Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 49: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Doll (#120)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Doll" (1912) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays:

One of my favorite stories about Charles Chesnutt is that he was championed by William Dean Howells; but when Chesnutt wrote a fictional account of a race riot, Howells complained that it was "bitter, bitter." It's about a race riot, man, what do you expect, sunshine and lollipops?

Similarly, the headnote at the LoA site says that Chesnutt's "Baxter's Procrustes" is a light-hearted story, when really it's all about fitting in and the punishment of sticking out. Which is kind of an important issue to Chesnutt, who plays a lot with the intersection of race and class (and to a less extension, gender).

So what is "The Doll" about? It reminds me of this recent fantasy story involving a barber and the count who killed his kid, where the question is, will the barber kill the count when he comes for a shave?

Here, the story starts with a black barber at a fancy white hotel; his little daughter asks him to get her doll fixed; and then we switch to see the interchange between a Southern politician and a Northern one who talk about race, and to prove his point--that blacks aren't worth much--goes into the barbershop and insults blacks while getting a shave. He even tells the story of how he killed a black man in self-defense. Now, by the coincidence of drama, this barber knows the story because the black man who was killed was his father. So now the barber has multiple tensions: here's a man insulting his race, killing his dad; but on the other hand, he's got a daughter and the race to worry about.

So, in its way, it asks the same question as the fantasy story: what will the barber do? But here the issue is layered with serious issues. It's not a subtle or very personal story, but the way it layers issues and exposes various versions of the same story or truth is very interesting. It's not the best Chesnutt I've ever read, but any Chesnutt is better than none at all.

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