In this quiet but intense story, "The Colonel's Dream," Charles W. Chesnutt sets forth powerfully many of the problems that confront the South to-day. He writes as one who feels deeply every situation he describes, yet at no time does he become a fanatic. Colonel French, who has grown rich and liberal in the North, goes back to Clarendon, a little town in Georgia, where his youth was spent, and where the Frenches were of the aristocracy in ante-bellum days. He is a widower, with a little son, Phil. He finds the place changed in many ways; his old family home is in the possession of a negro, the fine old plantations around the town have fallen into decay, and the whole county is in the grip of the mortgage-shark, Bill Fetters. One of his old friends is unchanged, and in the inspiration and friendship of Laura Treadwell the colonel dreams of doing great things for Clarendon. He witnesses a scene in which negroes are sold into slavery for limited periods, and rescues old Peter, his former body-servant, from the clutches of Fetters; but his indignation is roused at the treatment of other negroes at the hands of Fetters, who uses convict labor on his plantation. These dreadful conditions of present-day slavery arouse the colonel's fighting blood, and he decides to stay in Clarendon, and to try, with modern liberal ideas, to leaven the inert mass of Clarendon's inhabitants. He sees the terrible conditions of mill-slaves in one of Fetters's cotton-mills, and begins to build a mill in Clarendon where, as he plans, modern methods shall prevail and childhood and womanhood need not be trampled under foot. He plans to build a public library, to establish an industrial school for the negroes, to raise educational standards among the whites. But all his plans fail.
Fetters's grasp can not be shaken from the community. The Clarendon mob resents his friendly efforts to help the negroes; when the crisis comes the "best people," whose aid he counted upon, fade into the distance and he is left to fight Fetters and his allies alone. Little Phil is killed by a train, and faithful old Peter gives his life in an effort to save the child. The colonel buries them both upon his ancestral lot in the burying ground, but the next night old Peter's coffin is left upon the colonel's porch. In grief and discouragement, he takes his beloved child and the faithful old servant to the North, and gives up forever his dream of a renewed and improved Clarendon.
The story is wonderfully interesting, and so full of important information that it should be read by every student of sociology and economics in the country. Its pictures of mill life in the South, of the convict-labor situation, negro problems, and the prejudices of the more ignorant people against new ideas are vividly impressed upon the reader's mind. But Mr. Chestnutt is not altogether pessimistic. With loving, sympathetic touch he depicts the more enlightened people whose whole interest is unselfish in behalf of their own country. The book is a tragedy, but the author would have us believe that better things are bound to come. (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.)