his relationship to a particular version of the past and the sympathetic feelings it evokes; the colonel's own motivations suggest that states of feeling and the fictions that produce them are relevant to the kind of progressive developments he promotes. The Colonel's Dream focuses the reader's attention on how such fictions link personal feelings and effective social action. In turn, the novel's conclusion reveals both the vulnerability and the necessity of this link. (2)

In this sense, Chesnutt's attention to the fictional--or, in the novel's parlance, to "dreams'--exemplifies his ongoing interest in reformulating antebellum, and often sentimental, models of sympathetic encounters between blacks and whites that fueled the abolitionist movement and which, he believed, could be harnessed to remake the postbellum South. (3) Thus, in the novel the colonel's interest in the New South relies upon revisiting the Old. Chesnutt takes as a central theme the powerful fictions of reconciliation and nostalgia that animate assumptions about the post-Reconstruction South and revises romantic, sentimentalized accounts of the Old South in order to promote an agenda of social justice. Chesnutt appropriates these narratives and, through the figure of the often paternalistic colonel, puts them in the service of progressive social and economic reforms that result from individual action. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.