Originally published in 1905 and re-released in 2005 with a new introduction by esteemed author, editor, activist, MacArthur Fellow and professor, Ishmael Reed, The Colonel’s Dream is a fine example of turn-of-the-century utopist literature. Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born during slavery, but was a free person of color. He was a prolific writer, producing numerous works, but never received the acclaim of similar writers of his time. Part of that reason may be because, unlike his contemporaries, he chose to write The Colonel’s Dream from the perspective of a white Confederate officer, newly returned from the North as a successful businessman and enlightened philanthropist. People at that time were uncomfortable with African-American writers exposing the bigotry of America, only reluctantly accepting it from their own kind, and not even then, if possible.
The Colonel’s Dream takes place in the post-Reconstruction South, a period sometimes referred to as Confederate Restoration or Southern Redemption. The widowed protagonist, Colonel French, returns to his hometown of Clarendon, North Carolina with his young son, Phil, to rest and recuperate following a period of illness in New York. The Colonel is struck by the apathy of the town’s residents, both white and black, and sets a plan in motion to restore economic progress to the area. Although he has plenty of money to finance his endeavors, the greater challenge lies in winning over hearts and minds. Surrounding himself with a few loyal followers who agree with his utopian view of what it will take to resurrect the town’s economic base, he makes some progress only to be set back numerous times by members of the former lower class of whites who have now risen to power as loan sharks, labor contractors, and political bosses.
The Colonel’s nemesis, Bill Fetters, has a firm hold on the convict labor contracts created by this new middle class to control the freed slaves. If a black person could not demonstrate steady employment, which of course there was little of in the depressed South, he or she was arrested for simple offenses like vagrancy, fined exorbitant sums (which they could not pay), then auctioned to the bidder that would pay the fine in exchange for the shortest period of indentured service, i.e., a “new” form of institutionalized slavery. In this manner, Fetters accumulated more and more “workers” for his plantation, acquired great wealth, was elected to the legislature, and loaned money at such high rates that he held the mortgage, and thus the loyalty, of almost every former southern aristocrat, businessman, politician, and judge in the area.
Dethroning Fetters becomes the Colonel’s sole purpose in life and contributes to events that lead to personal tragedy and the end of his dream. Although anyone who is even remotely acquainted with American history could predict the outcome of this story, it is still a literary treat in its examination of Southern culture and northern industrialism, the fall of the Southern aristocracy and the rise of a new middle class representing both lower-class whites and independent black entrepreneurs. The most striking example of the latter phenomenon in this novel is Nichols, the town’s black barber, who now lives in the Colonel’s ancestral mansion and pays an impoverished southern aristocrat to give his daughter piano and voice lessons.
The Colonel’s Dream resurrects a time when our nation was recovering from one of the bloodiest wars in history and struggling to regain its identity as a unified country. Colonel French, although a former Confederate, has become enlightened and feels obligated to share his reformed view of American society with his old friends and neighbors. Aided by his devoted servant and freed slave, Uncle Peter, the Colonel makes a life for himself and his young son in the town of Clarendon and works toward making it a prosperous place to live for both blacks and whites. Unfortunately, everyone is not on his side and the powers-that-be are only interested in maintaining the status quo. It is the Colonel’s valiant efforts to lay the foundation for a progressive community that moves the action in this novel and provides the reader with a certain sense of ethos, humanity, and encouragement to see this novel to its final conclusion.
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