Published in 1901, at the nadir of American race relations and the zenith of fictional apologies for the Jim Crow South, Charles Waddell Chesnutt's second and most ambitious novel offers a complex retelling of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, “race riot.” Though somewhat ambiguous in its messages to African Americans—and labeled too “bitter” by former Chesnutt booster William Dean Howells—The Marrow of Tradition's incisive critique of white terrorism, national racial hysteria, and segregationist logic make it one of the most significant African American socioliterary statements of its day.
Chesnutt would have welcomed such a description, for he envisioned the book as his generation's successor to Uncle Tom's Cabin. His main plot traces the intersecting fortunes and genealogies of two southern families, the Carterets and Millers. Philip Carteret, the reactionary editor of “Wellington's” white newspaper, campaigns against the supposed domination of the post-Reconstruction South by African Americans. Enlisting the aid of an equally racist aristocrat (General Belmont) and a former overseer (Captain McBane), Carteret engineers a devastating race riot that purges Wellington of most of its African Americans and restores “rightful” power to the white supremacists. Carteret's wife Olivia, for her part, is determined to repudiate the legal and moral claims of her mulatto half-sister—Janet Miller—on their father's estate. Janet's husband, William Miller, is a middle-class, mixed-blood physician whose considerable medical skills are spurned by Wellington whites. At the climax of the novel, after Carteret's rioters have burned Miller's hospital and a stray bullet has killed the Millers' child, the Carterets must plead with the African American doctor to save their own dying son. At first refusing, Miller agrees to see the child only at the direction of his wife. The novel ends with Miller poised at the foot of the Carterets' stairs, ready to try to save the boy's life.
To this principal story Chesnutt adds an array of subplots and secondary characters, including an African American mammy and her obsequious grandson, whose loyalty to whites fails to save them during the riot; an honest aristocrat and his degenerate heir, for whose crimes an innocent African American is nearly lynched; a well-meaning but ineffectual white liberal; and a powerful African American laborer, who vows to kill McBane in revenge for the death of his father. While many of these subordinate characters are drawn stereotypically, the views of Josh Green, the laborer, represent a strong counterphilosophy to Miller's accommodationism and for many early reviewers offered proof that Chesnutt endorsed African American militancy. Later critics, however, generally align the text's (and Chesnutt's) sympathies with Miller, citing Josh's death as evidence that violent resistance—though potentially useful—must finally be sacrificed for more conciliatory methods. Yet even these readers acknowledge the irresolution of the novel's ending; the optimistic image of Miller climbing the Carterets' stairs provides no guarantee that reconciliation will prove an appropriate strategy. Indeed, the tensions implicit at the novel's close aptly represent the volatile historical and literary contexts within which Chesnutt wrote.
William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1980.Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, 1993.—Ian Finseth, “How Shall the Truth Be Told? Language and Race in The Marrow of Tradition,” American Literary Realism 31(Spring 1999): 1–20.Susan Danielson, “Charles Chesnutt's Dilemma: Professional Ethics, Social Justice, and Domestic Feminism in The Marrow of Tradition,” Southern Literary Journal 41(Fall 2008): 73–92.