“Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia” is an 1884 short story by the American writer Thomas Nelson Page, first published in Century
magazine and collected in the volume In Ole Virginia, or “Marse Chan” and Other Stories
(1887). Narrated by a former slave named Sam, “Marse Chan” paints a romantic and nostalgic picture of life on a Virginia plantation before the Civil War. Page grew up on a Virginia plantation, the son of a slaveholder who fought for the Confederacy in the War.
The story opens with an unnamed northerner visiting Virginia in the autumn of 1872. The visitor, a white man, is impressed by the romantic grandeur of the “once splendid mansions” he passes: “Distance was nothing to this people; time was of no consequence to them. They desired but a level path in life, and that they had, though the way was longer, and the outer world strode by them as they dreamed.”
Amongst these ruins, he encounters a black man, Sam, who is searching for his dog. Sam introduces himself and explains that the dog is important to him because it belonged to his former master, Tom Channing. Sam speaks in Southern dialect, which Page spells phonetically, so that “Master Channing” is rendered as “Marse Chan.” Sam’s obvious fondness for his former master intrigues the northerner, who asks Sam to tell him Marse Chan’s story. Sam gladly agrees: “Dem wuz good ole times, marster—de bes’ Sam ever see!” The remainder of the story is narrated in Sam’s voice.
Sam begins with Marse Chan’s birth. Sam is himself only a boy when his master, Mr. Channing (Marse Chan’s father) brings the baby out to him. With great ceremony, Mr. Channing places the infant in Sam’s hands and tells him that from now on he is the baby’s body servant. As Marse Chan grows up, master and servant become firm friends.
As well as Sam, Marse Chan grows up with another close companion. Anne Chamberlin is the daughter of a neighboring plantation owner. As the children mature, their friendship turns chivalrous. Marse Chan carries Anne’s books to and from school. The Channings and the Chamberlins begin to hope that their children will marry, uniting their families and their plantations. These hopes come to a head when floodwaters cause the nearby river to rise suddenly, trapping Anne behind dangerous, fast-moving water. Marse Chan wades into the river and carries his sweetheart to safety. Proud of his son’s heroism, Mr. Channing gifts Marse Chan a pony.
However, before Marse Chan and Anne reach marriage age, relations between their families begin to sour. Mr. Channing decides to run for Congress. Colonel Chamberlin, Anne’s father, is nominated to oppose him. Thanks to Colonel Chamberlin’s hot temper, the two men fall out in the course of the election. When Mr. Channing loses, open enmity breaks out.
Colonel Chamberlin announces to the district at large that he intends to sell some of his slaves. Mr. Channing offers to buy a slave named Maria, in order to reunite her with her husband, a slave of Mr. Channing’s. Colonel Chamberlin demands an unfairly high price, so Mr. Channing decides to wait to buy Maria at auction. Learning of this plan, Colonel Chamberlin sets someone to bid against Mr. Channing at the auction. Nevertheless, Mr. Channing buys Maria. Colonel Chamberlin responds by suing him, and a protracted legal battle follows.
By this time, Marse Chan is at college. He has continued to visit Anne during his vacations, and despite their families’ enmity, the two young people continue to be friendly.
While Marse Chan is at college, a barn on the Channing plantation catches fire. Mr. Channing—by now aging—runs into the fire to rescue his slave, Ham. Mr. Channing is badly burned, and although he survives, he is blinded.
Marse Chan is notified of his father’s accident. Although he is eager to finish his studies, he dutifully returns home to take over his father’s role. He also inherits the legal battle with Colonel Chamberlin, but he does not allow it to alter his feelings for Anne. He confesses to Anne that he loves her. Anne, conscious of her duty to her father, tells Marse Chan that she does not love him in return. Broken-hearted, Marse Chan decides to enroll in the Confederate Army. Ever loyal, Sam enrolls too.
Marse Chan proves his bravery as a soldier in the Civil War, but he never stops pining for his unrequited love. Finally, he receives a letter from Anne, in which she confesses that loves him and always has. Marse Chan wants to return home at once, but he cannot: there is still fighting to be done. He dies in battle.
Sam concludes his tale by telling the unnamed northerner that Anne was so heart-broken that she spent the rest of her life caring for Marse Chan’s aged parents. When she died, she was buried beside him. Now, only Sam and his wife, Judy remain, sadly remembering the old days. The northerner indicates that he believes Sam’s story.
“Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia” was very popular upon its first publication, and contributed to the mythology of the “Lost Cause” of the secessionist South. The story remains of interest to students of American literature and history, especially for its extensive use of Southern dialect.