The Chaneysville Incident Bradley, David (Henry), Jr. - Essay

David Bradley


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

South Street (novel) 1975
The Chaneysville Incident (novel) 1981

David Bradley with Patricia Holt (interview date 10 April 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with David Bradley in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 219, No. 15, April 10, 1981, pp. 12-4.

[In the following interview, Bradley discusses his development of The Chaneysville Incident.]

It seems incredible to David Bradley that his new book, The Chaneysville Incident, which Harper & Row published April 8, took 11 years and almost as many drafts to write. Although his highly acclaimed first novel, South Street, had taken him less than a year, he says that Chaneysville, a much longer book, involved "quite a bit of digging."

Author of articles for publications as various as The Village Voice, Quest, Signature, The New York Arts Journal, The American Photographer and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Bradley is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Temple University who has taken a year "away from the cold winters of Pennsylvania" to become visiting professor at San Diego State University.

The experience has served him well. At 30, Bradley is slim, lithe and athletic—a devoted runner who puts in 12 to 13 miles a day. When PW meets him over lunch in Los Angeles, his dark eyes penetrate the thick lenses of his frameless glasses with an intensity that is at first unsettling. Then, suddenly, the eyes crinkle up with laughter as he sees what has been placed before him: a runny omelet and two chopsticks. "Well, this should be interesting," he grins. Smoothing his magnificently fluffy beard out of the way, he leans forward to tell us why the research and writing of The Chaneysville Incident took him, as he says, "so damn long."

As he talks, it is apparent that Bradley is a good-humored scholar without a trace of snobbery, having earned his B.A. on a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. from the University of London. He is "a lucky man," he says, who was "encouraged if not pushed" by his mother, his teachers and local librarians to get out of the racially claustrophobic environs of his hometown of Bedford, Pa.

"Writing this book," he says, speaking perhaps for many novelists, "has been a growing-up process for me because when I started 11 years ago, I knew nothing about where I grew up. It was as if I had no psyche—as if whatever I had experienced there had made no impression. All I remembered was that I was always coming down with bronchitis or pneumonia or some sort of allergy. Later on I realized that like John Washington in the novel, I was just allergic to the place, you know?" A smile cuts across his beard as if all that is over now, although he quips that he still comes down with a cold "just thinking about the place."

It was during his research for the book that Bradley began to remember incidents in his childhood that he had apparently suppressed before: what it was like for blacks to live on Gravel Hill (known by whites in town as "Niggers Knob," "Boogie Bend" or "Spade Hollow"); how it felt never to talk about racial fragmentation ("We were north of the Mason-Dixon line, and racism didn't happen in our town the way it did in the South"); how it felt at age six to accompany his father into the deep South, where "Whites Only" signs were still prominent, and wonder why he felt so comfortable there ("It was because they were so up front about blacks staying out of white districts that for once there was nothing personal about it"); and, finally, how it felt to be befriended by older black men who lived in dirt-floor shacks on what was called the "far side" of the hill. "These were men who taught me to hunt and live in the woods, who fixed hot toddies for me when I was 10 or 12 and who told me stories—legends, really, mixed with history and myth—about people before my time, about a near-lynching close to the town, about the town's Klan sheriff, that sort of thing."

Some of the stories...

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David Bradley with Susan L. Blake and James A. Miller (interview date Spring-Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with David Bradley, in Callaloo, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 19-39.

[In the following interview, Bradley discusses South Street and The Chaneysville Incident, focusing on the characters John Washington and Judith from the latter work.]

[Miller]: We were talking earlier about what it meant to travel as a black person, back home, to the South, before the age of the super highway. How did those experiences affect you? We're talking about how relationships changed once you crossed the Mason-Dixon line. What did you gather there? How did it shape your perception of the South, of Bedford?

[Bradley]: I...

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Lynn Veach Sadler (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Black Man's Burden: The Pursuit of Nonconformity in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident," in Philological Papers, Vol. 32, 1986, pp. 119-27.

[In the following essay, Sadler discusses the roles of stereotypes and nonconformity in The Chaneysville Incident, focusing on the problems of imagination.]

John Washington, the Black historian in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, is in rebellion not only against his family but the world in general and particularly against the preconceptions it has imposed on his race. One enforced stereotype that drives John, though unwittingly, is the imagination of Blacks and its end product,...

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Martin Gliserman (essay date Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident: The Belly of the Text," in American Imago, Vol.43, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 97-120.

[In the following essay, Gliserman analyzes the psychological importance of history in The Chaneysville Incident, focusing on the metaphorical implications of the repeated image of "the belly,"]


David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, winner of the P.E.N. Faulkner Award in 1981, is a major novel by a Black American male. Bradley's novel builds on central themes in Black and white literary traditions, and creates a new dialectics both between and within these...

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Paul Gilroy (review date 28 November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Making History," in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2905, November 28, 1986, p. 28.

[In the following review, Gilroy identifies opposing representations of history in the African-American literary tradition, and discusses how these are merged in The Chaneysville Incident.]

The experience of racial subordination has often been likened to living outside history. Slavery's suppression of temporal development and racism's capacity to represent blacks as 'people without a past' have bequeathed a distinct legacy to our storytellers. The best and most sensitive of them are prepared to confront a bitter obligation not just to validate black culture as a historical...

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Matthew Wilson (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The African American Historian: David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident," in African American Review, Vol.29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 97-107.

[In the following essay, Wilson analyzes the connections between history and imagination in The Chaneysville Incident, comparing Washington's role as historian in the novel to the interpreter's role in African oral tradition.]

The figure of the African American historian in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident is almost the antithesis of the historian Hayden White delineates in "The Burden of History," a person who needs to be liberated from the burden of history. The African American...

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W. Lawrence Hogue (essay date June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Problematizing History: David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident," in CLA Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4, June, 1995, pp. 441-60.

[In the following essay; Hogue demonstrates how Bradley's narrative techniques in The Chaneysville Incident undermine traditional concepts of history.]

The Chaneysville Incident, by David Bradley, takes a novel approach to history and takes fictional liberties in resolving the modern and postmodern dilemmas of its protagonist. It resolves the modern and postmodern dilemmas of its protagonist by transforming, or imagining, aspects of the historical and cultural past into a contemporary constellation in order to...

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Edward Pavli (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Syndetic Redemption: Above-Underground Emergence in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident," in African American Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 165-84.

[In the following excerpt, Pavli examines the narrative method of The Chaneysville Incident.]

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man begins and ends with the narrator positioned in "black" underground space which can be seen as an expression of "white" modernist understandings of cultural process as a solitary and stationary exercise of mind. The narrator of Ellison's text, like his ancestor Fred Daniels in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground," finds himself alienated from...

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Philip J. Egan (essay date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Unraveling Misogyny and Forging the New Self: Mother, Lover, and Storyteller in The Chaneysville Incident," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 265-87.

[In the following essay, Egan traces the origin of narrator Washington's misogyny in The Chaneysville Incident, exploring the means by which the narrator is able to overcome it.]

When David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident appeared in 1981, it received mostly favorable reviews, became a Book-of-the-month Club selection, and won its author a Faulkner/PEN award. While many critics focus on the novel's treatment of history, only a few analyze one of its...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bamforth, Iain. "The Case for Reconciliation." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4372 (16 January 1987): 56.

Asserts that The Chaneysville Incident "could easily have shed half its length without losing dramatic impact, but at the expense of the marvellously hyperbolic vocabulary of some of its characters and all the vivid particulars that give it authenticity."

Barclay, Dolores. "Haunting Journey into His Story." Black Enterprise 11, No. 12 (July 1981): 10.

Discusses Bradley's journey in writing The Chaneysville Incident.


(The entire section is 255 words.)