Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

Anatomy of a race riot
The Marrow of Tradition, originally published in 1901, is a novel by Charles W. Chesnutt, an author of mixed African and European ancestry who often wrote about racial issues in the American South. This book is set in Wellington, a fictional surrogate for Wilmington, NC. It is based on an actual event that occurred there in 1898 which has been alternately referred to by different parties as an insurrection, a coup d’etat, a massacre, and a race riot.

Olivia Carteret is the wife of Major Carteret, publisher of the town newspaper. When her mother died, Olivia’s father became involved with one of his black servants, resulting in a second daughter, Janet. Olivia considers her mulatto half sister to be a stain on her good name, yet she also secretly envies Janet’s happiness and success. Janet is married to William Miller, a respected black doctor educated in Europe, who has established a hospital to serve the community’s black population. Many of the town’s white citizens, some of whom still remember the days of slavery, are uncomfortable with the rising fortunes and strides toward equality made by their black neighbors. Major Carteret, a white supremacist, feels that the black folks need a reminder of their proper place in Southern society. He and a couple of like-minded associates start a propaganda campaign to promote their pro-white agenda in an attempt to oust the local black-friendly political party from power.

Stylistically, Chesnutt was a naturalist, and he depicts Southern society with unflinching clarity. He illustrates the tense relations between the black and white races through a series of discriminatory acts. For starters, Dr. Miller is kicked out of a white train car, then denied access to a medical procedure. Chesnutt also depicts the working lives of lower class blacks—laborers and servants—who are treated with insulting condescension and threatening disdain by their white employers and customers. Beatings and lynchings are still a threat for those who don’t toe the line. As the story proceeds, the racial unrest intensifies and the incidents of white antagonism toward the blacks escalates from unjust discrimination to violent persecution. This is by no means a simple us vs. them story, however. A large cast of characters and a wide array of subplots allows for Chesnutt to explore a variety of motives and perspectives, presenting a black and white society blurred by shades of gray. In contrast to Major Carteret’s cronies, some whites sympathize with the plight of the blacks. Among the black men, some are like caged prisoners ready to strike at their captors, while others are compliant subjects resigned to the perceived inevitability of their second-class citizenship. Chesnutt explores class issues as well as race. One of the white supremacists, Captain McBane, represents uppity “white trash,” despised by the aristocratic Major Carteret for his lack of breeding. Conversely, Dr. Miller is resented by whites for displaying admirable gentility in spite of his African pedigree.

Amidst the generally realistic discussion of such serious fare, Chesnutt mixes in a fair amount of soap opera melodrama. For example, a young white woman is courted by two white suitors—one a wealthy, rakish cad; the other an earnest, hardworking underdog. Given the era of the book’s publication, such frivolities can be forgiven. If written today, the narrative would no doubt be darker and grittier. Overall, however, The Marrow of Tradition is an eye-opening history lesson that’s remarkably frank for its time. The reader comes away with an admiration for Chesnutt’s brave forthrightness as well as his formidable skills as a novelist.
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