“The Passing of Grandison”: A Study in White Stupidity
Eric Sundquist, in a fine reading of Charles Chesnutt’s story “The Wife of His Youth,” expresses its complexities well: “Mr. Ryder’s choice [between his old Antebellum slave wife and his new light-skinned prospective fiancée] operates on [several] levels.” “Included within his recognition of [his slave wife] Liza Jane,” he continues, “are several implicit indications of Charles Chesnutt’s own cultural obligations: to join with the lower classes in the struggle for rights; to put the good of the community before the advance of the few who were able to enter directly into the white social and cultural mainstream; and to take control of the popular conceptions of `the old plantation life’ that are being generated by racist commentary and unscrupulous artistry.”
Nowhere does Chesnutt better achieve this latter end than in “The Passing of Grandison,” a brilliant satire of “popular conceptions” of the old plantation life collected first in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Set in the early 1850s, when the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill had much agitated the slavery question, the story concerns the undistinguished (and spoiled) first son of a Kentucky slave-holding family of marked aristocratic pretensions—the Owens. Charity Lomax, the girl of Dick Owen’s dreams, refuses to entertain his advances until such time as he proves himself a man. As an example of what she has in mind—and, incidentally, congratulating herself on her own Quaker ancestry—she points to the actions of a man who went to prison for attempting to help a fugitive slave escape into Ohio. Not that Charity is herself a committed abolitionist, of course; she admires the Yankee for his courage rather than for his convictions. In response to the challenge, young Dick conspires to free a slave himself: “I’ll run off one of the old man’s,” he says to Charity, “we’ve got too many anyway.” The only problem is how to do carry out this rather obviously ludicrous scheme; for not only is Dick rather shiftless, but he is himself a pro-slavery man from “principle.” Dick decides on a trip to the North, taking with him as manservant a slave, named Grandison. Needless to say, his father, who styles himself a “Colonel,” has no idea what his frivolous son really intends to do. In New York and Boston, Dick so arranges things that Grandison has every opportunity to escape. He even notifies—anonymously, of course—the local abolitionists in Boston, and, sure enough, they seek Grandison out. But to Dick’s utter vexation and enduring wonder the slave never once takes the bait:
“`Mars Dick,’ he says, `dese yer abolitioners is jes’ pesterin’ de life out er me tryin’ ter git me ter run away. I don’ pay no ‘tention ter ‘em, but dey riles me so sometimes dat I’m feared I’ll hit some of ‘em some er dese days, an’ dat mought git me inter trouble. I ain’ said nuffin’ ter you ’bout it, Mars Dick, fer I did n’ wanter ‘sturb yo’ min’; but I don’ like it, suh; no, suh, I don’! Is we gwine back home ‘fo’ long, Mars Dick?’” Dick has a good mind to scold him, and yet, on reflection, he has to concede the point: “How could he, indeed, find fault with one who so sensibly recognized his true place in the economy of civilization, and kept it with such touching fidelity?”
No doubt Grandison acts and speaks (and even gestures) so as to flatter every instinct toward mastery that can animate a white man’s heart: he wears the mask to perfection. When, in an interview designed to determine his trustworthiness for the trip North, Grandison is asked whether he envies the “poor free negroes down by the plank road, with no kind master to look after them and no mistress to give them medicine when they’re sick,” he heartily replies: “`Well, I sh’d jes’ reckon I is better off, suh, dan dem low-down free niggers, suh! Ef anybody ax ‘em who dey b’long ter, dey has ter say nobody, er e’se lie erbout it. Anybody ax me who I b’longs ter, I ain’ got no ‘casion ter be shame’ ter tell ‘em, no, suh, ‘deed I ain’, suh!’” At this, the Colonel, Dick’s father, is said to “beam”: “This was true gratitude, and his feudal heart thrilled at such appreciative homage. What cold-blooded, heartless monsters they were who would break up this blissful relationship of kindly protection on the one hand, of wise subordination and loyal dependence on the other! The colonel always became indignant at the mere thought of such wickedness.”
Colonel Owen, of course, has persuaded himself that Grandison really is contented. He doesn’t own a plantation so much as he is owned by a “plantation myth”; and the circumstance has placed him dangerously out of touch with reality. Grandison, like Uncle Julius in Chesnutt’s “conjure” stories, always, as I have said, wears a mask. To men like the Colonel and Dick he is utterly opaque, completely invisible. They simply fail to see him—which is of course precisely what Grandison wants, for he is, indeed, up to something subversive of all good slave-holding order. Never once does it occur to Dick that Grandison may not wish to flee the slave states without first securing the freedom of his beloved family and fiancée, who of course remain at “his old Kentucky home.” This ignorance on the part of his white owners Grandison can always count on; it is his only asset. To them, he is hardly “human” at all. How can they possibly understand his motives?
In the end, Dick resorts to a remarkable stratagem. He takes Grandison across the border into Canada, on the other side of Niagara Falls. “`You are now in Canada, Grandison,’” Dick says on their arrival, “`where your people go when they run away from their masters. If you wished, Grandison, you might walk away from me this very minute, and I could not lay my hand upon you to take you back.’” But the mask remains firmly in place, and man strictly “in character”: “`Let’s go back ober de ribber, Mars Dick,’” Grandison replies. “`I’s feared I’ll lose you ovuh heah, an’ den I won’ hab no marster, an’ won’t nebber be able to git back home no mo.’”
And at this point Chesnutt does something very peculiar with the narrative; he briefly changes its point of view. Dick leaves Grandison alone, drops into a nearby inn for lunch, and returns, irritated, to find his “faithful servant” sound asleep, waiting for young Mars Dick. Whereupon we read:
Dick retraced his footsteps towards the inn. The young woman chanced to look out of the window and saw the handsome young gentleman she had waited on a few minutes before, standing in the road a short distance away, apparently engaged in earnest conversation with a colored man employed as hostler for the inn. She thought she saw something pass from the white man to the other, but at that moment her duties called her away from the window, and when she looked out again the young gentleman had disappeared, and the hostler, with two other young men of the neighborhood, one white and one colored, were walking rapidly towards the Falls.
This is a curious maneuver. Throughout the rest of the story the narrator is closely attached, so to speak, to the mind of Dick Owen: What Dick knows, we know; all his silly motives and machinations are laid bare for the reader. But here we witness the scene from the point of view of the waitress at the inn. Chesnutt hides from the white reader his first two books implicitly assume for their readership—just as he does from the waitress—the details of what passes between Dick and the colored hostler. This is by no means without consequence. For, some weeks later, after Dick has gone home, and after he has married Charity Lomax, Grandison reappears on the old plantation, telling a story of abduction and torture, the truth of which the reader has no means accurately to assess. Here is the story, as refracted through the “feudal heart” of Colonel Owen:
It’s astounding, the depths of depravity the human heart is capable of! I was coming along the road three miles away, when I heard some one call me from the roadside. I pulled up the mare, and who should come out of the woods but Grandison. The poor nigger could hardly crawl along, with the help of a broken limb. I was never more astonished in my life. You could have knocked me down with a feather. He seemed pretty far gone,—he could hardly talk above a whisper,—and I had to give him a mouthful of whiskey to brace him up so he could tell his story. It’s just as I thought from the beginning, Dick; Grandison had no notion of running away; he knew when he was well off, and where his friends were. All the persuasions of abolition liars and runaway niggers did not move him. But the desperation of those fanatics knew no bounds; their guilty consciences gave them no rest. They got the notion somehow that Grandison belonged to a nigger-catcher, and had been brought North as a spy to help capture ungrateful runaway servants. They actually kidnapped him—just think of it!—and gagged him and bound him and threw him rudely into a wagon, and carried him into the gloomy depths of a Canadian forest, and locked him in a lonely hut, and fed him on bread and water for three weeks. One of the scoundrels wanted to kill him, and persuaded the others that it ought to be done; but they got to quarreling about how they should do it, and before they had their minds made up Grandison escaped, and, keeping his back steadily to the North Star, made his way, after suffering incredible hardships, back to the old plantation, back to his master, his friends, and his home. Why, it’s as good as one of Scott‘s novels! Mr. Simms or some other one of our Southern authors ought to write it up.
It is indeed a story as good as one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and one, in addition, altogether worthy of the pen of that rabidly pro-slavery apologist from South Carolina, William Gilmore Simms. But is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Dick, of course, is in no position to contradict Grandison in front of the Colonel, to whom he has lied about his misadventures in the North. He does, it is true, wonder aloud whether “the yarn sounds a little improbable,” if only as a hint to Charity that he hadn’t acted completely ignobly and caused Grandison to suffer torture merely so as to impress—and deceitfully, at that—a young woman.
But Chesnutt leaves the reader in doubt: Has Grandison fabricated this tale, or ornamented it, the better to gladden the “feudal heart” of the Colonel, who, predictably, is reduced to tears at its recital? And who, in gratitude, “kills the fatted calf” for Grandison, as if he were the Prodigal Son; and who, moreover, relaxes his customary vigilance out of gratitude for this fake token of devotion? And is Grandison—having somehow smoked Dick out—making things hot for his “young master” by allowing his bride to conclude that he is not simply idle and foolish, but callous as well? Has Grandison embellished a tale that essentially conveys the truth? Has he made it up—or the better part of it—from whole cloth? What exactly did pass between Dick Owen and that hostler? The reader cannot say. The narrative never allows Grandison to emerge from behind his mask—that is, until the last paragraph.
Grandison, it turns out, has returned to Kentucky for one purpose only: to free his family and fiancée. “About three weeks after Grandison’s return,” we learn, “the Colonel’s faith in sable humanity was rudely shaken, and its foundations almost broke up”:
One Monday morning Grandison was missing. And not only Grandison, but his wife, Betty the maid; his mother, aunt Eunice; his father, uncle Ike; his brothers, Tom and John, and his little sister Elsie, were likewise absent from the plantation; and a hurried search and inquiry in the neighborhood resulted in no information as to their whereabouts. So much valuable property could not be lost without an effort to recover it, and the wholesale nature of the transaction carried consternation to the hearts of those whose ledgers were chiefly bound in black,” writes Chesnutt with a cunning and apt little pun. “Extremely energetic measures were taken by the colonel and his friends. The fugitives were traced, and followed from point to point, on their northward run through Ohio. Several times the hunters were close upon their heels, but the magnitude of the escaping party begot unusual vigilance on the part of those who sympathized with the fugitives, and strangely enough, the underground railroad seemed to have had its tracks cleared and signals set for this particular train. Once, twice, the colonel thought he had them, but they slipped through his fingers One last glimpse he caught of his vanishing property, as he stood, accompanied by a United States marshal, on a wharf at a port on the south shore of Lake Erie. On the stern of a small steamboat which was receding rapidly from the wharf, with her nose pointing toward Canada, there stood a group of familiar dark faces, and the look they cast backward was not one of longing for the fleshpots of Egypt. The colonel saw Grandison point him out to one of the crew of the vessel, who waved his hand derisively toward the colonel. The latter shook his fist impotently—and the incident was closed.
All the Colonel’s power comes to nothing. He’s been out-foxed by a man who understands much better than he ever will the illusions under which labors the nation he now leaves in his wake, and who understands as well how to exploit those illusions for subversive purposes. The point is clear: Grandison is everywhere inaccessible to the Colonel—and moreover, as I have hinted, to the “white” reader as well. That is to say, the Colonel owns Grandison, supposes himself on intimate terms with him. But in fact Grandison is something less to him even than a stranger. And perhaps a certain suspicion that his (white) readers stand on the other side of the color line from him—an assumption under which W.E.B. DuBois also worked in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—led Charles Chesnutt to shield Grandison from their scrutiny as well. The reader sees him always as from a distance. And his backward look, with its derisive jocularity, is as unsettling as Brown v. Board of Education to the pretensions of white supremacy. Grandison “passes” as a “faithful slave,” and thereby “passes” into freedom.
“The Passing of Grandison” suggests many things, among them that the “plantation myth” didn’t merely “allow” whites to mis-recognize their real relations to people of color in such a way as happily, and in all “good conscience,” to oppress them. It also allowed for a certain impenetrability, a certain privacy, a certain free space within “the veil,” as DuBois might say—a space of which black Americans could at times “avail” themselves. It is quite as if the “plantation myth” were a one-way mirror. On the one side of it stand white men who see in it—though of this they remain unaware—only their own reflection, and an “image” of “faithful retainers” and “wicked abolitionists”; on the other side stand real black men for whom that mirror is, in fact, a window into the darkest recesses of the white man’s heart.
For a man such as Grandison, Colonel Owen and his ilk are perfectly transparent. Men like Grandison know all the codes. And when Chesnutt’s art achieves its ends—and it often does much more than merely achieve them—it inverts the mirror, lays bare the codes, and begins the work of unencumbering white American readers of their chief embarrassment: the color-consciousness that blinds them to their own heart of darkness. “The object of my writings,” Chesnutt once wrote in his journal, “would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.”
N.B. For a complete on-line text of The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, housed at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South, click here. For a down-loadable PDF file of the original edition at the Internet Archive, click here. For the well-known chapter in Life on the Mississippi in which Mark Twain famously blames Sir Walter Scott—a novelist much admired by Chesnutt’s Colonel Owen in “The Passing of Grandison”—for having caused the American Civil War, click here. A passage from that chapter follows: “Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless, and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived a good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive work, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner—or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it—would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediæval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person.”