(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley employs a dual narrative that simultaneously follows John Washington for ten days in March, 1979, when he returns to the hill country of his origin to care for and then bury “Old Jack” Crawley, and the course of John’s thoughts as he reconsiders the facts of his family’s history while he tries to solve the mystery of the “Chaneysville Incident,” which contains the key to his father’s existence. As the narrative begins, John appears to be in an admirable position as a respected young historian employed by a major university in Philadelphia, but he is troubled by a kind of rage that he has learned to control by suppressing his emotions so totally that he has shut even those closest to him out of a significant portion of his life. He has been living with Judith Powell, a white psychiatrist, whose love for him has kept them together even though he has held her at a distance. They are kept from being closer by John’s suspicions about all white people, his distrust of women, and his unusual rearing by his father and his father’s closest friends, Old Jack and Joshua “Snakebelly” White. When John is summoned by a message that Old Jack is near death, the claim of love and kinship that carries him back to the country of his youth is combined with a growing sense of urgency to reconcile his defensive posture with Judith’s demand for his trust by probing to the core of his family’s mystery.

John’s memory is engaged by his recollections of his life on “The Hill,” the old black neighborhood where he lived in the unusual house his father, Moses Washington, built. John recalls the stories Old Jack told him about his father and about the adventures of Moses and his running mates in the days when they faced active hostility from the white community. Gradually, as John ranges over his early life, his discovery of his mind as an active instrument—even a weapon—is presented as the crucial event in his development. He realizes that he has emulated his male mentors by conceiving strategies for defiance and survival that emphasize mental combat more than physical prowess; he also realizes that he has echoed his mother’s adjustments to social rejection and bigotry by projecting an icy disdain toward every incident of racial...

(The entire section is 939 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

John Washington, the protagonist of Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, is a successful young historian living in Philadelphia and teaching at a large urban university in that city. Adept at his profession and comfortable in the academic world, he seems to be almost a paragon of achievement, an exemplar of the kind of life an industrious, intelligent black man might lead in the latter part of the twentieth century in the United States. Still, Washington is at a critical point in his life. He is becoming increasingly aware of some compelling questions about himself and his past—questions that he knows he has been avoiding—and he realizes that he is on the threshold of psychic chaos which can only be controlled if he stops suppressing them. The narrative thread of the novel involves Washington’s efforts to discover the meaning of his past, to understand the significance of his “home ground,” and to establish a spiritual foundation that will permit another person to share his existence. The course of the novel takes Washington back toward his origins in the wilderness of the Pennsylvania mountain country, west of Philadelphia, and concurrently, back through time in an examination of records, documents, personal and oral histories, and geographical relics. His search for what he suspects in the “true” self which he has kept hidden beneath the veneer of the competent academic leads him to a series of discoveries which enable him to grow toward a kind of maturity of completeness. The goal of his dual journey in space and time is to become a man who is capable of using every aspect of himself without the need to conceal weakness, to suppress emotion, or to maintain a hard edge of coldness to resist the harder edge of hate.

As the novel begins, Washington is summoned back into the country of his youth by the urgent message that “Old” Jack Crawley, one of the three men who reared him,...

(The entire section is 784 words.)