The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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The main plot of The Marrow of Tradition is based on newspaper and eyewitness accounts of the lynchings that occurred during the election riots in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. Chesnutt added a number of subplots that enabled him to explore a wider range of social issues more thoroughly than the short-story form had permitted. Dr. Miller, a talented black surgeon, and Major Carteret, an aristocratic white supremacist, are somewhat melodramatically brought together when Carteret, having indirectly caused the death of Miller’s child with inflammatory race-baiting editorials that incited riots, calls upon Miller at the end of the book to save the life of his own child. The connection between the two men is ironically underscored by the fact that they are married to half-sisters, one white and one of mixed race. This parallelism of characters from opposite sides of the color line is echoed within the black community by the paralleling of the middle-class, moderate Miller with Josh Green, a militant black laborer.

Miller seems to represent an effort on Chesnutt’s part to find a middle ground that will avoid the extremism of either Green or Carteret. Miller refuses to lead the black community in what he correctly perceives as a hopeless attempt at armed defense against the white lynch mob; at the end of the book, he agrees to help Carteret’s child. Dr. Evans, a youthful white physician who lacks Miller’s expertise and is himself powerless to help the child, ends the book with a cautious optimism about the Carteret child’s condition that the reader is invited to apply as a prognosis for America’s condition with respect to the problems of race relations: “Come on up, Dr. Miller. . . . There’s time enough, but none to spare.”

Despite his evident intent to promote the moderate line, Chesnutt’s involuntary admiration for Green’s courage is unmistakable, and Green’s heroic insistence that “I’d ruther be a dead nigger any day than a live dog” is never convincingly discredited. Even the moderate Miller is acutely aware that Green exemplifies not savagery but love of liberty. While Miller’s wife urges him to help the child, she emphatically refuses to accept her white half-sister’s long-overdue offer to recognize their relationship and to offer financial restitution. Chesnutt’s realistic depiction of the brutalities that kept black citizens in their social places, and his implication that black pride and resistance were appropriate positions, could hardly fail to strike genteel white readers and critics as bitter and excessive. Chesnutt himself considered the novel his best, and later critics have generally found the novel a milestone in the movement of the African American novel toward social realism.

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