Chesnutt aimed to counter the sentimental version of slavery so popular in fiction of the late nineteenth century. Sensing the unwillingness or inability of white America to come to terms either with the historical reality of slavery or with the failure of Reconstruction, he attempted to show the harsh reality of both pre-and post-Civil War society. His description of his mythical county has almost a documentary quality. His use of Sheriff Campbell as protagonist shows how easy it was for even a conscientious man to acknowledge his past irresponsibility. By depicting him as assuming an ingrained inferiority in his prisoner, Chesnutt exemplifies the attitude that institutionalized second-class citizenship for blacks from the late 1870’s until long after the author’s death.
The title of the story is clever. Although only one child is introduced early in “The Sheriff’s Children,” the author establishes that Sheriff Campbell had been one of the few people in the region to own numerous slaves before the war, and thereby hints at the significance of the title. The sheriff survives his ordeal because one of his children disarms the other. Chesnutt does not develop the character of the quietly resourceful daughter very amply, however, and he does not permit her father to reveal to her the prisoner’s identity. Because of his decision to confine the moral conflict to the father, he establishes no relationship between the children.
The author reveals the sheriff’s chief failing to be a lack of imagination. Unable to imagine a black fugitive enterprising and daring enough to appropriate an unguarded revolver in the midst of the threat from the mob...
(The entire section is 685 words.)