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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932
The Colonel's Dream
New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905.


Perhaps the most influential African American fiction writer at the turn of the twentieth century, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858 to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anna Maria Sampson, free African Americans living in Cleveland, Ohio. When his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1866, Chesnutt attended the Howard School in Fayetteville and proved an apt pupil who read extensively. Though he first worked as a schoolteacher in Charlotte and Fayetteville, he later opened a successful stenography business in Cleveland, having passed the Ohio bar exam in 1887. Chesnutt had grown frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South and he moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. In September 1899, Chesnutt closed his stenography firm, eager to focus on his writing full time; however, lagging book sales forced him to reopen the business in 1901.

Chesnutt was the first African American writer whose texts were published predominantly by leading periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly and The Outlook and major publishers, including Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday. Between 1899 and 1905, he published the bulk of his writing, including two short story collections and three novels. The popular and critical success of his short stories in The Conjure Woman (March 1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (fall 1899) led to the 1900 publication of his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, was published a year later in 1901. Neither The Marrow of Tradition nor Chesnutt's final novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), sold well. Consequently, his later publications were reduced to only the occasional short story. In 1928, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Charles Chesnutt the Springarn Medal in recognition of his literary achievements.

Former Houghton Mifflin editor Walter Hines Page, having moved to Doubleday, convinced Chesnutt to make the same move for his novel The Colonel's Dream, which was brought out by Doubleday in September 1905. The book received very little critical attention. Ironically, the author's hope, inscribed in the book's dedication, "to bring the forces of enlightenment to bear upon the vexed problems which harass the South," proved a message—like that of his noble protagonist—largely ignored. Chesnutt's final novel tells the story of Colonel Henry French, a successful New York businessman who has returned to his southern birthplace of Clarendon with his young son, Phil. While intending only a three-month vacation (as ordered by his northern doctor), the nostalgic Colonel French, persuaded by his fond boyhood memories of southern life, decides to remain indefinitely in Clarendon. Yet he encounters a town beset by rigid social divisions, plagued by past prejudices, and hampered by corrupt practices, primarily at the hands of the wealthy convict labor contractor, William Fetters. Shocked by such wanton exploitation and prevailing injustices, Colonel French strives to bring reform to Clarendon. In working to infuse the area with ideas of economic and social progress, Colonel French underestimates the power of lingering racism, and he meets with strong local resentment and resistance. Despite his best efforts and tragic, personal sacrifices, Clarendon appears wholly unchanged.

See also the entry for Charles W. Chesnutt from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris, eds., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Sundquist, Eric J., Introduction, The Marrow of Tradition, Ed. Eric J. Sundquist, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, vii-xliv; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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