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  • The Dillingham Case and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison”
  • Mark J. Madigan

“The Passing of Grandison” is a distinguished example of Charles W. Chesnutt’s short fiction. A staple in American literature anthologies, it has engendered considerable scholarly analysis and critical acclaim.1 Surprisingly, though, an important source for the story has gone unacknowledged: the case of Richard Dillingham, a Quaker abolitionist, who died while imprisoned for being a “Negro stealer”2 in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1850. Chesnutt’s retelling of this forgotten history is significant not only for what it memorializes, but also for what it presages: the more fully developed treatment of historical material in his first novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901).

Originally published in Chesnutt’s second collection of stories, The Wife of His Youth (1899), “The Passing of Grandison” is at once a burlesque of the slave narrative and cunning evisceration of the “contented slave” myth promulgated during the antebellum period. The story begins after Dick Owens, the indolent son of a wealthy Kentucky plantation owner, attends the trial of an unnamed Ohio man accused of attempting to transport a slave to freedom. When Charity Lomax, whom Owens wishes to marry, learns the details of the affair, she declares that she could “love a man who would take such chances for others.”3 Owens responds that he would lead one of his father’s slaves out of bondage, if that would secure Lomax’s affection for him. Before he can travel to the North to accomplish this task, however, he must ask his father, Colonel Owens, for permission to bring one of his slaves with him. The Colonel, who claims to understand his chattel “perfectly” (192), decides the slave Grandison is best suited for the job since his loyalty is beyond reproach. Subsequently, in New York and Boston, the younger Owens goes to extraordinary measures to “get rid” of Grandison (196), although he [End Page 169] does not tell him of his intention for fear of being implicated if his father’s slave is recaptured. To his chagrin, his father’s assessment of Grandison as “abolitionist-proof” (195), seems accurate, as Grandison refuses to take advantage of several opportunities to escape. Finally, Owens brings the slave to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where he leaves him with abolitionists, only to see him return to the Kentucky plantation three weeks later, professing his contempt for Northerners and fealty to his master. What soon becomes clear, though, is that Grandison has been masking his true intentions all along. He not only escapes to Canada, but does so with his wife and seven other family members, all of whom belonged to Colonel Owens. The story concludes as the slaveholder watches Grandison and his relatives cross 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.


Juxtaposed against the superficiality and narrow self-interest of Dick Owens is Chesnutt’s representation of the abolitionist martyr Dillingham. The historical allusion is introduced in a frame narrative of “preliminary facts” which explain why the younger Owens “tried to run one of his father’s negro men off to Canada” (188). Chesnutt writes:

In the early fifties, when the growth of anti-slavery sentiment and the constant drain of fugitive slaves into the North had so alarmed the slaveholders of the border States as to lead to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, a young white man from Ohio, moved by compassion for the sufferings of a certain bondman who happened to have a “hard master,” essayed to help the slave to freedom. The attempt was discovered and frustrated; the abductor was tried and convicted for slave-stealing, and sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the penitentiary. His death, after the expiration of only a...


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pp. 169-174
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