The Colonel's Dream

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The Colonel’s Dream is a novel written by the African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt. Doubleday, Page, & Co. published the novel in 1905. The main setting of the novel is post-Civil War in the southern town of Clarendon, North Carolina. However, the urban setting of New York City is also featured briefly in the novel. The Colonel’s Dream portrays the continuing oppression and racial violence prominent in the South even after the Civil War. The economy of the South was doing very poorly and further limited the opportunities for Black people to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. By presenting life in Clarendon,Chesnutt illustrates how unfairly Black people were treated in the South during this time. The novel follows Colonel Henry French through the difficulty he faces in trying to reform the southern town, as he meets unfair resistance and violence from the racist people of the town. Although the novel ended up a failure, Chesnutt accurately depicts the hopelessness of reforming the South through the story of Colonel Henry French and the Southern town of Clarendon, North Carolina.

Dedication[edit]

"To the great number of those who are seeking, in whatever manner or degree, from near at hand or far away, to bring the forces of enlightenment to bear upon the vexed problems which harass the South, this volume is inscribed, with the hope that it may contribute to the same good end.
If there be nothing new between its covers, neither is love new, nor faith, nor hope, nor disappointment, nor sorrow. Yet life is not the less worth living because of any of these, nor has any man truly lived until he has tasted of them all."[1]

Plot Summary[edit]

The Colonel’s Dream is about Colonel Henry French and his attempt to refine Clarendon, North Carolina, the southern city in which he grew up, into a racially and socially equal society from the strictly segregationist ways of its past. After achieving his rank fighting for the South in the Civil War, Colonel French moved north to New York City and started a company called French and Company, Ltd. with two other partners, Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Jerviss. The story of The Colonel’s Dream starts with the Colonel and his partners selling the business for a considerable profit. With enough money to be financially independent for life and with concerns for his health, the Colonel decides to head back south with his son, Phil, to see how his hometown has developed since he had been away.

The Colonel intends to stay for only a couple of months, but once he arrives, he starts remembering with happiness and nostalgia the landscape, the building structures, and everything about the town that filled his youth. He runs into his old slave, Peter French, who is finding it difficult to make a living due to his skin color and age in the post-war conditions. He finds the Treadwells, including Mrs. Treadwell, her daughter, Miss Laura Treadwell, and her granddaughter, Graciella Treadwell, who are living leisurely. He also meets Malcolm Dudley, a man lost in the past looking for buried gold, Malcolm’s nephew, Ben Dudley, who desperately tries to take Graciella’s hand in marriage multiple times, and Viney, who has been the Dudley’s mulatto housekeeper since she was a child with Malcolm. These powerful memories overwhelm the Colonel, so he decides to stay in Clarendon indefinitely. The remainder of the novel portrays the characters' intertwined lives through Charles Chesnutt’s use of melodramatic subplots and, in the process, provides a picture of life in the post-Civil War South.

During his stay, the Colonel sees continuing economic isolation and repression of the Black population and is bothered by the racism that is still very prominent in Clarendon. Even after the South had lost the Civil War, the book portrays Black people as not being given the same opportunities, offered the same fair wages, or treated fairly. In the book, it is even mentioned how White people have a general "fear of 'nigger domination'” specifically in politics, possibly giving reason for Black oppression.[2] The Colonel constantly hears White people’s thinking in regards to the unfair treatment of Blacks. After meeting the editor of the local newspaper, the editor talked to him about Clarendon having “'so many idle, ignorant Negroes that something must be done to make them work, or else they’ll steal, and to keep them in their place, or they would run over us".[3]

It became evident to the Colonel that there was a racial problem in Clarendon. When the Colonel visits a Black school, he hears from a Black schoolteacher, Mr. Henry Taylor, how unfairly the school system treats Blacks by segregation and difference in condition of the schools. Behind most of this wrongdoing is Mr. William Fetters, a convict labor contractor in Clarendon who influences most affairs in the town. Showing his true braveness, the Colonel decides to take on the injustice of Mr. Fetters and tries to change Clarendon into a more socially equal town, eventually to no avail.

While in Clarendon, the Colonel actually gets himself into some romantic problems. For one, Graciella, after turning down Ben Dudley so many times because of his lack of means, desperately, but secretly, tries to entice the wealthy Colonel to marry her. However, the Colonel sees Laura as a woman who could be both a loving wife to him and mother to Phil. So, the Colonel asks Laura to marry him, breaking the heart of an eavesdropping Graciella. Laura accepts the proposal with happiness, but asks to keep the engagement secret for a while.

The Colonel tries to stimulate the economy of Clarendon by getting more Black people working for him under better conditions and higher wages. The Colonel learns from one worker that Blacks worked “'from twelve to sixteen hours a day for from fifteen to fifty cents".[4] Driven by a desire for more equality between Blacks and Whites, he also pursues owning parts of Clarendon by purchasing additional properties, such as a run down cotton mill and his childhood home, for which he pays a mulatto barber named William Nichols well over the actual price. (Nichols was actually created from the image of Chesnutt’s wife’s father, who was also a barber.)[5] The Colonel hopes to turn the newly acquired cotton mill into a business that offers Black people higher and fairer wages under better working conditions.

Filled with abhorrence for the strength and prominence of the White supremacy of his childhood town, the Colonel does all he can to undo the workings of Mr. William Fetters. The Colonel imagines building a library for the Black residence and fixing up White schools. However, Laura convinces him not to, reminding him of the violence that would come from the White residents because of their dedication to preventing Black people by any means possible from moving up in society, including restricting Blacks' ability to educate themselves. As Laura predicted, the plans of the Colonel to reconstruct Clarendon are met with strong opposition. People who were a part of the White supremacy and majority show the Colonel great defiance and hostility.

There are some accidental casualties that further illustrate the strength of the White supremacy, as well as the defiance and hostility toward change that the Colonel experiences. Peter dies trying to save Phil from being hit by a train while chasing a cat on the train tracks, while Phil dies soon after from his injuries. One of Phil’s requests to his father was that when he and Peter died, they would be buried in the same graveyard next to each other. In defense of Peter's burial in an all-White cemetery, the Colonel remarks how "Peter’s skin was black, but his heart was white as any man’s" and how all men are seen as equal under God regardless of skin color.[6] A couple days after they are evidently buried at the same time right next to each other in the Colonel’s family’s all-White graveyard, Peter’s casket appears on the front lawn of the Colonel’s house with a note attached to it. The note is from a group of White townspeople who refused to let the Colonel try to infuse the town with racial equality, telling him to leave Clarendon and go back to New York City. This incident discourages him further.

Two other accidental deaths occur both as part of Chesnutt’s melodramatic subplots and serve to illustrate inequality and interracial tension in the South. Bud Johnson is a convict laborer who works unlawfully under Mr. Fetters. The schoolteacher, Henry Taylor, tells the Colonel about Johnson. After offering to pay his freedom and being turned down by Mr. Fetters, the Colonel devises a plan to help Johnson escape. However, instead of escaping to the North, Johnson tries to kill Mr. Fetters' son, Barclay Fetters, who actually also hoped to marry Graciella. After being found out, a mob of White racists lynches him. Thus, another person to whom the Colonel is connected is killed at the hands of the White supremacists.

The other unfortunate incident entails the passing away of Malcolm Dudley and Viney. Nearing his death, Malcolm Dudley rests on his bed with Viney, his Black housekeeper, at his side. Viney, having faked being mute, finally reveals that she can speak, and tells Malcolm there is no gold to be found. She had kept it a secret that the person who buried the gold had come back for it right after. She also reveals that she did this to get back at him for having her whipped and lying about freeing her despite their romantic involvement when they were younger. Malcolm forgives her and passes away. Viney is found dead next to him as well. These mishaps finally cause the Colonel to see the hopelessness of trying to change the "violence, cruelty, and race hatred" of the South, and that segregation would always be ingrained.[7]

All feels lost to the Colonel with his failed ventures and both his son and Peter dead. There is no use in marrying Laura anymore because he saw her as a woman who would care for Phil as a mother. His attempt to offer Blacks higher wages for better working conditions has been met with opposition. He couldn’t even help the education system. All that resulted from his presence in Clarendon was more violence and racial hatred. The Colonel decides to leave Clarendon and return to New York City without Laura where he resumes his place back in his business with Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Jerviss, who he would actually end up marrying. Coincidentally, while on a train to Chicago on business for French and Company, Ltd., the Colonel runs into Henry Taylor, the old schoolmaster for the Black school. He tells the Colonel that he had become a Pullman car porter because he had to escape the South. This implies a message that sometimes, the only way to escape the racial cruelty of the South is by fleeing from it.

Main characters[edit]

  • "Colonel Henry French – a retired merchant"
  • "Mr. Kirby, Mrs. Jerviss – his former partners"
  • "Philip French – the colonel’s son"
  • "Peter French – his old servant"
  • "Mrs. Treadwell – an old lady"
  • "Miss Laura Treadwell – her daughter"
  • "Graciella Treadwell – her granddaughter"
  • "Malcolm Dudley – a treasure-seeker"
  • "Ben Dudley – his nephew"
  • "Viney – his housekeeper"
  • "William Fetters – a convict labor contractor"
  • "Barclay Fetters – his son"
  • "Bud Johnson – a convict laborer"
  • "Caroline – his wife"
  • "Henry Taylor – a Negro schoolmaster"
  • "William Nichols – a mulatto barber"
  • "Haynes – a constable"[8]

Themes[edit]

The primary theme of The Colonel’s Dream is the strength of racial prejudice and White supremacy that overcame the South after the Civil War where Black oppression was still clearly present. The Colonel’s Dream uses the story of a man who wants to return to his childhood home of Clarendon, North Carolina and make a new living there to illustrate the racial problems that pervaded the South during the beginning of the 20th century. "The art of The Colonel’s Dream, however, lies in Charles W. Chesnutt’s greater willingness and ability to broach a radical solution to White violence in a New South setting".[9] Throughout the novel, it is easy to understand the "social inequalities and political injustice" that thrived in Clarendon, North Carolina as a representation of the South as a whole.[10] Chesnutt dramatically portrays the hardships and violence that plagued the deeply segregated South at the time.

Throughout, the book strives to illustrate that even after the Civil War, Blacks remained low in social ranking and were treated as people who just did menial work. Socioeconomic problems made the Southern situation even worse. One example of this in the book was how unwilling the White people of Clarendon were to let Black people even educate themselves. The educational system as a whole was completely worn down. Another example is how unfairly the Black people were being treated in not being given the same wages as White people who would work the same jobs.

A major theme that becomes evident at the end of the book is the hopelessness of trying to change Black oppression in the South. Colonel French is the image of a man who Charles Chesnutt would have to reform the South. "Charles Chesnutt also portrays his own colonel as racially ambivalent, supporting Blacks and a progressive New South on the one hand, while also needing romantic, old South racism on the other".[11] Colonel French is a man who once fought for the South but saw a more free and equal society when he moved north to New York City after the Civil War. Colonel French represented the northern force that would attempt to bring justice to the South. He wanted to build libraries that allowed Black people and offer jobs to Black people that would pay better and fairer wages. However, in the end, it is hopelessness and failure that prevail in an uncorrectable South.

Other themes related to the post-Civil War South emerge through Chesnutt’s use of melodramatic subplots such as the "melodramatic subplot involving interracial love and lost inheritance" with Malcolm Dudley searching for gold and having a romantic history with his mulatto housekeeper Viney.[12] This subplot illustrates the theme of how love between the two different races was forbidden and looked down upon. Malcolm Dudley’s search for buried treasure also shows how desperate people were to escape the poverty of the South.

Critical reception[edit]

The Colonel’s Dream is regarded as one of the novels that led to the end of Charles Chesnutt’s career.[13] For starters, the books did not even sell well.[13] As a result of not being very popular, there was not much critical reception at all to his publishing of The Colonel’s Dream.

Information on Sales[edit]

Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., Chesnutt’s publisher before The Colonel’s Dream was produced, rejected it, telling him that they could not take another risk with his past books being "unprofitable".[14] However, Charles Chesnutt being the best African American author of his time sought a new publisher and found Doubleday, Page, & Co. to publish it.[14] After hoping for The Colonel’s Dream to be a success, the novel followed the line of his past writings in failure.[13] Even Chesnutt accepted The Colonel’s Dream as a failure, as he wrote in one letter to a Mr. Benjamin G. Brawley on July 29, 1914 that the book "was not a pronounced success".[15] He also wrote to a Mr. E. J. Lilly on October 16, 1916 that The Colonel’s Dream was the least successful of [his] books".[16] There were many "typographical errors" in the first few printings of the novel that both Chesnutt and the publishing company of Doubleday, Page, & Co. missed, including misspelling of characters' names and a misspelling on the cover.[17] This may have contributed to weak sales. It is known that fewer copies of The Colonel’s Dream were sold than Chesnutt’s best novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which sold fewer than four thousand copies.[18]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 3).
  2. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 71).
  3. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 73).
  4. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 108).
  5. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. To Be An Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Robert C. Leitz, III. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print. (p. 12).
  6. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 249).
  7. ^ Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Print. (p. 247).
  8. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. 5).
  9. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. xxii).
  10. ^ Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Print. (p. 134).
  11. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print. (p. xviii).
  12. ^ Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Print. (p. 135).
  13. ^ a b c Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. (p. xxiii).
  14. ^ a b Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. (p. xxii).
  15. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. (p. 118).
  16. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. (p. 126).
  17. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. To Be An Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Robert C. Leitz, III. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print. (p. 228).
  18. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. (p. xix).

References[edit]

  • Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Print.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. The Colonel's Dream. Ed. SallyAnn H. Ferguson. New Milford: Toby Press, 2004. Print.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. To Be An Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Robert C. Leitz, III. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

External links[edit]