The Chaneysville Incident

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

What does one learn from history? Does one merely learn dates and facts with no understanding of what they mean, or does one learn the tortuous chain of events and complex motivations that result in war, genocide, racism, and all the other atrocities in which humanity revels? If one does learn the causes and effects of the long haul of history, is that enough to explain why a black man who has manipulated the white power structure of a racist town to his advantage through the sale of bootleg whiskey suddenly kills himself with a shotgun in a forgotten graveyard?

These are the questions that confront and haunt John Washington, a thirty-one-year-old black historian and teacher who has been obsessed since he was eleven with finding out why his moonshiner father, Moses Washington, committed suicide in the hills of Chaneysville in Raystown, Pennsylvania. His mentor and his father’s closest friend, a bootblack named Jack Crawley, has always felt that Moses Washington had a deeply rooted death wish and finally succeeded in getting that wish. Washington, however, is convinced that there were deeper, more complex reasons for the suicide, that a chain of events which began nearly two hundred years earlier led to the Chaneysville incident.

This is the premise that gradually emerges from David Bradley’s extraordinary narrative, that determining what people are and why they act as they do is far more involved than merely tracing genealogy. In the case of John Washington, there is a long and complicated history of racism and slavery to be sorted out, and even then he can never know for sure what made his father pull the trigger.

Bradley’s approach in compiling this exceptional, multileveled work (the result of ten years’ research) is a boldly unconventional one. Instead of a straight-ahead storyline with a clear-cut conflict, he offers an indirect narrative steeped in large chunks of historical exposition and lengthy folktales that do not seem to have any relevance at first, but which build into a pattern and converge on the reader so that eventually almost all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. This approach has all the built-in risks of an essentially plotless story, but Bradley has the stylish genius to make it work. His flashbacks regarding America’s contemptible racial history are so fascinatingly informative and so packed with polemical wit, irony, and anger that he keeps the reader hooked despite the lack of a conventional narrative.

The fact that Bradley is a black historian reared in Pennsylvania indicates that John Washington is clearly a stand-in for a lifetime of pent-up fury at American racism. How much of the narrative beyond that is autobiographical, only Bradley can say. What gradually becomes clear about Washington is that he is a product of his environment, of his father’s strange, moody behavior and mysterious goings-on in the family attic, and of the woodcraft and pride in black culture taught him by Jack Crawley, his surrogate father. These factors make him conscious of his inability to fit into the elitist white society of Raystown, yet, the same factors drive him to ask questions, especially after his father’s death. It turns out that Moses Washington had been doing some sort of research in the attic, rummaging through and making notes on historical documents and history books—but why?

John Washington’s own research at age eleven, using the materials available to his father, leads him to a dead end, but this, he discovers years later, is because he was expecting mere facts to yield a man’s thoughts, and they can never do that. Still, his interest in history as a result of his research is fired into a lifelong passion, especially as it relates to his own oppressed people, and he dedicates his life to uncovering and recording the sordid causes and effects that led to a minority race achieving dominance over a majority one.

Thus, Bradley’s narrative, though set in Pennsylvania, takes in not only all of America but Africa and parts of Europe as well; his protagonist discusses, at seemingly random points, the financial, political, and human causes of slavery. Because this is not an “objective” book, the character of John Washington is free to imbue his wide-ranging historical discourse with sardonic anger and humor, offering a far more probing, vivid and eye-opening lesson in...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)

The Chaneysville Incident Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. Reconstructing American Literary History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Includes an essay by Robert B. Stepto, “Distrust of the Reader in Afro-American Narratives,” that emphasizes the importance of storytelling and the oral tradition with which Bradley works.

Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Study of the representation of history in African American fiction. Includes a chapter on history as reinvention and the intersection of familial and public memory in The Chaneysville Incident.

Callahan, John F. “Who We For? The Extended Call of African-American Fiction.” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Examines concepts of storytelling, the uses of history, and the central characters of The Chaneysville Incident.

Campbell, Jane. “Ancestral Quests.” In Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. Compares Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and The Chaneysville Incident in terms of both books’ examination of the relationship between North American and West African culture. Concentrates on religion, the supernatural, and family histories.

Cooke, Michael G. “After Intimacy: The Search for New Meaning in Recent Black Fiction.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Covers the specific use of symbolism in The Chaneysville Incident.

Leak, Jeffrey B. Racial Myths and Masculinity in African American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Each chapter compares a specific intersection of racial and gender myths in two novels. The final chapter discusses the “myth of cultural depravation” in The Chaneysville Incident and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977).

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. An examination of novels, including Chaneysville Incident, set in modern times that attempt to deal with the “family secret”—slave owner as ancestor.