The Marrow of Tradition

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The Marrow of Tradition (1901) was the magnum opus of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932). The first African American to publish fiction in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, the Cleveland, Ohio, lawyer and businessperson had launched his literary career with two short story collections, The Conjure Woman (1899), which capitalized on the popularity of ostensibly amusing and quaint tales told in Negro dialect, and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), which featured comic and tragic stories about black America's upwardly mobile, mixed-race elite, of which Chesnutt considered himself the first literary spokesperson. In 1900 Chesnutt's The House Beyond the Cedars, a novel of passing set in eastern North Carolina, where Chesnutt had grown up, came out, garnering a generally favorable reception.

Along with his Boston publisher, Houghton Mifflin, Chesnutt hoped The Marrow of Tradition would emulate Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) and Albion W. Tourgée's A Fool's Errand (1879). Both were extremely popular novels about racial problems that had won their authors commercial success and sociopolitical acclaim for their literary activism. Events in the late-nineteenth-century South—violent suppression of black aspirations, the disfranchisement of black voters, and the rise of legalized, cradle-to-grave racial segregation—had reached a violent culmination in North Carolina, where Chesnutt had grown up and set much of his fiction. Although he had believed the state to be relatively progressive on the racial front, a so-called race riot of November 1898 in the port city of Wilmington, by which a cadre of white supremacists terrorized the town's black population into submitting to white political dictation, spurred Chesnutt to pen his most outspoken protest novel. The Marrow of Tradition opened an unflinching broadside against racist violence while issuing a summons to racial reconciliation based on understanding, forgiveness, and respect for human rights. Since its controversial publication, The Marrow of Tradition has grown in critical stature, becoming the most widely read and critically appreciated novel of protest in black American fiction before the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s.


The major threads of action in the novel knit the fortunes of two families: Philip and Olivia Carteret, who represent the pride and prejudices of the post-Reconstruction southern aristocracy; and Adam and Janet Miller, a mixed-race middle-class couple in whom Chesnutt invests the future of African American advancement in the so-called New South. One of the major goals of Chesnutt's second novel was to tear away the region's mask of progress and gentility to reveal the corrosive effects of its specious paternalism and moral bankruptcy on matters having to do with race. The story traces the origins and outcome of a conspiracy hatched by Philip Carteret, editor of the white newspaper in "Wellington," North Carolina, and two other former Confederate officers, the vicious and brutal George McBane, and the blandly sinister General Belmont. Their aim is to unseat the coalition of Republicans and Populists that has governed Wellington fairly and harmoniously for several years. Adam Miller, a northern-trained physician whose dedication to his people is symbolized by the hospital he has built in Wellington, is dismayed by the campaign of race baiting conducted by Carteret and his henchmen but is incapable of deterring them. Meanwhile, Olivia Carteret discovers but conceals the fact that her older half sister Janet, whom the white woman had spurned as their father's illegitimate daughter, was actually the offspring of a legally sanctioned, though socially proscribed, marriage. That Olivia is ultimately forced to acknowledge Janet as her sister, regardless of the latter's African heritage, underlines Chesnutt's commitment to the social rehabilitation of light-skinned African Americans in his fiction.

The climax of The Marrow of Tradition chronicles graphically the bloody Wellington coup d'état. The question of how southern blacks should respond to such violence haunts the conclusion of the novel. Offered an opportunity to lead a valiant group of armed black resisters, the pragmatic Miller declines, partly because he knows their cause is hopeless and partly because he has a moral aversion to violence. Yet in conceding the defense of Wellington's blacks to the defiant but doomed working-class hero, Josh Green, Miller reveals a cleavage in his author's own thinking about the relative value of accommodation and forcible resistance in defeating racial oppression. Scholars have yet to resolve the ambivalence the novel displays towards its divergent models of black male leadership: Miller, the circumspect but compromised survivor, versus Green, the steadfast but self-destructive martyr. At the end of the novel the Millers, whose only son has been killed by an act of random white violence, prove themselves the moral superiors of the Carterets by acts of forgiveness that leave the doctor poised to perform an operation that the Carterets' only son must have in order to survive. "There's time enough, but none to spare"(p. 329), Miller is told at the close of the novel as he enters the Carteret house, from which he had been previously barred, on his mission of mercy. This remark sums up The Marrow of Tradition's urgent call for social engagement by and concomitant social respect for mixed-race figures such as Adam and Janet Miller, who exemplify the capacity for mediation, the moral clarity, and the freedom from racial prejudice necessary to effect genuine social reform along the color line in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.

The major white characters of The Marrow of Tradition are based on actual historical figures. The model for Philip Carteret is Josephus Daniels (1862–1948), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer and a leading propagandist of the Democratic Party's takeover of the state government in 1898 on a racist campaign against supposed "Negro domination." Alfred Moore Waddell (1834–1912), an ex-congressperson who led the takeover of Wilmington, seems to have prompted Chesnutt to create General Belmont, a wily and shifty figure in Carteret's cabal. The novel also incorporates from the historical record references to a crusading black newspaper in Wilmington that published an editorial implying that interracial sexual liaisons, which whites used as an excuse to lynch black men, guilty or not, were often consensual. While Chesnutt's account of the "riot" was based on careful personal research (including a trip to Wilmington, where several of his relatives lived), his central African American characters, Adam Miller and Josh Green, seem to be the products of the author's imagination. The subplot involving the two half sisters draws on themes prevalent in Chesnutt's earlier fiction, including the deleterious effects of slavery-era miscegenation on the prospects for justice and racial reconciliation in the post–Civil War South. Characteristically, Chesnutt's position in The Marrow of Tradition was not to decry the interracial liaisons themselves, which he generally treated as understandable, if not always advisable, but to dramatize the personal and social cost to blacks and whites alike of treating the human products of these liaisons as racially inferior, morally suspect, and socially untouchable. The various aspects of southern "tradition" analyzed in the novel, in particular those that enforced the spurious color line, represent, for the most part, hindrances to the social and moral progress of the region. Thus, it is not accidental that at the end of the novel the mixed-race Millers are invested with the social and moral responsibility of binding up Wellington's self-inflicted wounds.


The triumph of white supremacy in the South by the turn of the twentieth century occasioned a literary controversy that pitted popular white Southern writers against less-well-known but equally impassioned black writers over nothing less than how to interpret Reconstruction and the so-called Redemption (that is, the reclaiming of the South by conservative Democrats) in the 1880s and 1890s. Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction (1898) by Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) and The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900 (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) by Thomas Dixon (1864–1946) argued that Reconstruction had been a disaster and that the redemption of the South by white supremacy had been the only way to ensure the restoration of political order, social decency, and racial purity for the much abused white South. The rare southern white writer who challenged this official myth of the New South met with outright hostility. George Washington Cable (1844–1925) is the best example of this. Cable voiced his opinions most notably in John March, Southerner (1894). The negative reaction to the book in the South forced Cable to leave his native New Orleans and resettle in Massachusetts. A handful of African American novelists, who had little access to the white readership of the time, agreed with Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859–1930), whose preface to her novel Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900) argued that there was no significant difference between New and Old South insofar as racial atrocities and social injustice were concerned. Wilmington native David Bryant Fulton (b. 1863), who wrote under the pseudonym Jack Thorne, was the first African American to write a novel about the Wilmington outrages. He published Hanover; or, The Persecution of the Lowly: A Story of the Wilmington Massacre (1900) partly to warn his readers of the likelihood of the effective re-enslavement of blacks in the South under the new white supremacist regimes.

What was most important about The Marrow of Tradition in its own time was the indisputable fact that Chesnutt, unlike any previous African American novelist, had been able to place a hard-hitting, socially probing novel of protest with a major white commercial publisher and see it receive extensive and serious national attention. Despite its often dispiriting subject matter and its stern critique of racial orthodoxy in the South, the novel was widely noticed. Even reviewers who could not recommend its tough-minded look at social problems that many whites wanted to ignore expressed frequent appreciation of the novel's realism, honesty, and earnestness, as well as the vigor of its protest against injustice. Other reviewers, however, particularly in southern newspapers, called the book painful, vindictive, and fanatical in its condemnation of whites. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), probably the most influential critic of the era, betrayed the conflicted attitude of contemporary white liberals when he called The Marrow of Tradition both "bitter" and "just" in the same review. Such divergent reactions did not make The Marrow of Tradition the popular success Chesnutt wanted, but they guaranteed that it would become the most discussed African American novel of its time. Nevertheless, sales of The Marrow of Tradition were sufficiently disappointing that its author felt obliged to return to the court-reporting business that had made him one of Cleveland's most prosperous African Americans when he launched his full-time literary career in 1899.

To those who dismissed his book as one-sided and unreliable, Chesnutt replied in a 1901 interview in the Cleveland Press: "I admit that 'The Marrow of Tradition' is the plea of an advocate. I can only hope that it is based upon the evidence, and that it will make out a case before an impartial jury." In the racially supercharged atmosphere of the turn of the twentieth century, Chesnutt's novelistic marshaling of the evidence against white supremacy could hardly expect an impartial hearing. By the late twentieth century, however, Chesnutt's plea for social justice and racial reconciliation in The Marrow of Tradition had won him permanent literary laurels and lasting recognition as a pioneering craftsman of socially conscious American fiction.

see alsoBlacks; Civil Rights; The Conjure Woman; Race Novels; Violence


Primary Works

Chesnutt, Charles W. Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays. Edited by Werner Sollors. New York: Library of America, 2002.

Chesnutt, Charles W. An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906–1932. Edited by Jesse S. Crisler, Robert C. Leitz III, and Joseph R. McElrath Jr. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901.

Chesnutt, Charles W. "To Be an Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889–1905. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Robert C. Leitz III. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

"To Shed a Light on the Race Problem." Cleveland Press, 1901, n.p.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Elder, Arlene A. The "Hindered Hand": Cultural Implications of Early African-American Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Howells, William Dean. "A Psychological Counter-Current in Recent Fiction." North American Review 173 (1901): 872–888.

Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

Pickens, Ernestine Williams. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement. New York: Pace University Press, 1994.

Sundquist, Eric. J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

Werner, Craig. "The Framing of Charles Chesnutt: Practical Deconstruction in the Afro-American Tradition." In Southern Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Jefferson Humphries, pp. 339–365. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

William L. Andrews

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The Marrow of Tradition

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