Charles W. Chestnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison” offers an exemplary lesson in why knowing your history can lend context to literature that allows a reader to enjoy things like irony and ambiguity. The story is very much a satirical take on a type of literature extremely popular at the time Chestnutt published it in 1899 as part of his collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line. The image of a subservient “Uncle Tom” slave was one that brought great joy and often tears of laughter streaming down the faces of chuckleheaded crackers looking back on the slave-owning days of yore with the kind misty-eyed nostalgia later often expressed by those reading chivalrous romances or mythologized dime-store novels of the Old West.
Just how popular were stories of the “happy darky” who filled the cotton fields of antebellum plantations owned by real life versions of characters like the story’s Colonel Owens? Well, some 40 years after the publication of the story, the biggest movie event since Birth of a Nation (also a favorite of those who drawn to stories that Chestnutt was subtly parodying) was based on a Civil War novel featuring some of the most offensive revisionist positioning of slaves as essentially well-treated and not all that discontented with their stock in their life. Yes, “The Passing of Grandison” was taking on a certified popular genre of fiction that existed around the turn of the century…and then some. Knowing what is being satirized or parodied is a necessity for understanding any work of fiction that seeks to satirize or parody it and the weaker one’s grip on historical context within the satire, the less one can enjoy it to its full capacity. Considering the level of irony that permeates “The Passing of Grandison” the worst case scenario for those utterly ignorant of American history would be reading Chestnutt’s story and taking it face value because the subtle clues he plants along the way are not recognized.
Why be so subtle with satire? Because the status of race relations at the turn of the 20th century and measure of extremity to which those who would find a story directly ridiculing the nostalgia for the days of slavery at the time were such that they make today’s racist extremists seem almost quaint by comparison. The Ku Klux Klan had been suppressed for a couple of decades and was still more than a decade away from its reconstitution into a powerful institution in parts of the Jim Crow South, but publishing a story that did not indirectly level the weapon of humor against such truly profound idiocy would still have the potential to bring on acts of terror and threats of harm many would have no qualms about actually carrying out.
One of the levels of subtlety that Chestnutt engages is apparent right from the title. Within the world of slaves and ex-slaves and their ancestors for generations, “to pass” meant fooling white society into believing that you were one of them through the process genetic manipulation of pigmentation resulting from the rape of female slaves by their white owners. The passing of Grandison also applies within the connotation of making his way from bondage into manumission. And then there is the really subtle application of the meaning of “The Passing of Grandison” in that it is a story attempting to pass itself off as belonging to one genre while, in fact, it is a concerted and successful attempt to subvert every single aspect of that genre.