Synopses & Reviews
In this provocative novel of reconstruction and race, a Civil War veteran tries to create a new utopia in his Southern hometown after gaining enlightenment and riches in the North.
Revolutionary in both its storyline and its storytelling, The Colonels Dream was one of the most progressive books of its time when it was first published in 1905. Few authors of African descent created white protagonists, but Charles Chesnutt did just that, exploring the economic and social conditions of freed slaves through the eyes of Colonel French, a former Confederate officer.
Returning to his impoverished hometown after years as a successful businessman in the North, French attempts to revitalize the community and improve living conditions for a vibrant cast of characters living there, including his old servant and an ambitious young woman. Despite his hopes, French faces roadblocks at every turn, including a corrupt convict-leasing system that essentially re-enslaves many of the towns black residents.
With a new, no-holds barred Introduction by the incomparable Ishmael Reed, The Colonels Dream offers a prophetic perspective on modern issues of multiculturalism and economic disparity, making it a keystone in American literature and history.
Revolutionary in both its story line and its storytelling, The Colonel’s Dream was one of the most progressive books of its time when Doubleday published it in 1905. Few authors of African descent created white protagonists, but Charles Chesnutt did just that, exploring the economic and social conditions of freed slaves through the eyes of a Confederate war hero named Colonel French.
Returning to his impoverished hometown after years as a successful businessman in the North, French attempts to revitalize the community and improve living conditions for a vibrant cast of characters living there, including his old servant and an ambitious young woman. Despite his hopes, French faces roadblocks at every turn, including a corrupt convict-leasing system that essentially reenslaves many of the town’s black residents.
Offering a powerful perspective on contemporary issues of multiculturalism and economic disparity, The Colonel’s Dream is a keystone in American literature and history.
Reading Group Guide
1. TheColonels Dreamis in large part a story of migration: the relocation of our protagonist, a white southerner, to the North after the regions defeat in the Civil War; and his return to his land of origin after more than two decades. As the narrator describes the geography of the South upon the colonels return home, “listless negroes dozing on the curbstone” and “pigs sleeping in the shadow of the old wooden market house” are listed among the “things” that characterize Clarendons landscape. Similarly, in announcing his joy at his quick acquisitions in Clarendon, the colonel absentmindedly declares, “I have been in Clarendon two days; and I have already bought a dog, a house, and man.” What clues does the Colonels statement offer concerning his attitude toward black life? What might Chestnutt be suggesting with such statements?
2. Upon his return, the colonel is reunited with Peter, the young black boy (now neglected older man) given to him as a child by his father as a companion and helper. The more prosperous gentleman laments and muses over the pitiable condition of “old Peter.” In attempting to isolate reasons for the remarkable differences in their fates, the narrator suggests, “[t]he colonel had prospered because, having no Peters to work for him, he had been compelled to work for himself.” After reading the novel, would you agree that the absence of black labor was the main reason for Colonel Frenchs prosperity? Why or why not? What other factors were at play?
3. Throughout the novel, a nagging tension between the present, the future, and the past is the subject of much discussion. What do you make of the upwardly mobile Garciellas statement to Ben that she loves the south “like my old black mammy”? How are similar attitudes concerning the relationship between race and progress displayed in other points in the story?
4. Toward the middle of the book, Colonel French discovers thatthe greed of Fetters has spiraled so dangerously out of control that white women and children have been set to work in conditions “worse than slaves.” Discuss the significance of this statement, keeping in mind the prevalence of the debt system in the novel that effectively renders black men as property once again.
5. The colonels mill scheme serves as employment for many black and a few white men in Clarendon. The whites refusal to work “under” a black foreman is consistent with the white communitys discomfort over the decision to bury old Peter in the French family plot. Yet old black individuals have been frequently paired with young whites in southern culture. How is old Peters and young Phils relationship representative of acceptable pairings of white and black in (southern) American life? What does this suggest about dominant perceptions of African Americans?
6. In a similar vein, assess the negro barber William Nicholss declaration to Colonel French that he “loves the aristocracy,” and his comment that if hed “ben bawn white” he would have been an aristocrat. What contradictions of nineteenth-century American life is Chestnutt exposing here? Why is it important that these comments be made to the colonel?
7. Colonel French is thwarted in his early attempt to liberate Bud Johnson from Fetterss plantation. His wife, Catharine, is disappointed in the turn of events but has faith that the Colonel will ultimately prove successful. As the narrator suggests, “[i]n her simple creed, God might sometimes seem to neglect his black children, but no harm could come to a negro who had a rich white gentleman for friend and protector.” That Bud Johnson dies only confirms the ironic tone of this statement. What do you think Chesnutt is suggesting with that remark?
8. Vineys deathbed declaration that she purposely kept silent for twenty-five years about the fate of the money so important to the Dudley men raises important questions about race and female sexuality. Whats the significance of Vineys subversive act? How would you characterize the nature ofViney and old man Dudleys relationship? Why is it important that they die almost simultaneously?
9. For many in the novel, the North is credited with having corrupted the colonels southern sensibilities concerning race. By novels end, he returns to New York, choosing to bury his son and old Peter side by sidefulfilling a wish for his son that was rejected in Clarendon. What do you make of the presentation of the North as a relative racial utopia?