Skip to main content

[Review of The Colonel's Dream]

THE COLONEL'S DREAM, by Charles W. Chesnutt. Doubleday, Page & Co., New York.

Charles W. Chesnutt, the local novelist, can write a good story. He knows all about the essentials of a novel that will please and interest his readers. He has a firm grasp on English and has a literary swing to whatever he writes. His half dozen novels have had a steady sale at the book counters and reviewers have been particularly complimentary. He has been an artistic success, because he has kept to a high model and has written as well as he knew how to write.

But this artistic level has not been maintained in "The Colonel's Dream." Personally, I found it a monotonous exposition of a man's views of the race problem. Mr. Chesnutt's other volume's have had a tendency to the same question; they have attacked it from every side, and while they possessed nothing strikingly new in a way of solution, there has usually been some unique phase exposed to view, some twist or turn that made the reader think, after he had laid the book aside. Not so with this latest effort.

Mr. Chesnutt has descended to the level of Thomas Dixon, Jr. He has become as mildly weak in support of the negro as Dixon was luridly wild. Dixon's twaddle called novels has had a big sale. Once I called upon him and in response to my remark about his leaving the ministry, he said: "I can serve the Lord just as well writing novels that sell as by standing on a lecture platform or in a pulpit." There was the keynote of Dixon novels. They are bald, stiff, awkward things less interesting than Nicholas Carter's output and quite as sensational and red. He abused and, some claim misrepresented, the negro. Very well and good. He wrote his books to swell his bank account and to prepare for old age. Now, why should a man who has literary ambitions take up a controversy with him? Why should Dixon be dignified by a quarrel with a real novelist like Mr. Chesnutt?

My contention is, however, that "The Colonel's Dream" is not a novel. It is an editorial based on the race question and a biased one at that. Ostensibly, the story relates the troubles that beset a wealthy man of the North who went down south to "civilize 'em." He started in buying up a whole town and insisted upon hiring negroes to work in the places of whites who refused to work with negroes. Mr. Chesnutt tries to make us feel that this "colonel" had a wonderfully philanthropic heart, but it appears that the colonel stayed in the little town because he was engaged in a wishy-washy love affair with an old maid there, who gave music lessons to negro children "for money." One day the train killed the colonel's negro man-servant. The former wanted to bury the old darky in his family lot among the aristocratic ancestors. Township "prejudice" was against this move and the day after the burial, the colonel found the "collud corpse" reposing on his front porch with a letter saying "niggers by theirselves and whites by theirselves." This broke up the love affair with the old maid and the colonel took the first train back North and married a woman who had a house at Newport–after he had buried his exhumed negro servant's body in "the shade of his wife's mausoleum."

An episode in the story is that in which a yellow girl gets a secret from her master–where he has concealed a fortune–and then, just as she is about to tell the old man's relatives, she is whipped and pretends for 25 years to be paralyzed. She dies a romantic death, clasping the hand of a white gentleman who also expires at the same moment, and the secret dies with her.

Flapdoodle, I say, is all this sort of thing. Many of these episodes are "facts" gleaned from Southern newspapers–but they are not literature.

This is not to say that Mr. Chesnutt should not have changed his style. On the contrary he has acted wisely in evolving from an imitator of the Concord period to the modern school of European novelists. He has a grasp of detail and realistic exposition almost Flaubertian at times; but to clasp that precious quality more closely, he must discontinue his preaching, or not give it the guise of the novel. Mr. Chesnutt tells me that he has never read "Il Fuoco." It is interesting to compare his final argument in "The Colonel's Dream" with the closing chapter of D'Annunzio's novel. In the former, there is an appeal for the campaign of Booker T. Washington's ideas with a hope of grand humanitarian results; while almost similar campaign closes "Il Fuoco" with an appeal for the restoration of art and poetry in Italy.