Never before published, a 1920s novel disputes prevailing attitudes on racial character and identity
Chesnutt wrote this novel
at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, but set it in a time and place
favored by George Washington Cable. Published now for the first time, Paul
Marchand: Free Man of Color examines the system of race and caste in nineteenth-century
New Orleans. Chesnutt reacts, as well, against the traditional stance that
fiction by leading American writers of the previous generation had taken
on the issue of miscegenation.
After living for many years in France, the wealthy and sophisticated Paul
Marchand returns to his home in New Orleans and discovers through a will
that he is white and is now head of a prosperous and influential family.
Since mixed-race marriages are illegal, he must renounce his mulatto wife
and bastardize his children.
Chesnutt resolves Marchand's
dilemma with a surprising plot reversal. Marchand, although white, chooses
to pass as a black so that he can keep his wife and children. Thus by altering
the traditional narrative that Cable, Twain, and Howells had developed
for their fiction on mixed-race themes, he exposes the issue of race as
a social and legal fabrication. Moreover, Chesnutt shows Marchand's awareness
that traits of inferiority and superiority are not based on "blood" but
on other factors. In him Chesnutt has created an admirable male character
responsive to human needs and civility rather than to artificial institutions.
Books by Charles W. Chesnutt
(1858-1932) include Baxter's Procrustes, Hot-Foot Hannibal,
The Conjure Woman, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow
of Tradition, and The Colonel's Dream. Matthew Wilson is an
associate professor of humanities and writing at Pennsylvania State University,