The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chestnutt

imageThe Jim Crow Era of legal repression of African Americans begins in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 11, 1898 when the white citizens of the town violently overthrew the legally elected government and installed new white leaders with a new “Wilmington Declaration of Independence”  which stated the city “would no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.”

From a local Wilmington newspaper:

BLOODY CONFLICT WITH NEGROES. White Men Forced to Take Up Arms for the Preservation of Law and Order.  BLACKS PROVOKE TROUBLE.  Negro Newspaper Plant Destroyed–The Whites Fired Upon by Negroes–The Firing Returned–The Killed and Wounded–State Guard Out–Many Exciting Incidents.

From the New York Herald on the same date:

WHITES KILL NEGROES AND SEIZE CITY OF WILMINGTON–By Revolutionary Methods White Citizens of North Carolina Overturn Existing City Government and at Once Establish Their Own–NINE BLACK MEN ARE SHOT DOWN–Slaughter Follows Wrecking of the Record Newspaper Office Owned by Negroe, by the “Best Citizens.” –HOURS OF TERROR THROUGHOUT THE CITY. –Governor Russell Declares the City Under Martial Law and Rapid Fire Guns Are Ready–Negro Office Holders “Resign” and Leaders of Uprising is Chosen Mayor.

This historical event is the focus for Charles W. Chestnutt’s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition which is now even more forgotten than the Wilmington Riot, probably.  I read it this weekend as homework for a class I’ll be taking at the University of Chicago on Literature of the Jim Crow Period next week.

Since I’ll know much more about the novel and its author after the class, this review will be my first impressions colored by the introduction which is where I found the above newspaper articles quoted.

It’s difficult for me to know how to judge The Marrow of Tradition because its goals are as political as they are artistic.  The introduction says Mr. Chestnutt wanted a white audience for his book, to make them aware of what happened and of what was going on in the southern states.  But he saw himself as a writer, as someone producing an artwork.  I’m not altogether sure the novel works as art or as polemic.

As artwork, I saw it as better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin which seems to be a clear influence especially in the character of Sandy who struck me as almost modeled on Uncle Tom. But The Marrow of Tradition  is not as good as other American writers working at the time.  There’s an over reliance on dialect that may have been an accurate depiction of how the African American residents of Wilmington spoke at the time but it’s very difficult reading today and comes across as charactiture instead of characterization.  I confess, I find it nearly impossible to read anything written in dialect no matter what the dialect is. I skipped those parts in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights one of my favorite books ever.  image

The plot line is highly melodramatic. It struck me as designed to facilitate rhetorical points.  For example, one of the main plots concerns two women who are half sisters–one with a white mother and one with a black mother.  Each has a child, a son about the same age.   The black family, headed by a talented doctor who runs a local hospital, is rejected by the white family which has schemed to prevent the black sister from inheriting anything from their deceased father.

The book opens with the white woman in child birth.  The delivery is going badly so doctors are sent for.  The black doctor, her brother-in-law, is denied entry into the house even though he is the best doctor in town.  No black man has ever entered their home through the front door, and no black man will ever be allowed to tough a woman in their house.

The book ends after the riot has driven nearly all of the black people from Wilmington fearing or their lives.  Again the white woman’s son is in trouble, near death. He needs an emergency operation that only the black doctor knows how to perform.  When the white couple goes to appeal for help, they find the young son of the black family has been killed, shot by a stray bullet during the rioting.

While this series of events is actually not any where near as melodramatic as those you’ll find in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I felt the author was using events to set the scene for the speech at the end where both the mother and the father of the deceased boy angrily denounce the white couple and question why any black person should ever come to the aid of a white person.  It’s easy to see their point.

As polemic I don’t think it works very well.  The real events, the true history of the Wilmington race riots which (like most race riots in America) were started by white people armed against black people, is lost in the melodrama.  There is an important, terrifying and shameful story to be told here if you can strip away the dramatic plot.

So what value does reading The Marrow of Tradition have?  I expect I’ll have to wait until after my class is done to really answer that question.  For now I can say that it does show there was an African American response to Jim Crow, push back against it, attempts to expose it aimed at a white audience as early as 1901.  It also shows an African American literature established decades before the Harlem Renaissance, writing done by black folks for other black folks.

While I try to avoid overt political posts here, since this book is overtly political there is something that strikes me…..

Today you’ll sometimes hear defenders of the Second Amendment say that the right to bear arms is necessary to prevent government tyranny.  It’s worth noting that arms were used to prevent “government tyranny” in Wilmington in 1898.  White men armed with guns overthrew a legally elected government because those legally elected were black.

3 thoughts on “The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chestnutt

  1. I’m really curious about what your class will say about this text. I read a selection of short stories by Chesnutt (Conjure Stories) about two years ago, and this sounds much more melodramatic–and honestly, perhaps less effective–than those stories. Regarding the dialect, I read from a Norton edition, and if I recall correctly, the supplemental material indicated that Chesnutt didn’t really care to write in such heavy dialogue, but it was what the white reading audience expected from African American characters. (His contemporary, Paul Laurence Dunbar, complained of the same thing, wanting to write more “standard” poetry, but feeling obliged to write in dialect in order to continue to make a living at writing.)

    1. Thanks for this informative comment. I think I will do a second post on this book and Charles Chestnutt after the class is done. I can imagine that the dialect was a “requirement” for white audiences at that time. I’m surprised to hear Paul Laurence Dunbar felt that way and that he did it for money. It’s something that really feels awkward and dated now.

      1. You’re welcome! To clarify, from what I’ve read, for Dunbar it was more that he felt trapped in that after he received a lot of (white) critical praise for his “dialect poems.” He definitely wrote in dialect even before receiving critical attention, so money probably isn’t the whole story. My understanding is that there was and still is debate among as to how much Dunbar “sold out” by continuing to write for a white audience (both in dialect and theme).

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