Friday, October 1, 2010

Chesnutt, "The Passing of Grandison"

--How does this story uphold and subvert expectations of the plantation romance?

--Compare the depiction of slaves, their dialect and views on slavery in this story and Page's "Marse Chan."

--As I mentioned in class, this story is written by an African-American author. If you didn't know that this was the case (as was true of perhaps all of the readers when it was first published), do you think you would catch irony or satire here? The online site I used for this text warned readers that it "contains language that may be very offensive to some readers": does it signify differently when such language and depiction of slaves is done by an African-American author?

--Compare the space of this story to the extremely localized space of "Marse Chan": what do you think Chesnutt is saying about African-Americans and slavery by offering this different vision of the space of the story?


  1. The Passing of Grandison definitely subverts plantation romance. The language, action and even title of the play are filled with ironic or satirical language. "The Passing of Grandison" originally invoked the image that someone named Grandison was going to die. However, in the story Grandison only escapes to freedom with his family. This title operates on two different levels. It might suggest that Grandison is "passing" into northern territory and gaining freedom. It might also invoke the image of how Colonel Owens would view Grandison after his betrayal— as good as dead. Considering the double meaning of just the title, it's safe to assume that a "doubleness" exists throughout the narrative.

    Chestnutt also trivializes the young southerner's struggle by just trying to impress a girl. Unlike in "Marse Chan," where the southerner was romanticized, the plantation owners come off as gullible and cartoonish. Also phrases such as "inoculate him with the virus of freedom" appeared, to me at least, satirical language. Just the imagery of a southern slave owner parading a slave around the north trying to entice him to freedom has a radically different feel than "Marse Chan."

    The description of the slaves is also different. The story actually depicts slaves outwitting their masters. The slaves in "Marse Chan" operate much like Grandison at the beginning, completely content with their station in life. However, because of Grandison's "betrayal" the side of slavery as dehumanizing and a system to escape from becomes apparent. Grandison even shows strong moral character. He passes up his own freedom so that he can return to his family and help them escape as well. No slave in "Marse Chan" was depicted as such. The dialect is also less obtrusive and more easily read. It also doesn't drive the story and make differences in speech painfully obvious.

    The most telling comparison in this story is when the colonel compares the Canada to the South. He describes the South with "blues skies, the green fields, and the warm sunlight" and Canada as "a dreary country, where the woods are full of wildcats and wolves and bears where the snow lies up to the eaves of the houses for six months of the year, and the cold is so severe that it freezes our breath and curdles your blood." Although the colonel's comparison is biased, the fact that Grandison decides to go to Canada instead of stay in the South shows the importance of freedom to slaves. Grandison chooses freedom over comfort.

  2. I think the last prompt is a bit of a lay-up, but I'll go ahead and respond anyway.

    In "Marse Chan," the space of Sam's land is all right there. Even after the passing of his master, Sam refuses to expand his space. As we discussed in class, this seemed to emphasize how domesticated slaves were, and how little they knew about the world beyond their plantation and the surrounding ones.

    In "The Passing of Grandison," the space of the slave is expanded, seemingly to show the broadened horizons of slave life, that they could learn how to explore further exterior places. The fact that Grandison seemed to overcome his dislike of the idea of being free gave me the idea that the author wanted to show a success story, of a slave learning to choose a broadened space.

  3. The colonel, to me, is the object of satire in this reading, because he seems to know exactly what slavery is like, but in the end, Grandison still leaves. One of the more ironic lines within the story came toward the end as the colonel reflects on what could have come of Grandison while in Canada as his eyes well up and he states, "Nonsense, Dick; it's the gospel truth! Those infernal abolitionists are capable of anything--everything! Just think of their locking the poor, faithful nigger up, beating him, kicking him, depriving him of his liberty, keeping him on bread and water for three long, lonesome weeks, and he all the time pining for the old plantation!" ....basically describing what plantatation life was all about. In another example, the Colonel tries to sum up life up north versus plantation life, trying to make plantation life seem like the life Grandison should live. His description sounds good ("the blue skies, the green fields, and the warm sunlight of their southern home") to anyone, but the Colonel is so concerned about keeping his slave that he tries to downplay the life of a free slave in Canada, adding, "off yonder to Canada, a dreary country, where the woods are full of wildcats and wolves and bears, where the snow lies up to the eaves of the houses for six months of the year, and the cold is so severe that it freezes your breath and curdles your blood; and where, when runaway niggers get sick and can't work." Here, he not only downplays the life of a free man, but indiscretely praises slave labor as being something of "high value" to the slave.

    The language itself, though marked offensive, is still offensive regardless of who tells the story. When using the term "nigger", one would first attribute it to a slave, or black person. The only reason this African American author uses the word is because it was a term used to sum up an entire people, ignorant of much that life on the plantation would give them as they were brought over to the U.S. The language in the story is offensive, yet I feel necessary to sum up life of the time.

  4. I knew from the brief introduction on Friday about the story, that the author was African American, so I tried to keep this in mind while reading it. Many people in class said that the story was difficult to follow, or that there was not much humor in the story, but I disagree. If I had been reading it from a white author's perspective, then no I don't think I would have found any humor in the story, but the characters were very extreme. I could tell that they were being made fun of, that they were obviously exaggerated. I do think that it follows typical plantation narratives, because there is the love story, there is the plantation, there is the white slave owner, there is the slave, but it is different because the goal is different. The purpose of the story was not to paint slavery as good, it was to show how ridiculous it is, and to show how ridiculous the people are that support it. Some people to this day are ignorant, and would see this story as a positive portrayal of plantation life, but for everyone else, I think that the irony and exaggerations are pretty obvious. It was a story full of irony and humor, but yet it shows truth. It shows how blinded people were to reality.

  5. I love this story first of all because of the irony in it. There already is enough irony in the story itself to begin with, but when you remember the fact that it was written by a black author you realize that the joke is on the reader. In that time a black man would not be able to have a story published. Even though Chesnutt did not necessarily lie about his race, most people probably assumed that he was white.

    Chesnutt also used a writing style that, had people known he was black, would confuse them. Many people today find this to be somewhat racist until they find out the race of the author. In my opinion this was done on purpose. I see it as a form of reverse psychology. By the way he writes and the subject of his writing he nonverbally communicates that he is a white man. However, he also uses this mask to plant an idea into the reader's head.

    In that time, blacks were viewed to be mindless creatures; not much more than pieces of property. Most people didn't see them as able to to communicate or even have the minds to want to communicate. In this story Chesnutt communicates strategy. He shows that this black man is smart enough to deceive his white owner. Phrases like, "oh no master, I would never leave you. You take good care of me. What would I do without you?" Obviously that is not a direct quote but my point is that this slave, more importantly for the message, this black man, is a genius and shows that he has a mind of his own. I believe that this story's soul purpose was to re-humanize african americans in the shallow minds of whites in that time.


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