The Chaneysville Incident David (Henry) Bradley, Jr.
The following entry presents criticism on David Bradley's novel The Chaneysville Incident (1981).
For further information on Bradley's life and works, see CLC, Volume 23.
An expansive and innovative novel, The Chaneysville Incident took a decade for Bradley to develop. Beginning with an incident that Bradley discovered in historical papers belonging to his mother, the author used his imagination to breathe fictional life into a story based on the facts presented in the papers. Bradley's technique of merging history and fiction challenges traditional notions of historical and narrative processes.
Plot and Major Characters
The Chaneysville Incident is based on a historical event in which a group of slaves fleeing through the underground railroad committed suicide when faced with capture. Bradley takes this historical incident and creates a fictional narrative around it. The novel focuses on John Washington, an African-American historian who is searching for his identity by connecting with his familial past. He journeys to his home in western Pennsylvania to take care of his ailing surrogate father, Old Jack Crawley. When Old Jack dies, Washington is compelled to visit his real parents' home to study his late father's collection of old journals. Washington feels incomplete due to several gaps in his personal family history, including the ambiguity surrounding his father's and his paternal grandfather's deaths. Looking through his father's papers, Washington begins a journey which merges his personal ancestry with history. He learns that his father, Moses, committed suicide and begins to understand its connection to the suicide of the slaves at Chaneysville. The tale unfolds as Washington describes his findings to his girlfriend, a white psychiatrist named Judith. Washington's trip home causes him to recall how Old Jack took him under his wing after Moses's death. Old Jack taught Washington the skills of a woodsman and recounted tales of Washington's grandfather, also named Moses. There are several threads to the narrative, including sections told from Washington's perspective and some from Old Jack's. Eventually Washington's journey ends when he merges the stories with history to conclude that his grandfather, C. K., was a member of the Chaneysville incident, and that C. K. killed the woman he loved, several other slaves, and himself in order to avoid capture. This rev-elation leads Washington to understand that his father committed suicide after he had discovered the same information. Washington now understands the effect of his familial history on the reality of his present, and he feels complete.
The major themes of The Chaneysville Incident focus on history's influence on the present and explore historical process itself. John Washington uses history, in the form of Moses's papers, and imagination, in the form of Old Jack's stories, to develop a knowledge of the past. The novel departs from a typical view of history as an accumulation of empirical data. Other major themes focus on racism and racial stereotypes, specifically the conflict between Washington's "white" education and his organic common sense acquired from Old Jack. Washington tries to flee what he considers to be a stereotypical African-American heritage, including a reliance on intuition and imagination, by becoming a historian who relies on facts and evidence. Ironically, Washington is unable to piece together his own past without merging his skills as a historian and his imagination.
Most reviewers discuss what The Chaneysville Incident implies about historical perspective. W. Lawrence Hogue states that The Chaneysville Incident "shows that history itself depends on the conventions of narrative, language, discourse, and ideology in order to present what happened." Many reviewers praise Bradley for his skill at bringing the narrative to life. Paul Gilroy lauds Bradley's accomplishment: "Employing a variety of genres and literary techniques with great skill, not as pastiche but for the substantive value of each differing register of address, Bradley brings this story to life at an extraordinary intensity." Many reviewers note the theme of withdrawal in the book, which connects it to a tradition in African-American literature, and compare Bradley to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Gilroy says, "the motif of withdrawal without retreat is a sign that Bradley recognises his own literary heritage." Critics also compare Bradley to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. A few critics condemn Bradley for the misogyny presented in The Chaneysville Incident, but others note Washington's rehabilitation at the end of the novel. Critics praise Bradley for his innovative exploration of the narrative form and consider him a prominent writer of contemporary fiction.