Keeping an "Old Wound" Alive: The Marrow of Tradition and the Legacy of Wilmington

by Jae H. Roe
Keeping an "Old Wound" Alive: The Marrow of Tradition and the Legacy of Wilmington
Jae H. Roe
African American Review
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Keeping an "Old Wound" Alive: TheMmow of Traditionand the Legacy of Wilmington

The historical and sociopolitical context of Charles W. Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition is the legacy of Reconstruction, and-more specifically-the circumstances sur- rounding what H. Leon Prather calls the "Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898." This tradition is what the title of the novel primarily refers to-a tradition whose marrow is colonial racism. Eric Sundquist, in his To Wake the Nations, gives The Marrow of Tradition the recognition it deserves, as "probably the most astute political-historical novel of its day," not just in its ren- dering of the Wilmington Racial Massacre, but in its illumination of the sociopolitical context that produced both the massacre and the novel itself (13). Precisely because Chesnutt was so heavily constrained-as a writer and as a black man-by the same mater- ial conditions he sought to illuminate and critique, his great, ambitious novel of protest also became agonizingly self-critical. The work of historical revision it contributes to, however, was- and continues to be-invaluable. Raymond Williams writes that "tradition" is the "most evident expression" of the hegemony of the dominant class, "an intentionally selective version of a shap- ing past and a pre-shaped present"; therefore, "the most accessi- ble and influential work of the counter-hegemony is historical . . . recovery [and] redress" (115-16). Williams also writes, howev- er, that "creative practice" of this political-historical kind is always a "difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practi- cal consciousness . . . a struggle at the roots of the mind" (212). The Marrow of Tradition is the product of this "struggle" within Chesnutt's own mind; the tragedy of the novel lies in his recogni- tion of the futility of his labor, how the hegemony of Southern "tradition" is perpetuated in the very marrow of white (and black) consciousness in the South. The novel begins with the birth of Theodore Felix Carteret, who embodies Major Carteret's "dearest hopeu-"to have chil- dren to perpetuate the name of which he was so proud, to write it still higher on the roll of honor" (2). And the historical and socio- economic meaning of the Carteret family "name" and the Major's desire to "perpetuate" it are succinctly encapsulated some pages later; the Major, now the editor of the Morning Chronicle, is investing "part of his wife's patrimony" in an "enterprise" that promises "immense profitsu-"profits which would enable his son, upon reaching manhood, to take a place in the world com- mensurate with the dignity of his ancestors, one of whom, only a few generations removed, had owned an estate of ninety thou- sand acres of land and six thousand slaves" (30). Dodie (as Theodore Felix is affectionately called) embodies Southern tradi- tion itself, the idealized socioeconomic order founded on colonial

African American Review, Volume 33, Number 2 0 1999 Jae H. Roe

Jae H. Roe is Assistant Professor of English at SUNYi Westchester Community College. This essay is excerpted from his disserta- tion "Literary Revision and Sociopolitical Reconstruction: The Work of Collective Resistance," from which an essay on Claude McKay will be published in a forthcoming anthology.

racism. And Carteret's position as edi- tor of the Morning Chronicle, along with his reliance on his wife's patrimo- ny, suggests how far the "dignity" of the familv-and the Southern aristoc- racy as ahhole-has fallen. At the end of this chapter, Carteret writes "the famous editorial in which he sounded the tocsin of a new crusade" for white supremacy; thus, through Chesnutt's construction of the novel, Carteret's "hope" for Dodie-and for the tradi- tion Dodie embodies-introduces and figures this "crusade" (39).

In such ways, the seemingly Victorian plot of love, marriage, and domesticity is from the beginning linked to the complex historical and sociopolitical context of the plot by the Big Three of Carteret, General Belmont, and Captain McBane. Too often, how- ever, critics of the novel have seen the narrative mannerisms of the Victorian novel of manners-and, perhaps more importantly, the seeming contradic- tions and ambivalence within the text-as what William Andrews calls "aesthetic blemishes" (203). In his influential 1980 book on Chesnutt's lit- erary career, Andrews states that The Marrow of Tradition-although an important "social statement in litera- ture of its timeu-"today . . . reads like a period piece, and, in some respects, not too great a compliment to its liter- ary period" (208). Such critical judg- ments may seem to appeal to universal and timeless aesthetic/literary stan- dards, but in actualitv can be traced to a histdry of critical riception condi- tioned by the limits and pressures of colonial racism. Chesnutt's contem~o-


rary critics-even those who had praised his earlier works-were nearly unanimous in their denunciation of the novel, and the standards applied by the critics of its time continue to be applied, in various forms, today.l Likewise, the tendency to privilege Chesnutt's early conjure stories over his more problematic (in other words, more straightforwardly and radically political) novel reflects the predilection of many critics to favor politics ambiguously represented in so-called cultural form; even Sundquist seems to privilege "the language of conjure," or "the language of signifying and cultur- al struggle" (372).2 Some contemporary critics were ready to admire such lan- guage, but few if any were ready for the "social statement" and unambigu- ous sociopolitical critique they found in The Marrow of Tradition.

This emphasis on the cultural too easily becomes an argument for a form of multi-culturalism "that aestheticizes ethnic differences as if they could be separated from history" and politics (Lowe 9). I must emphasize how far removed this is from Chesnutt's own passionate involvement in the history and politics of his time-not just in his art, but in his life. Because "I lived in North Carolina from the age of 9 to that of 25," Chesnutt once wrote in a letter, "I could never be so placed in life that I should not have an abiding interest in the welfare of our people in the South" (qtd. in Keller 62). Throughout his life, the sociopolitical status of his people, not just in the South but in all of the nation, was indeed his "abid- ing interest"; however, it was as a writer that he imagined he could make his greatest-his "most accessible and influentialf'-contribution to this cause. If he wrote that his "high and holy pur- pose" as a writer would be "not so much the elevation of the colored peo- ple as the elevation of the whites," it was partly because of the "exigencies of the genteel white literary market" to which he knew he would have to "adapt" (Keller 77, Andrews 93). However, the literary public's reactions to his works--especially to The Marrow of Tradition-would confirm his fear that "the garrison [of white public opinion] will not capitulate" (Keller 77).

In a 1907 letter reiterating his life- long disagreement with the policies of Booker T. Washington, Chesnutt wrote that "nothing in history goes to show that the rights of any class are safe in the hands of anotheru-a realization that was no doubt strengthened by the Wilmington Racial Massacre and its aftermath (qtd. in Keller 223). We might also note the emphasis here on the record and lessons of history; in his novel, he does not describe the mas- sacre itself, but writes instead that ". . .the records of the day are histori- cal; they may be found in the newspa- pers of the following date, but they are more firmly engraved upon the hearts and memories of the people of Wellington" (274-75). This observation serves not merely to emphasize the his- torical record, but to place greater emphasis on the counter-memory that revises the official version of history. To fully understand the meaning and continuing significance of the novel, we must therefore begin by under- standing the historical record itself, and its sociopolitical significance; that is, after all, what Chesnutt urges upon US.

The Socioeconomics of a Massacre

"The outpouring of protest against the Wilmington vio- lence by Du Bois and other black lead- ers" was, predictably enough, ignored by "politicians and journalists alike" (Sundquist 437). It is for this reason that Chesnutt calls the reader's atten- tion to the counter-memory of the black people of Wellington, just as he himself had to rely on the unofficial oral history recorded during a visit to Wilmington in 1901 "to collect material for his novel" (407). The plot that cul- minated in the Wilmington Racial Massacre was begun by a "Committee of Democrats" dubbed the "Secret Nine"; through the Wilmington Messenger and Wilmington Star, these conspirators created "an environment that would justify the white citizens' buying firearms for the protection of their homes, and that would also justi- fy the organization of vigilance com- mittees" (Prather 54). The immediate object of the Democrats was to defeat the "coalition of Populists . . . and Republicans" which had dominated the city's legislature since 1894; the method was to appeal to the deep-seat- ed colonial racism of the white popula- tion of the city and state (34).

After the right "environment" had been created by the local press, the Democrats issued "the first statewide call for white unity" in November of 1897; they called for the re-establish- ment of "Anglo-Saxon rule and honest government in North Carolina," and for "every patriot [to] rally to the white man's party" (56). And in the Secret Nine's "Wilmington Declaration of Independence," read by Alfred Waddell (generally thought to be Chesnutt's model for the aristocratic General Belmont), those (white) patri- ots were called upon to take back their city, because "the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African ori- gin" went against the original intent of "the Constitution of the United States" (108). This conspiracy-and the cynical and calculated appeal to the racism of the masses through which it was car- ried to its bloody conclusion-are quite accurately reenacted by the Big Three in The Marrow of Tradition.

Of course, the significance of what Chesnutt records goes far beyond mere historical accuracy. His counter-history illuminates the ideology of colonial racism underlying the political plot, and the echoes of that ideological dis- course can still be heard in the so- called Southern discourse of the New Right. And it also illuminates the larger historical and sociopolitical context within which-and because of which- the events in Wilmington took place. As Du Bois writes in his historical re- evaluation of the Freedmen's Bureau in The Souls of Black Folk, "the very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries bet- ter men had refused even to argue,- that life amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experi- ments"; thus, it "was destined . . . to bitter disappointment" (26,29). Like Du Bois, Chesnutt understood how deep-seated the ideology of colonial racism was in the South, and how entrenched the sociopolitical structure founded upon that ideology was. Thus, then as now, "conservatives" could always appeal to a "racist past," while coding that racist appeal as an appeal

to "economy in government and lower taxes" (Trelease xxxvii). South Carolina's "protest to Congress" in 1868 exemplifies this racist appeai:

The appropriations to support free schools for the education of the negro children, for the support of old negroes in the poor-houses, and the vicious in jails , , . will be crushing and utterly ruinous to the

The Marrow of


single most important contribution to

State. . . . The white ~eo~le the unfinished of

our State will never quietly

submit to negro rule.. . .by

every peaceful means left us,

we will keep up this contest project of

until we have regained the her-

itage of political control handed revision and

l l

try. (qtd. in Trelease xxxv)

As the Wilmington Racial Massacre so clearly demonstrated, this emotional appeal to colonial racism was pushed to the point where the reaction of the masses could not be contained within the boundaries of "peaceful means."

Long before Wilmington, however, "extralegal and semimilitary organiza- tions" proliferated all over the South, to the point that almost all men "took to carrying guns"; in South Carolina, "white rifle clubs" were organized, effectively functioning as "partisan guerrillas" for the cause of white supremacy (Trelease xlii, xlv). The largest and most influential of these terrorist groups was, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, which in effect became the "terrorist arm of the Democratic party" in its efforts to take back the South (xlvii). Predictably, the Democrats demonstrated their responsible states- manship by "denying the obvious," ascribing "the Klan movement to high taxes, corrupt officials, or other defi- ciencies of the Republican regimes," even while "the primary role in spread- ing the Ku Klux Klan was played . . . by the Southern Democratic news- paper press" (xlvi, xlvii, 62). The events in Wilmington-and in Chesnutt's Wellington-were merely another rep- etition of a common pattern, a particu- larly intense chapter of a larger con-

spiracy. We can recognize the outlines of the same pattern in the proliferation (and denial) of white supremacist terrorism today-a conspiracy whose most intense chap- ter, SO far, has been the bombing of the Murrah

Building in Oklahoma the para'- lels between the reac- tionarv discourse and vio-


lence of Chesnutt's time and our own go beyond the mere appeal to colonial racism to the material con- ditions which made-and

down to us by honored ances-


continue to make-that

appeal so seductive.

To understand fully the political and socioeconomic situation of Wilmington prior to the Racial Massacre of 1898, we must recognize the relatively "central place" blacks had come to occupy in the city's "polit- ical and economic life . . . from 1865 to 1897" (Prather 23). Simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, "there was acute unemployment among the poor white population" (26). Thus, caught in the throes of the structural adjustment of the Southern economy, these poor whites could easily be manipulated to turn away from the Populists and rally around the Democrats by appealing to their racist fears. After all, the Populists were in cahoots with the counter-cultural Republicans, perceived as serving the interests of Southern blacks. This was made even more evident by "the politi- cal upheaval in 1896," when the politi- cal visibility of black voters and office- holders increased dramatically not only in Wilmington but throughout

North Carolina (35). Such "massive displacements" inevitably led to "the fierce holding on to vestiges of a more secure past," for the ideology of colo- nial racism underpinned that past (Isaacs 24). Ultimately, the Democrats were successful because they were able-primarily through the Messenger, with rallying cries such as "White Labor for White Menu-to tap into and manipulate these fears and the "racist [white] labor movement" such fears gave rise to (Prather 61,63). Mike Dowling--Chesnuttfs model for Captain McBane-of the white labor movement became "the organizer and leader of the Redshirts," the terrorist arm of the Wilmington Democrats (85). This socio- economic foundation for the emotional appeal to colonial racism can be seen in the previously mentioned "Wilmington Declaration of Independence"; "the white/black coalition" had to be termi- nated, it was argued, because "the giv- ing of nearly all of the employment" to blacks made it impossible for "white families [to] thrive here" (qtd. inPrather 108). In other words, Waddell and the Secret Nine manipulated the economic anxieties of the poor whites by blaming their displacement on what we now know as reverse discrimination.

Chesnutt illustrates the political and economic upheaval of white soci- ety in Wilmington through the fortunes of the emblematic Carteret family, but also through Jerry's observation regarding McBane:

"He ain' nothin' but po' w'ite trash nohow; but Lawd! Lawd! look at de money he's got,-livin' at de hotel, wearin' di'mon's, an' colloguin' wid de bes' quality er dis town! 'Pears ter me de bottom rail is gittin' mighty close ter de top. Well, I s'pose it all comes f'm bein' w'ite. I wush ter Gawd I wuz w'ite!" (36)

Through Jerry's characteristically sly voice, Chesnutt alludes obliquely to the displacement of the feudal order of Southern plantation society; Carteret and Belmont-the "bes' quality" of Wellington-may find McBane person- ally repugnant, but they are no longer in a position to turn up their aristocrat- ic noses at the likes of McBane, espe- cially when they need the terrorist arm he represents. Thus, the racial solidari- ty demonstrated by the alliance of the Big Three is linked by Chesnutt to the necessary realignment of traditional class loyalties among the whites-in other words, the need to renew the meaning and centrality of whiteness3

But Chesnutt's illumination of the historical and sociopolitical context of the Wilmington Racial Massacre goes far beyond the confines of the city, or even the South. In one of many narra- torial intrusions, he writes,

Public sentiment all over the country became every day more favorable to the views of the conspirators. The nation was rushng forward with giant strides toward colossal wealth and world-domination, before the exigen- cies of which mere abstract ethical the- ories must not be permitted to stand. The same argument that justified the conquest of an inferior nation could not be denied to those who sought the suppression of an inferior race. (238)

What Chesnutt is referring to here is, of course, the nation's dramatic success in its imperialist ambitions; 1898 was also the year in which the U.S.'s victory over Spain gave it possession of former Spanish territories, including Cuba and the Philippines. Inevitably, the need to justify the new colonialist enterprise (and perhaps this is the "enterprise" to which Carteret refers?) reproduced the ideological discourse originally invent- ed to justify earlier such enterprises, including the one in the South-name- ly, the ideology of colonial racism.

President Theodore Roosevelt declared that "fitness [for self-govern- ment] is not a God-given, natural right . . .but comes to a race only through the slow growth of centuries, and then only to those races which possess an immense reserve fund of strength, common sense, and morality" Tqtd. in Gossett 329). Because it is self-evident that races lacking "strength, common sense, and morality" cannot possibly govern themselves, U.S. colonial rule became a moral imperative. Or, in the words of journalist Trumbull White, "our new possessions" call upon us "to dominate in commercial influence and in all things for the uplifting of a swarming population of alien races" (qtd. in Spurr 118). Conveniently, these "commercial" interests coincided with the interests of the "alien races" who had to be saved from their own weak- ness, ignorance, and barbarism; thus, when Southern Democrats declared that the moral imperative to protect their own interests by protecting Southern blacks from themselves justi- fied certain extreme measures, their argument "could not be denied."

Chesnutt-with some irony-calls his reader's attention to the historical record of "the newspapers," but imme- diately subverts the authority of that official history by giving greater authority to the counter-memory of "the people of Wellington." Before going down to Wilmington, Chesnutt received a visit in Cleveland from "a local Wilmington physician [who] reit- erated in graphic detail . . . the ride he took across the town while the violence was at its height"; that "ride" is reen- acted in The Marrow of Tradition by the character of Dr. Miller (Andrews 125-26). Instead of describing the scene in detail, Chesnutt writes,

Never will the picture of that ride fade from his [Miller's] memory. In his dreams he repeats it night after night, and sees the sights that wounded his eyes, and feels the thoughts-the haunting spirits of the thoughts-that tore his heart. (Marrow286)

In effect, Chesnutt asks his reader to imagine "the picture," to see the events of the day through the eyes of the peo- ple in whose "hearts and memories" the truth is "firmly engraved"; the sud- den switch into present tense here serves to pull the reader into the scene, but also to underline Chesnutt's own imaginative identification with Miller and the people of Wellington. It is a moment that reflects his coming-to- consciousness, his awakening to the concrete realities of Southern blacks, and his identification with his people.


However, when we first encounter IMiller in the novel, he is reading-with 'deep" interest, while riding in the Jim (Zrow car of the train into Wellington- 'I newspaper editorial "which set forth im glowing language the inestimable 'ldvantages which would follow cer- 1:ain recently acquired islands by the i~ntroduction of American liberty" (57). The irony of this rhetoric of "American Iliberty" in the context of Jim Crow and what we have seen developing in 1Wellington is of course quite intention- <al, but Miller never registers this irony; Ihe rides into Wellington utterly unpre- pared for the psychological and politi-


I:a1 demands that circumstances will place upon him. He may feel "a certain


(2xpansive warmth toward [the blacks jin the car] in spite of their obvious !shortcomings" (61), but his "slumber- jing race consciousness" never quite iawakens (277). As the train enters Wellington, Miller concludes his banal and condescending reflections on the "race problem" with the "consoling" thought that "blessed are the meek. . . for they shall inherit the earth," when-again ironically-he will ulti- mately prove himself to be "meek" and ineffectual. "Simultaneously with Miller's exit from the train," we first meet Josh Green-"a great black figure . . . stretching and shaking himself with a free gesture"; thus, from the first, Chesnutt introduces Josh as a stronger, blacker, and-above all-freer counterpoint to the meek and ideologically inscribed Miller (62).

"The railroad," Sundquist points out, is "an appropriate site for Chesnutt's initial contrasting portraits of William Miller and Josh Green, sepa- rated by a gulf in class and political ideology. . . but united in the fact that each of them. . . must ride Jim Crow'' (444). Although many critics have pointed out the ideological conflict rep- resented by Josh and Miller, few seem to question that Miller comes closer to representing Chesnutt's own ideology than Josh does; one has even claimed that "Dr. Miller represents Chesnutt's ideal man" (Wolkomir 251). Sundquist summarizes his take on this conflict within the text-and thus within Chesnutt himself-as "an anguished cry of righteous protest moderated by the hopeful voice of compromise"; I, however, contend that Chesnutt knew very well the ineffectuality of such "compromise," and that the recogni- tion of his own ineffectuality as a black writer in a white world constitutes the real anguish of the novel (449).

"By the Stroke of a Pen"

As the outraged and terrified crit- ical reaction of Chesnutt's (white) contemporaries seems to illus- trate, Josh has always caused-and continues to cause-problems for read- ers of The Marrow of Tradition. Miller, after all, is rather unexceptionable; "his advice to Josh Green, his desire to be useful to his community, and his con- tinuous self-interrogation as to whether his actions are manly and just commend him as an upstanding moral character" (Wolkomir 257). If one thus places justice, morality, and hope on the side of Miller, Josh certainly does become "a figure difficult to interpret" (Sundquist 441). However, the running ideological contestation between Josh and Miller shows that Chesnutt's iden- tification with Miller is not so unam- biguous. In the chapter titled "Another Southern Product," Miller comes face- to-face with Josh for the first time; their dialogue illustrates what the title of the chapter suggests-namely, that Miller, like Josh, is a "product" of the white supremacist South. When Josh asks Miller whether he remembers the Ku Klux Klan, Miller replies, " 'Yes, but I was a child at the time, and recollect very little about them. It is a page of history most people are glad to forget' ";Josh's response to this is that " 'I was a chile, too, but I wuz right in it, an' so I 'members mo' erbout it'n you does' " (111). Like the editorial on the "recently acquired islands," this speech illustrates Miller's detachment from the material conditions of Southern blacks. Of course, the glad- ness with which people choose to "for- get" their histories of oppression reflects a need for distance, for repres- sion. When Miller once again argues for meekness and forgiving " 'our ene- mies,' " Josh replies, " 'It 'pears ter me dat dis fergitfulniss an' fergivniss is mighty one-sided. . . . de niggers is be'n train' ter fergiveniss. . . . if a nig- ger gits a' office, er de race 'pears ter be prosperin' too much, de w'ite folks up an' kills a few, so dat de res' kin keep on fergivin' an' bein' thankful dat dey're lef' alive.' " Events prove just how accurate Josh's assessment of the "w'ite folks"-and also of blacks like Miller-actually is (113). If the con- sciousnesses of both men are produced in reaction to white supremacy and oppression in the South, Miller clearly turns out to be the more damaged product.

Miller comes to recognize-at least momentarily-his own moral failure; that moment comes at the culmination of the conspiracy, when (white) mob violence breaks out. Josh and his gang confront Miller and Watson, represen- tatives of the Wellington black elite: " 'Will you-all come an' lead us?' "Josh asks, and Watson replies, " 'What is the use? The negroes will not back you up. They haven't the arms, nor the moral courage, nor the leadership. . . . keep quiet, boys, and trust in God. You won't gain anything by resistance' " (281-82). The hypocrisy of this rational- ization is of course apparent; it is Watson and Miller who lack the "moral courage" to provide the "lead- ership" the men are asking for. It is quite telling here that Chesnutt refers to Josh as "the spokesman," for he indeed is the one who speaks for the men, as their leader: " 'Come along, boys! Dese gentlemen may have some- thin' ter live fer; but ez fer my pa't, I'd ruther be a dead nigger any day dan a live dog!' " (284).

The "distinct feeling of shame and envy" with which Miller is left seems to be a recognition of his own lack of "moral courage" and failure of "leader- ship," but the question (which seems to have perplexed many critics over the years) is to what extent Chesnutt iden- tifies with the militance and "moral courage" of the character he refers to, at various points, as "the spokesman" (285), "a general" (299), "a born com- mander" (301). From the start, Miller

, ,

expresses grudging admiration for Josh:

Here was a negro who could remem- ber an injury, who could shape his life to a definite purpose, if not a high or holy one. When his race reached the point where they would resent a wrong, there was hope that they might soon attain the stage where they would try, and, if need be, die, to defend a right. (112)

In an article in the New York Independent, Chesnutt once wrote that, "when the Southern Negro reach- es that high conception of liberty that would make him rather die than sub- mit to the lash, when he will meet force with force, there will be an end of Southern outrages" (qtd. in Andrews 198). Clearly, then, Miller's admiration is an expression of Chesnutt's own, but Josh's moral courage and leadership do not bring about "an end of Southern outrages" in his novel. The article was written prior to the events depicted in the novel. and historical and socio~olit- ical reality made it impossible for Chesnutt to imagine such an ending.

It is the ending of The Marrow of Tradition. above all, that has caused the most critical disagreement and con- fusion. Andrews argues that Miller's "course of action is vindicated in the end, when he becomes the means by which Carteret is morally clarified and the Major's son [Dodie] is saved. Miller's pragmatic survival orientation guarantees the continuation of a pro- gressive, constructive, healing tradition in Wellington, when such a tradition will be most needed" (199-200). Other critics have subsequently taken up this theme of moral clarification-namely, the moral enlightenment of the Carterets through the moral high kgto save ~odie even after the white mob has killed their own son.4 And this reading of course accounts for the urgency of the last line:

"Is the child still alive?" asked Miller.

"Yes, thank God," answered the

father, "but nearly gone."

"Come on up, Dr. Miller," called

Evans from the head of the stairs.

"There's time enough, but none to

spare." (329)

According to this reading, there is still time for the "moral elevation" neces- sary for racial reconciliation in the South, but "none to spare." However, this ignores the obvious fact that the child Miller is about to save is, from the beginning of the novel, identified as the embodiment of a Southern feudal tradition based on colonial racism; in effect, the text is framed by the passion and urgency of whites' desire to per- petuate the traditional sociopolitical structure of the South, thus serving to illuminate the marrow of that tradition. And as for the possibility of moral clar- ification, Chesnutt writes that "the habits and customs of a people were not to be changed in a day, nor by the stroke of a pen," and later that "such men are sometimes converted," but only "in works of fiction" (7,304). These passages call into question not

only the uplifting effect of Miller's actions on the Carterets, but also the power of writing itself, of the "high and holy purpose" for which he was supposedly writing this very novel.

In his articles, letters, and address- es, Chesnutt often expressed strong opinions about the kind of "pragmatic survival orientation" represented by Miller. In an address to the Niagara Movement in 1908, he declared that "a man who will tamely submit to oppres- sion will never inspire respect," and- more importantly-will never gain "the sense of self-respect" (qtd. in Keller 251). And in a letter to Booker T. Washington, written around the same time as The Marrow of Tradition, he wrote, "I admire your Christ-like spirit in loving the Southern whites, but I confess I am not up to it" (Keller 220). This seems to me an indication of how little consolation Chesnutt found in Christian meekness, how little hope he saw in Washingtonian compromise; and the events in Wilmington no doubt forced him to reconsider and question the possibility of elevating the whites, and the desirability of racial reconcilia- tion. After all, given the sociopolitical conditions of the South (and North), such reconciliation could only mean a return to a relationship of oppression and submission. In a letter to George Washington Cable, he stated that he did not consider the "dog-like fidelity" attributed to Southern blacks "by any means the crown of manhood" (qtd. in Sundquist 357). Thus, when Josh declares that he would " 'ruther be a dead nigger any day dan a live dog,' " we may conclude that Chesnutt identi- fies more with-and certainly feels far more "respect" toward-Josh than Miller. However, the novel also reflects Chesnutt's recognition that "he had run into a conflict insoluble in fiction . . . that his novels would fail to pro- duce the results he wanted" (Keller 278). And this recognition causes the anguished self-criticism that consti- tutes the real tragedy of the novel.

It is no coincidence, in this regard, that Chesnutt uses Jerry's voice to dis- cuss McBane and the displacement of the Southern feudal order, because Jerry turns out to be the key to compre- hending Chesnutt's self-criticism. Right after expressing his "fervent aspira- tion" to be white, Jerry overhears-in the hallway outside Carteret's office- the conversation of the Big Three, at the end of which they will kick off the conspiracy for white supremacy; thus, we are given only the fragmentary words overheard by Jerry-" 'the damned niggers . . . vote . . . franchise . . . eliminate . . . constitution' " (36). In a sense, Jerry becomes the indirect nar- rator of this crucial moment in the plot of the Big Three and of the novel, sug- gesting a parallel between Jerry and the narrator of the novel itself-name- ly, Chesnutt. But what do we make, then, of what Chesnutt calls Jerry's "fervent aspiration" to be white? Many critics have written to the effect that the minor black characters-the typical "mammy, servant, and retainer" fig- ures-"are flat and notable only for their passive submission" (Wolkomir 248-49). However, this does not apply to Jerry, whose " 'wush ter Gawd I wuz w'ite' " takes a very different form at the end of this chapter:

"I got ter keep my eyes open an' keep up wid w'at's happenin'. Ef dere's gwine ter be anudder flood 'roun' here, I wants ter git in de ark wid de w'ite folks,-I may haf ter be anudder Ham, an' sta't de cullud race all over ag'in." (39)

This is not simply "passive submis- sion," but rather a form of pragmatism that somewhat resembles Miller's own "survival orientation." In sarcastically referring to this as a "fervent aspira- tion" to turn white, Chesnutt seems to recognize that Jerry's attitudes and actions-like Miller's-are "pre-political responses, survival efforts carried out by blacks as individuals. . . in effect, adaptations to powerlessness" (Omi and Winant 100).

"To Jerry," Chesnutt writes, "as to the white people themselves, the white people were the public"; thus, "to please the white folks was Jerry's con- sistent aim in life" (184,244). And Chesnutt also writes-at the end of the chapter discussed earlier, titled "Another Southern Productu-that Josh's revenge against McBane "would do no good . . . because, in the eyes of a prejudiced and undiscriminating pub- lic, [the race] must answer as a whole for the offenses of each separate indi- vidual" (114). This echo of the notion that it is necessary to appeal and kow- tow to the dictates of a white public calls Chesnutt's apparent judgment against Josh into question; and we know-as Chesnutt himself knew all too well-that the readership to which he had to appeal was that same "preju- diced and undiscriminating public." Indeed, George Washington Cable advised him to "yield all the ground you honestly can to the possible preju- dices of your readers," or, in other words, "to please the white folks"; no wonder, then, that his novel reflects the "intense contradictions" he faced as a writer (George and Pressman 292).

Chesnutt performs a kind of tight- rope act throughout the novel, trying at the same time to appease and to chal- lenge. He goes on at some length to demonstrate that "the Southern ten- dency to charge the negroes with all the crime and immorality of that region . . . was therefore not without a logical basis to the extent above indicated," then-in the first line of the next para- graph-states, "it must not be imag- ined that any logic was needed" (179). Such accommodation/subversion is a recurring pattern throughout the text. In this case, the analytical and formal phrasing of his defense of "the Southern tendency" ironically calls attention to the illogic of Southern pub- lic opinion, and also to the constraints placed upon Chesnutt's writing by the white literary market.

It should be apparent that Chesnutt quite deliberately draws par- allels between Jerry's material and moral limitations and his own limita- tions as a writer and an advocate for the "welfare" of his people. And, clear- ly, he relates these limitations to the ineffectuality of individual actions and efforts; in a sense, Jerry's desire " 'ter git in de ark wid de w'ite folks' " reflects Chesnutt's own position as an isolated black voice without a black mass audience, and thus without a viable way to contribute to-or even imagine-sociopolitical reconstruction. Caught within such "intense contradic- tions," he appealed to the white public, to their humanity and sense of morality, in me Marrow of Tradition,however, he thematizes his own disillusionment in the aftermath of the Wilmington Racial Massacre, and the futility of the very project in which he is engaged as a writer. Therein lies the tragedy-but also the greatness--of the novel. And nowhere is his anguished self-criticism more painfully revealed than in the Big


"I shouldn't interfere with Miller," replied the general decisively. "He's a very good sort of a negro, doesn't meddle with politics, nor tread on any one else's toes . . . "

"That sort of nigger, though, sets a bad example," retorted McBane. "They make it all the harder to keep the rest of 'em down."

"One swallow does not make a summer," quoted the general. ". . . A stream cannot rise higher than its fountain, and a smart nigger without a constituency will no longer be an object of fear." (251-52)

The allusion to Chesnutt himself here should be fairly obvious; he is, indeed, "a smart nigger without a constituen- :y," a black writer who cannot reach the black masses for whose welfare he writes. And as for the white audience he can reach, he has come to realize that their attitudes and prejudices can- not be changed "by the stroke of a pen." What he illuminates here is his understanding that-contrary to what he had once hoped-his "race" will not "be judged by its best men," or by any- thing that some of its "best men" may write (Keller 129). In Gayatri Spivak's words, the "center welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order bet- ter to exclude the margin" (107). Just as the Big Three are willing to let Miller stay as long as he proves himself to be "a very good sort of negro," the black writer will be allowed to write as long as he/she kowtows to (white) public opinion. In either case, the individual is marginalized through the very isola- tion and detachment of his/her posi- tion, becoming a mere token of the tenter's inclusive~ess.

The conditions of production in the colonial socioeconomic order- whether in the colonies or in the South-produce the consciousness of both the colonizer and the colonized. And because colonial racism provides the ideological underpinning of the whole system, it must constantly be produced and reproduced; consequent- ly, racial conflict is also produced and reproduced, often turning bloody, as it did in Wilmington in 1898. That is the historical truth Chesnutt illuminates- "how inseparably the present is woven with the past, how certainly the future will be but the outcome of the present . . .the old wound still bleeding, the fruit of one tragedy, the seed of anoth- er" (112). We have already seen how unready the genteel white literary mar- ket was for such a lesson, especially from the pen of a black writer; obvi- ously, Chesnutt had not yielded enough ground to the "possible preju- dices" of his readers. He certainly did not underestimate those prejudices, as we can see in the following passage from his journals:

I hear colored men speak of their "white friends." I have no white friends. I could not degrade the sacred name of "Friendship" by associating it with any man who feels himself too good to sit at table with me. (172)

But it was precisely this intense per- sonal awareness of these prejudices which made him imagine and identify with the character of his "black giant," the common laborer Josh Green. Josh's memory of McBane's role in the mur- der of his father is emblematic of the counter-memory that revises the offi- cial version of history, and lays the foundation for the possibility of a col- lective consciousness and collective action; the " 'whole thing . . . wuz branded on my mem'ry,' "Josh tells Miller, just as Chesnutt tells us that the events in Wellington are "firmly engraved upon the hearts and minds" of the black people there (111). Ultimately, Josh's concrete commit- ment to, and leadership in, the struggle against the white mob are what make him tower above the other black char- acters in the novel. And this obviouslv did not appeal to the genteel tastes oi Chesnutt's white readers.

As Marjorie George and Richard Pressman write, "The novel's lack of resolution should be seen not as artistic failure but as a reflection of its socio- historical context" (288). Given the con- straints upon Chesnutt as a writer and a "spokesman" for his people, and given the sociohistorical realities of the day, his novel could not have been resolved in any other way than with an appeal to Christian sentiment. Nevertheless, the novel revises official history and envisions a collective con- sciousness that would make concrete collective resistance possible. And if the historical realities were such that he could not imagine the actual recon- struction of the sociopolitical structure of the South, the anguished self-criti- cism with which he thematizes the lim- itations and futility of his own literary project suggests his desire for such col- lective action, his passionate commit- ment to the seemingly hopeless cause of his people.

The part of Chesnutt's project which resonates with such power even today is the work of historical revision. Recreating what Stanley Aronowitz calls "a usable past" means finding in "the historical scars" we share a legacy for future struggles (xix). Or, as Du Bois writes in his chapter on the Freedmen's Bureau, the inevitable fail- ure of Reconstruction "leaves a legacy of striving for other men" (34). Chesnutt, too, urges us to remember the legacy of Wilmington, and to dis- cover the unrecorded or distorted "his- torical scars" and the lessons they still hold for the present and the future.

The Marrow of Tradition clearly reflects Chesnutt's growing awareness that racial conflict was a problem "insoluble in fiction," and the reactions of literary critics and the (white) read- ing public to the novel unambiguously confirmed that fact.5 However, although he despaired of achieving his "high and holy purpose" as a writer, he continued to do whatever work he could "in his public life" for the wel- fare of his people (Keller 279). In 1930, two years before his death, Chesnutt wrote in The Clevelander that Negroes "still have a long and hard road to reach that democratic equality upon the theory of which our government and our social system are founded, not to desire and seek which would make them unworthy of contempt" (qtd. in Keller 274). To the end, his conception our own time of the sociopolitical con-

of what makes one worthy of respect ditions that produced the Wilmington

never wavered. And despite all of his Racial Massacre. What The Marrow of

disappointments, he never deviated Tradition illuminates is how the domi-

from his passionate commitment to the nant class has always sought to perpet-

seemingly impossible cause of "democ- uate and manipulate working-class

ratic [racial] equality." But his single racism, and how alive and deep "the

most important contribution to the old wound" is, how relevant the

unfinished collective project of revision tragedies it sowed remain today as it

and reconstruction remains The sows yet others. If the urgency

Marrow of Tradition. Its relevance expressed in the novel's last line

today comes from the fact that it is, reflects the urgency and passion of the

indeed, a "period piece," "a social South's "fierce holding on to vestiges

statement in literature of its time"; the of a more secure [white supremacist]

counter-memory recorded on its pages past," it also reflects the urgent need-

illuminates the historical continuity in then as now-for collective resistance.

Notes 1. William Dean Howells, who praised Chesnutt's earlier stories "simply as works of art . . . independently of the other interest." wrote that The Marrow of Tradition "has more justice than mercy in it . . . bitter, bitter. . . it would be better if it was not so bitter" (qtd. in Keller 164, Farnsworth xv). Paul Elmer Gantry of the New York Independent wrote that "Chesnutt had done what he could to humiliate the whites," and thus found the novel "utterly revolting" (qtd. in Farnsworth xv). Such revulsion can of course be couched in aesthetic terms: One reviewer in the Boston Literary Review wrote that Chesnutt's works were "absolutely devoid of style, interest, insight, humor-or anything else that makes a book worth reading" (qtd. in Andrews 117).

  1. Thus, he finds the key to reading The Marrow of Tradition in the "Cakewalk chapter: "The cake- walk occupied a liminal territory with a significant potential for resistance," a "cultural space" for "African American cultural resistance to racism" (273, 277; italics mine). In short, Chesnutt is per- forming "a literary cakewalk" (296).
  2. 1 contend that Jerry-whom Chesnutt refers to, in the title of one chapter, as "A White Man's Nigger"-plays a far more important role in the novel than most readers have allowed for. And his importance-as I will later demonstrate-comes precisely from the fact that he is, as he has to be, "a white man's nigger."
  3. Michelle Wolkomir's reading typifies this critical tradition: "Both Olivia and Major Carteret are forced . . . to recognize Janet and Dr. Miller's claims, thereby beginning the decline of traditional social attitudes," lifting "themselves to a position of higher morality" (252, 255).
  4. In his only novel published after The Marrow of Tradition-The Colonel's Dream-Chesnutt's protagonist Colonel French is, tellingly, a white idealist who returns to his native South with "bound- less confidence in his individual power to effect change"; this turned out to be Chesnutt's final and rather desperate attempt to yield ground to the prejudices of his readers (Andrews 243). Eventually, French "returns to the North" a defeated man, "carrying his dead past and dead future with him," reflecting Chesnutt's own sense of defeat and despair as a writer, and his "deepening pessimism about America's racism" (Elder 127).

Works Andrews, William. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, Cited 1980. Aronowitz, Stanley. False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. Chesnutt, Charles. The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Richard Brodhead. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. -. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Vintage, 1990. Elder, Arlene. " 'The Future American Race': Charles W. Chesnutt's Utopian Vision." MELUS 15.3 (1 988): 109-1 9.

Farnsworth, Robert. "Introduction." Chesnutt, Marrow v-xvii.

George, Marjorie, and Richard Pressman. "Confronting the Shadow: Psycho-Political Repression in Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition." Phylon 48.4 (1987): 287-98.

Giles, James, and Thomas Lally. "Allegory in Chesnutt's Marrow of Tradition." Journal of General Education 35.4 (1984): 259-69.

Gossett, Thomas. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1963.

Isaacs, Harold. Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo: Brigham Young UP, 1978.

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Prather, H. Leon. We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898. London: Associated UP, 1984.

Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Trelease,Allen. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Westport: Greenwood P, 1979.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Wolkomir, Michelle. "Moral Elevation and Egalitarianism: Shades of Gray in Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition." CLA Journal 36.3 (1993): 245-59.

calir ycpers andcreative ~ubmissions southern women writers ~o@renre

9 sathering of~ealiers,Writers, and~chojars geruy co(k8e ~ount9~ri(7375,2000

gery seougia

Featured speakers to include

*Peggy Prenshaw (keynote speaker) Nikki Giovanni *Susan Ketchin *George Ella Lyon *JillMcCorkle *Lee Smith *JuneSpence

fie Southern Women Writers Conferenceis devoted to showcasing the writings of well- known and emerging southern women writers, expanding the literary canon, and developing critical and theoretical understandings of the tradition of southern women's writing.

fie themefor the 2000 conference will be "Remembrance." We invite proposals

exploring the ways in which individual and collective memory informs and is represented in

the work of southern women writers. Submitters are encouraged to interpret the conference

theme freely.

Abstracts should be 400 to 500 words in length. They are due by December 15. E-mail

queries okay, but please submit abstracts by mail or fax. Please send for guidelines on

submitting panel proposals.

Emerging Writers Contest: We will award $500 each for the best work of fiction and

poetry by an emerging southern woman writer. The three finalists in each category will be

invited to read at the conference.

Address all communications to Emily Wright, English Department, Berry College,

P. 0.Box 495010, Mount Berry, GA30149. Phone: (706) 233-4081. E-mail: Fax: (706) 238-7827


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