Last week, I wrote about race in two local stories by George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin. Over the next couple of posts, I want to look at the ways that authors such as Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar work to counter the plantation tradition and specifically the continued perpetuation of an idealized South during the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children,” a story which appears in The Wife of His Youth; and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), begins by confronting the mythology of the idealized South. Describing Branson County in North Carolina, the narrator says it “is in a sequestered district of one of the staidest and most conservative States in the Union. Society in Branson is almost primitive in its simplicity” (emphasis added 179). The Civil War did not touch Branson County, and as such, it maintains the image of an unspoiled Southern community, one that has little contact with those outside. Chesnutt’s word choice when describing the county in the opening sentences paints it as an unchanged community with words like “staidest”; however, he undercuts the nostalgic feeling by adding that Branson County is “primitive,” thus connoting a feeling of a backwards community that is not “civilized.”
Concluding the first paragraph, Chesnutt writes, “Most of the white people own the farms they till, and even before the war there were no very wealthy families to force their neighbors, by comparison, into the category of ‘poor whites'” (179). Here, Chesnutt causes the reader to perceive Branson County as a place where whites existed equally amongst themselves with no class distinctions; however, this would not have been the case. Along with this image, Chesnutt also calls attention to the neo-slavery occurring through the practice of sharecropping. Even though he does not mention African American or white sharecroppers, the image exists. African Americans do not “own the farms they till” in Branson County.
Serving as the date “from which all local chronicles are dated,” the Civil War skirted Branson County and the village of Troy, even though it did claim some of the country’s young men (179). Chesnutt’s description of the war and its non-effect on the county and Troy continues his deconstruction of the idyllic South. He calls the day-to-day life in the region as “sluggish” and comments on its “remote” placement in regards to railways and waterways. Chesnutt could have used “lazy” or “relaxed” instead of “sluggish” when describing the county, and the reader would get a similar image. However, the word “sluggish” carries with it negative connotations of laziness and slow progress whereas a word like “leisurely” would carry with it positive connotations of a calm and relaxing life.
When he speaks about the village of Troy, though, the deconstruction becomes more apparent. Describing Troy ten years after the war, Chesnutt ponders what would happen if this “remote” village would perchance get a railroad through town: “the social corpse is galvanized by fresh blood of civilization that pulses along the farthest ramifications of our great system of commercial highways” (180). Key in this passage is that a railroad would “galvanize” the “social corpse” by the injection of the “fresh blood of civilization.” This description paints the idyllic Troy as a “corpse” that needs resuscitation if it ever hopes to succeed.
Thus, from the outset, “The Sheriff’s Children” confronts the mythic South of Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, and Thomas Dixon through Chesnutt’s descriptions of Branson County and Troy. As the narrative unfolds, this confrontation takes clearer shape as we learn more about Sheriff Campbell and his son Tom. It is here that Chesnutt’s deconstruction reaches its zenith.
In Sheriff Campbell, Chesnutt presents a complicated man who, even at the end of the story, struggles to come to terms with himself and his past. Before the war, he owned a plantation and slaves. He has sex with one of his slaves, Cicely, and she becomes pregnant with Tom. Campbell sells Cicely and Tom away to Alabama, and he does not acknowledge them. It can be assumed that Campbell possibly forced himself upon Cicely; however, this is not explicitly stated in the story. The action here, of Campbell’s ownership of slaves, and the treatment of Cicely and his own son, works to dismantle the belief in system where everyone lived happily together on the plantation and in the community.
Campbell struggles to reconcile this past with his new role as the town sheriff, one he takes seriously out of a sense of duty to the position. Before finding out Tom is his son, Campbell faces a lynch mob that wants to hang he prisoner. Campbell stands up to the mob, telling them that they cannot do anything until the judge comes to town and either condemns Tom for a crime he didn’t commit or sets his free. In this way, Campbell still upholds the mentality of those outside the jailhouse walls, only he seeks to enact his punishment through the law.
During the denouement as Tom points a gun at Campbell, Chesnutt places the impetus for Campbell’s antebellum actions on the environment. He does not let Campbell off the hook, but he does show that even for powerful, land-owning whites, life was not as ideal as authors of the plantation tradition made it out to be. Chesnutt writes, “But the baleful influence of human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had merely been warped by his environment” (191).
Campbell perceives the harm his actions as a slaveholder caused, and as he sleeps, he sees that “he had owed some duty” to Tom, and if he did not sin, “this wayward spirit [Tom] would never have come back from the vanished past to haunt him” (192). The spectral Tom causes Campbell to view the past as a less than ideal space that birthed pain, suffering, and torment. Even though he “inherited an honored name to keep untarnished,” the man who places duty above all else suffers from the mythologizing of an ideal past that never truly existed (192).
This, of course, is just scratching the surface of how Chesnutt confronts the plantation tradition. What are your thjoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Chesnutt, Charles. “The Sheriff’s Children.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 179-193.