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The Marrow of Tradition
By Charles W. Chesnutt
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
AT BREAK OF DAY
"STAY HERE beside her, major. I shall not be needed for an hour yet. Meanwhile I'll go downstairs and snatch a bit of sleep, or talk to old Jane."
The night was hot and sultry. Though the windows of the chamber were wide open, and the muslin curtains looped back, not a breath of air was stirring. Only the shrill chirp of the cicada and the muffled croaking of the frogs in some distant marsh broke the night silence. The heavy scent of magnolias, overpowering even the strong smell of drugs in the sick room, suggested death and funeral wreaths, sorrow and tears, the long home, the last sleep. The major shivered with apprehension as the slender hand which he held in his own contracted nervously and in a spasm of pain clutched his fingers with a viselike grip.
Major Carteret, though dressed in brown linen, had thrown off his coat for greater comfort. The stifling heat, in spite of the palm-leaf fan which he plied mechanically, was scarcely less oppressive than his own thoughts. Long ago, while yet a mere boy in years, he had come back from Appomattox to find his family, one of the oldest and proudest in the state, hopelessly impoverished by the war,—even their ancestral home swallowed up in the common ruin. His elder brother had sacrificed his life on the bloody altar of the lost cause, and his father, broken and chagrined, died not many years later, leaving the major the last of his line. He had tried in various pursuits to gain a foothold in the new life, but with indifferent success until he won the hand of Olivia Merkell, whom he had seen grow from a small girl to glorious womanhood. With her money he had founded the Morning Chronicle, which he had made the leading organ of his party and the most influential paper in the State. The fine old house in which they lived was hers. In this very room she had first drawn the breath of life; it had been their nuptial chamber; and here, too, within a few hours, she might die, for it seemed impossible that one could long endure such frightful agony and live.
One cloud alone had marred the otherwise perfect serenity of their happiness. Olivia was childless. To have children to perpetuate the name of which he was so proud, to write it still higher on the roll of honor, had been his dearest hope. His disappointment had been proportionately keen. A few months ago this dead hope had revived, and altered the whole aspect of their lives. But as time went on, his wife's age had begun to tell upon her, until even Dr. Price, the most cheerful and optimistic of physicians, had warned him, while hoping for the best, to be prepared for the worst. To add to the danger, Mrs. Carteret had only this day suffered from a nervous shock, which, it was feared, had hastened by several weeks the expected event.
Dr. Price went downstairs to the library, where a dim light was burning. An old black woman, dressed in a gingham frock, with a red bandana handkerchief coiled around her head by way of turban, was seated by an open window. She rose and curtsied as the doctor entered and dropped into a willow rocking chair near her own.
"How did this happen, Jane?" he asked in a subdued voice, adding, with assumed severity, "You ought to have taken better care of your mistress."
"Now look a-hyuh, Doctuh Price," returned the old woman in an unctuous whisper, "you don' wanter come talkin' none er yo' foolishness 'bout my not takin' keer er Mis' 'Livy. She never would 'a' said sech a thing! Seven er eight mont's ago, w'en she sent fer me, I says ter her, says I:—
"'Lawd, Lawd, honey! You don' tell me dat after all dese long w'ary years er waitin' de good Lawd is done heared yo' prayer an' is gwine ter sen' you de chile you be'n wantin' so long an' so bad? Bless his holy name! Will I come an' nuss yo' baby? Why, honey, I nussed you, an' nussed yo' mammy thoo her las' sickness, an' laid her out w'en she died. I would n' let nobody e'se nuss yo' baby; an' mo'over, I 'm gwine ter come an' nuss you too. You 're young side er me, Mis' 'Livy, but you're ove'ly ole ter be havin' yo' fus' baby, an' you 'll need somebody roun', honey, w'at knows all 'bout de fam'ly, an' deir ways an' deir weaknesses, an' I don' know who dat'd be ef it wa'n't me.'
"' 'Deed, Mammy Jane,' says she, 'dere ain' nobody e'se I 'd have but you. You kin come ez soon ez you wanter an' stay ez long ez you mineter.'
"An hyuh I is, an' hyuh I 'm gwine ter stay. Fer Mis' 'Livy is my ole mist'ess's daughter, an' my ole mist'ess wuz good ter me, an' dey ain' none er her folks gwine ter suffer ef ole Jane kin he'p it."
"Your loyalty does you credit, Jane," observed the doctor; "but you have n't told me yet what happened to Mrs. Carteret to-day. Did the horse run away, or did she see something that frightened her?"
"No, suh, de hoss did n' git skeered at nothin', but Mis' 'Livy did see somethin', er somebody; an' it wa'n't no fault er mine ner her'n neither, —it goes fu'ther back, suh, fu'ther dan dis day er dis year. Does you 'member de time w'en my ole mist'ess, Mis' 'Livy upstairs's mammy, died? No? Well, you wuz prob'ly 'way ter school den, studyin' ter be a doctuh. But I'll tell you all erbout it.
"W'en my ole mist'ess, Mis' 'Liz'beth Merkell,—an' a good mist'ess she wuz,—tuck sick fer de las' time, her sister Polly—ole Mis' Polly Ochiltree w'at is now—come ter de house ter he'p nuss her. Mis' 'Livy upstairs yander wuz erbout six years ole den, de sweetes' little angel you ever laid eyes on; an' on her dyin' bed Mis' 'Liz'beth ax' Mis' Polly fer ter stay hyuh an' take keer er her chile, an' Mis' Polly she promise'. She wuz a widder fer de secon' time, an' did n' have no child'en, an' could jes' as well come as not.
"But dere wuz trouble after de fune'al, an' it happen' right hyuh in dis lib'ary. Mars Sam wuz settin' by de table, w'en Mis' Polly come downstairs, slow an' solemn, an' stood dere in de middle er de flo', all in black, till Mars Sam sot a cheer fer her.
"'Well, Samuel,' says she, 'now dat we 've done all we can fer po' 'Liz'beth, it only 'mains fer us ter consider Olivia's future.'
"Mars Sam nodded his head, but did n' say nothin'.
"'I don' need ter tell you,' says she, 'dat I am willin' ter carry out de wishes er my dead sister, an' sac'ifice my own comfo't, an' make myse'f yo' housekeeper an' yo' child's nuss, fer my dear sister's sake. It wuz her dyin' wish, an' on it I will ac', ef it is also yo'n.'
"Mars Sam did n' want Mis' Polly ter come, suh; fur he did n' like Mis' Polly. He wuz skeered er Miss Polly."
"I don't wonder," yawned the doctor, "if she was anything like she is now."
"Wuss, suh, fer she wuz younger, an' stronger. She always would have her say, no matter 'bout what, an' her own way, no matter who 'posed her. She had already be'n in de house fer a week, an' Mars Sam knowed ef she once come ter stay, she 'd be de mist'ess of eve'ybody in it an' him too. But w'at could he do but say yas?
"'Den it is unde'stood, is it,' says Mis' Polly, w'en he had spoke, 'dat I am ter take cha'ge er de house?'
"'All right, Polly,' says Mars Sam, wid a deep sigh.
"Mis' Polly 'lowed he wuz sighin' fer my po' dead mist'ess, fer she didn' have no idee er his feelin's to'ds her,—she alluz did 'low dat all de gent'emen wuz in love wid 'er.
"'You won' fin' much ter do,' Mars Sam went on, 'fer Julia is a good housekeeper, an' kin ten' ter mos' eve'ything, under yo' d'rections.'
"Mis' Polly stiffen' up like a ramrod. 'It mus' be unde'stood, Samuel,' says she, 'dat w'en I 'sumes cha'ge er yo' house, dere ain' gwine ter be no 'vided 'sponsibility; an' as fer dis Julia, me an' her could n' git 'long tergether nohow. Ef I stays, Julia goes.'
"W'en Mars Sam heared dat, he felt better, an' 'mence' ter pick up his courage. Mis' Polly had showed her han' too plain. My mist'ess had n' got col' yit, an' Mis' Polly, who 'd be'n a widder fer two years dis las' time, wuz already fig'rin' on takin' her place fer good, an' she did n' want no other woman roun' de house dat Mars Sam might take a' intrus' in.
"'My dear Polly,' says Mars Sam, quite determine', 'I could n' possibly sen' Julia 'way. Fac' is, I could n' git 'long widout Julia. She 'd be'n runnin' dis house like clockwo'k befo' you come, an' I likes her ways. My dear, dead 'Liz'beth sot a heap er sto' by Julia, an' I 'm gwine ter keep her here fer 'Liz'beth's sake.'
"Mis' Polly's eyes flash' fire.
"'Ah,' says she, 'I see—I see! You perfers her housekeepin' ter mine, indeed! Dat is a fine way ter talk ter a lady! An' a heap er rispec' you is got fer de mem'ry er my po' dead sister!'
"Mars Sam knowed w'at she 'lowed she seed wa'n't so; but he did n' let on, fer it only made him de safer. He wuz willin' fer her ter 'magine w'at she please', jes' so long ez she kep' out er his house an' let him alone.
"'No, Polly,' says he, gittin' bolder ez she got madder, 'dere ain' no use talkin'. Nothin' in de worl' would make me part wid Julia.'
"Mis' Polly she r'ared an' she pitch', but Mars Sam helt on like grim death. Mis' Polly would n' give in neither, an' so she fin'lly went away. Dey made some kind er 'rangement afterwa'ds, an' Miss Polly tuck Mis' 'Livy ter her own house. Mars Sam paid her bo'd an' 'lowed Mis' Polly somethin' fer takin' keer er her."
"And Julia stayed?"
"Julia stayed, suh, an' a couple er years later her chile wuz bawn, right here in dis house."
"But you said," observed the doctor, "that Mrs. Ochiltree was in error about Julia."
"Yas, suh, so she wuz, w'en my ole mist'ess died. But dis wuz two years after,—an' w'at has ter be has ter be. Julia had a easy time; she had a black gal ter wait on her, a buggy to ride in, an' eve'ything she wanted. Eve'ybody s'posed Mars Sam would give her a house an' lot, er leave her somethin' in his will. But he died suddenly, and did n' leave no will, an' Mis' Polly got herse'f 'pinted gyardeen ter young Mis' 'Livy, an' driv Julia an' her young un out er de house, an' lived here in dis house wid Mis' 'Livy till Mis' 'Livy ma'ied Majah Carteret."
"And what became of Julia?" asked Dr. Price.
Such relations, the doctor knew very well, had been all too common in the old slavery days, and not a few of them had been projected into the new era. Sins, like snakes, die hard. The habits and customs of a people were not to be changed in a day, nor by the stroke of a pen. As family physician, and father confessor by brevet, Dr. Price had looked upon more than one hidden skeleton; and no one in town had had better opportunities than old Jane for learning the undercurrents in the lives of the old families.
"Well," resumed Jane, "eve'ybody s'posed, after w'at had happen', dat Julia 'd keep on livin' easy, fer she wuz young an' good-lookin'. But she did n'. She tried ter make a livin' sewin', but Mis' Polly would n' let de bes' w'ite folks hire her. Den she tuck up washin', but did n' do no better at dat; an' bimeby she got so discourage' dat she ma'ied a shif'less yaller man, an' died er consumption soon after,—an' wuz 'bout ez well off, fer dis man could n' hardly feed her nohow."
"And the child?"
"One er de No'the'n w'ite lady teachers at de mission school tuck a likin' ter little Janet, an' put her thoo school, an' den sent her off ter de No'th fer ter study ter be a school teacher. W'en she come back, 'stead er teachin' she ma'ied ole Adam Miller's son."
"The rich stevedore's son, Dr. Miller?"
"Yas, suh, dat 's de man,—you knows 'im. Dis yer boy wuz jes' gwine 'way fer ter study ter be a doctuh, an' he ma'ied dis Janet, an' tuck her 'way wid 'im. Dey went off ter Europe, er Irope, er Orope, er somewhere er 'nother, 'way off yander, an' come back here las' year an' sta'ted dis yer horspital an' school fer ter train de black gals fer nusses."
"He 's a very good doctor, Jane, and is doing a useful work. Your chapter of family history is quite interesting,—I knew part of it before, in a general way; but you have n't yet told me what brought on Mrs. Carteret's trouble."
"I 'm jes' comin' ter dat dis minute, suh,—w'at I be'n tellin' you is all a part of it. Dis yer Janet, w'at's Mis' 'Livy's half-sister, is ez much like her ez ef dey wuz twins. Folks sometimes takes 'em fer one ernudder,—I s'pose it tickles Janet mos' ter death, but it do make Mis' 'Livy rippin'. An' den 'way back yander jes' after de wah, w'en de ole Carteret mansion had ter be sol', Adam Miller bought it, an' dis yer Janet an' her husban' is be'n livin' in it ever sence ole Adam died, 'bout a year ago; an' dat makes de majah mad, 'ca'se he don' wanter see cullud folks livin' in de ole fam'ly mansion w'at he wuz bawn in. An' mo'over, an' dat's de wust of all, w'iles Mis' 'Livy ain' had no child'en befo', dis yer sister er her'n is got a fine-lookin' little yaller boy, w'at favors de fam'ly so dat ef Mis' 'Livy 'd see de chile anywhere, it 'd mos' break her heart fer ter think 'bout her not havin' no child'en herse'f. So ter-day, w'en Mis' 'Livy wuz out ridin' an' met dis yer Janet wid her boy, an' w'en Mis' 'Livy got ter studyin' 'bout her own chances, an' how she mought not come thoo safe, she jes' had a fit er hysterics right dere in de buggy. She wuz mos' home, an' William got her here, an' you knows de res'."
Major Carteret, from the head of the stairs, called the doctor anxiously.
"You had better come along up now, Jane," said the doctor.
For two long hours they fought back the grim spectre that stood by the bedside. The child was born at dawn. Both mother and child, the doctor said, would live.
"Bless its 'ittle hea't!" exclaimed Mammy Jane, as she held up the tiny mite, which bore as much resemblance to mature humanity as might be expected of an infant which had for only a few minutes drawn the breath of life. "Bless its 'ittle hea't! it 's de ve'y spit an' image er its pappy!"
The doctor smiled. The major laughed aloud. Jane's unconscious witticism, or conscious flattery, whichever it might be, was a welcome diversion from the tense strain of the last few hours.
"Be that as it may," said Dr. Price cheerfully, "and I 'll not dispute it, the child is a very fine boy,—a very fine boy, indeed! Take care of it, major," he added with a touch of solemnity, "for your wife can never bear another."
With the child's first cry a refreshing breeze from the distant ocean cooled the hot air of the chamber; the heavy odor of the magnolias, with its mortuary suggestiveness, gave place to the scent of rose and lilac and honeysuckle. The birds in the garden were singing lustily.
All these sweet and pleasant things found an echo in the major's heart. He stood by the window, and looking toward the rising sun, breathed a silent prayer of thanksgiving. All nature seemed to rejoice in sympathy with his happiness at the fruition of this long-deferred hope, and to predict for this wonderful child a bright and glorious future.
Old Mammy Jane, however, was not entirely at ease concerning the child. She had discovered, under its left ear, a small mole, which led her to fear that the child was born for bad luck. Had the baby been black, or yellow, or poor-white, Jane would unhesitatingly have named, as his ultimate fate, a not uncommon form of taking off, usually resultant upon the infraction of certain laws, or, in these swift modern days, upon too violent a departure from established social customs. It was manifestly impossible that a child of such high quality as the grandson of her old mistress should die by judicial strangulation; but nevertheless the warning was a serious thing, and not to be lightly disregarded.
Excerpted from The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
About the Series
About This Volume
The Marrow of Tradition: The Complete Text
Introduction: Cultural and Historical Background
Chronology of Chesnutt's Life and Times
A Note on the Text
The Marrow of Tradition [1901 Houghton Mifflin edition]
The Marrow of Tradition: Cultural Contexts
1. Caste, Race and Gender After Reconstruction
Philip Bruce, from The Platinum Negro as a Freeman
Tom Watson, from "The Negro Question in the South"
William Dean Howells, from An Imperative Duty
Booker T. Washington, "Atlanta Exposition Speech" from Up from Slavery
Charles W. Chesnutt, from "The Future American"
W.E.B. DuBois, from "The Conservation of Race"
Theodore Roosevelt, from "Birth Reform, from the Positive, not the Negative Side"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from Women and Economics
Fannie Barrier Williams, from "The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Woman"
Roscoe Conklin Bruce, from "Service by the Educated Negro"
2. Law and Lawlessness
Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution
George Washington Cable, from "The Freedman's Case in Equity"
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): excerpts from brief by Albion Tourgee, majority opinion by Justice Henry Billings Brown, and the dissenting opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan
"Suffrage and Eligibility to Office," Article VI, amendment to the North Carolina State Constitution
Ida B. Wells, from Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases
"Lynched Negro and Wife First Mutilated," Vicksburg (Mississippi) Evening Post February 8, 1904
"Victim's Family Begs to See Negro Burned," Atlanta Constitution October 2, 1905
"Belleville is Complacent Over Horrible Lynching,: New York Herald June 9, 1903
Jane Addams, from "Respect for Law," Independent
Ray Stannard Baker, from "A Race Riot and After," Following the Color Line
George H. White, from a speech before the United States House of Representatives, February 23, 1900
3. The Wilmington Riot
Alexander Manly, editorial printed in Literary Digest, 1898
Rebecca Latimer Fulton, speech reported in The Wilmington Star
From the "White Man's Declaration of Independence" (or, Wilmington Declaration of Independence), from Appleton's Cyclopaedia
Anonymous letter to William McKinley, 13 November 1898
Charles Chesnutt, from letter to Walter Hines Page, 1898
Jane Cronly, "An Account of the Race Riot in Wilmington, N.C."
4. Segregation as Culture: Etiquette, Spectacle, and Fiction
Wilmington Messenger article, rpt in Raleigh New and Observer, 8 September 1899
Photograph of "Old Plantation" Midway booth at the 1896 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia
From The Cotton States and International Exposition program
Tom Fletcher, from 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business
"Old" and "New" Negro photographs juxtaposed, from Frances Benjamin Johnston's The Hampton album.
Charles Chesnutt, Literary Memoranda
Charles Chesnutt, "Po' Sandy"
Thomas Dixon, from The Leopard's Spots
Williams Dean Howells, from "A Psychological Counter-Current in Recent Fiction" North American Review
What People are Saying About This
"Chesnutt was tremendously explicit in representing the violence and his own anger. Today it reads as one of the more enduring novels of the era." —Richard Yarborough, UCLA
One evening, while teaching a creative writing workshop at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, I had a student ask me which writer was the most intelligent in the history of American literature. Of course each person’s answer to this question is completely subjective, but I gave it a shot anyway.
“Charles W. Chesnutt,” I said. “He was a genius.”
Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio, to free blacks from North Carolina. In 1866, his parents returned to Fayetteville, North Carolina, with their family, where Chesnutt’s father, the son of a wealthy white landowner, opened a general store with his father’s financial backing. In Fayetteville, young Charles attended a school for African Americans that had been opened as a result of Reconstruction. Chesnutt, who had grown up reading widely while also listening to the folktales told on the porch at his father’s store, proved himself an exceptional student, curious and driven. In 1875, at the age of seventeen, he left home and moved over one hundred miles east to teach at a rural school for African Americans in Charlotte. Two years later, he would return to Fayetteville to begin teaching at the State Colored Normal School, where he would be named principal in 1880 at the age of twenty-two.
Around this time, Chesnutt confided to his journal that it would be “the dream of my life” to become an author, and if he were to write, he would write for “a high, holy purpose” that would find him attempting to elevate whites toward an understanding of the pervasive evils of race prejudice. After marrying and having children, academic and family life left Chesnutt with very little time to pursue his dreams, so in 1883 he left the South. After a brief stop in New York City, Chesnutt moved his young family back to his native Cleveland. There, he studied law and passed the Ohio bar but was forced to settle for a stenography career because his race precluded him from practicing law. With this stable but unfulfilling career to support him, he went on to write the stories and novels that would make him the best-known African American writer of his time.
These are the facts of his life, but what of his genius?
American literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was defined by Realists and Naturalists whose ideologies permeated their work, but none were able to so seamlessly sew their social and political theories into the fabric of their fictional worlds as Chesnutt. His ideas on issues as far ranging as white appropriation of black culture to convict labor to miscegenation to white nationalism all found homes in the novels and stories he would write and publish before his death in 1932.
But perhaps the truest mark of Chesnutt’s genius was his ability to see issues of race and class on a continuum that stretches back into America’s past and propels itself forward into America’s future. Chesnutt’s century-old fiction reads like an oracle in contemporary America. Perhaps more than all his other work, The Marrow of Tradition exhibits Chesnutt’s “high, holy purpose” of elevating present-day American readers toward an understanding of our nation’s horrible past.
The Marrow of Tradition is based on the only successful coup d’etat in American history, which took place after a race massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, on November 10, 1898. On that day, hundreds of armed white citizens overran the streets and murdered African Americans, forcing estimated hundreds to flee the city on trains or to hide in the swamps until the violence ended. At the time, Wilmington was a model of Reconstruction success, a city where black citizens were thriving financially, politically, and culturally. Much of this was due to the state’s Fusionist Party, which was comprised of African Americans, many of them former slaves, and poor whites; the Fusionists had used the 1896 election to wrest the reins of state and local governments from wealthy whites, many of whom had secured their fortunes on the backs of slaves who were now free. Under a campaign of white supremacy masked as civic duty, whites took to the streets to put down an unarmed African American citizenry that was making advances in business, education, and home ownership. The mob succeeded. Overnight, the city’s government was overthrown and replaced by coup leaders; the Daily Record, the state’s only black daily newspaper, was burned to the ground; and bodies lay dead in the streets. Although the most violent chapter in the state’s post-Civil War history was over, it would live on in Wilmington’s African American community as a reminder of the worst impulses of nationalism and white supremacy.
Chesnutt sets Marrow in the town of Wellington, a stand-in for Wilmington. As happened in 1898, in the novel, a group of white leaders uses an editorial printed in the black newspaper as cause to foment a rebellion. The editorial is based on an article written by Alexander Manly, publisher of Wilmington’s Daily Record. In it, Manly had responded to a well-known speech a woman named Rebecca Latimer Felton had delivered at a meeting of the Georgia State Agricultural Society in 1897. In Latimer’s speech, which had focused on the supposed black male threat to white female sexuality, she proclaimed, “if it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beaststhen I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.” Alexander Manly responded in his own editorial:
Mrs. Felton must begin at the fountain-head, if she wishes to purify the stream. [...] Tell your men it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman. You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites; in fact, you cry aloud for the virtue of your women, while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seedthe harvest will come in due time.
That response was the perfect excuse for the white men of Wilmington to terrorize their African American neighbors, and it was the perfect excuse for the white men of Chesnutt’s Wellington to do the same.
In Marrow, the white mob is led by a group of citizens, including Major Philip Carteret, a stalwart aristocrat and publisher of the white newspaper The Morning Chronicle, and Captain George McBane, a former slave breaker and Confederate soldier who made a fortune in the convict labor system, a legal form of slavery ended under Fusionist party rule. In opposition to these men stand two very different African American leaders: Dr. William Miller, a young physician who has opened a black hospital in Wellington, and Josh Green, a dock worker admired for his revolutionary spirit and feared for his great physical strength.
Marrow makes use of several tropes common in other novels of the late nineteenth century. In the characters of Clara Miller and Olivia Carteret, two women of different races whose appearances makes clear that they share a white father, Chesnutt employs a twinning that allows him to trace the women’s histories exclusive to their races. There is also a case of mistaken identity when the aristocratic cad Tom Delamere dresses in blackface to impersonate a beloved African American servant named Sandy to perpetrate a ghastly crime. Like Mark Twain, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Kate Chopin, and other contemporaries, Chesnutt relies on elements of local color including phonetic dialect, folk belief, and social mores to give the reader a snapshot of life in Wellington.
In terms of its attempts to point white readers toward an understanding of the problems of race prejudice, Marrow shares a connection with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the quintessential problem novel of the nineteenth century. But while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely a romantic work that relies on reader’s sympathies to sway them toward Stowe’s abolitionist stance, Marrow looks ahead to the social novels of Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Grace Lumpkin, and other polemical writers who, while often addressing the social problems of race and ethnicity, highlight the role of oppression in codifying class stratification.
Chesnutt pays particular attention to socioeconomic class issues in Marrow. Historically, the 1898 racial massacre in Wilmington is discussed as a reaction to the unified political power of poor whites and free blacks, a unity that was easily dissolved by inventing and then trumping up the threat that black men posed to white women. While Chesnutt mentions the peculiar origins of the power of the Fusion party in Marrow, he is more interested in how the once poor Captain George McBane has ascended to a place of wealth and stature and the lengths McBane will go to stay on top after his rise.
According to the narrator, Captain McBane, “whose captaincy, by the way, was merely a polite fiction” was “desirous of social recognition, which he had not yet obtained beyond the superficial acquaintance acquired by association with men about town.” Unlike these men, whose wealth and privilege extends for generations back, McBane had “sprung from the poor-white class.” Although McBane finds himself traveling in the same social circles as the patrician Philip Carteret, Carteret, while willing to use McBane to further his own economic and social goals, does not embrace him fully as an equal, nor does he understand McBane’s desperation to belong:
McBane had always grated upon his [Carteret’s] susceptibilities. The captain was an upstart, a product of the democratic idea operating upon the poor white man, the descendant of the indentured bondservant and the socially unfit. He had wealth and energy, however, and it was necessary to make use of him; but the example of such men was a strong incentive to Carteret in his campaign against the negro. It was distasteful enough to run elbows with an illiterate and vulgar white man of no ancestry,the risk of similar contact with negroes was to be avoided at any cost.
Reading this passage brings to mind Ronald Reagan’s Southern Strategy, especially a speech he made about states’ rightswhich is Southern code for legalizing race prejudicein 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place where poor white farmers would undoubtedly support him in a state that would yield only seven electoral college votes. Reagan knew the power of these poor whites, and he knew the language they needed to hear not just in Mississippi, but also around the country. One has to wonder if Reagan would have made a similar speech had he been able to predict the Tea Party, David Duke, Richard Spencer, and scores of other political organizations and social leaders that would lead conservatives toward the dark precipice of nationalism and white supremacy.
At the murderous height of the massacre in Marrow, Philip Carteret is too late in discovering the edge of this dark precipice. The white mob, which originally had been organized and spurred to action by Carteret’s editorials in The Morning Chronicle but is now led by Captain McBane, sets fire to Dr. Miller’s hospital, where Josh Green and other black, armed resistors have sought refuge inside. As the men flee the fire, they are gunned down. Carteret attempts to quell the violence, shouting, “Gentlemen, this is murder, it is madness; it is a disgrace to our city, to our state, to our civilization.” The narrator, as if watching from the cool vantage point of history, says, “Their present course was but the logical outcome of the crusade which the Morning Chronicle had preached, in season and out of season, for many months.”
It easy to imagine any number of conservative political leaders standing alongside any racial conflagration over the past fifty years while shouting the same latent warnings as Carteret, but it is just as easy to imagine the McBanes of 1898 or 2018 never pausing in their unrepentant anger to listen.
In truth, Captain George McBane, with his history of poverty, would have been ideal partner for free blacks in the Fusion party who had their impoverished history, but McBane was not looking for an equal. Instead, he was searching for the dominance that he saw the wealthy enjoying, the dominance that he believed was his racial birthright. In order for him to climb the ladder of economic success, political power, and social acceptance, McBane understands that someone must be beneath him, and he sees African Americans as vulnerable victims on whose backs he can tread and on whose necks he can stand. He finds an ally in the patrician Carteret, a man whose conception of himself and his family is tied to the relics of his family’s history of slave ownership. The only thing these men need is a reason to put their plan into action, so they create one with the help of people like Rebecca Latimer Felton.
Chesnutt understood the impulses of a man like Captain George McBane. If you read this novel you will understand those impulses, too. Afterward, perhaps you will understand why I call Chesnutt a genius, this man who was able to look at a past that preceded him and connect it to the moment in which he lived only to create a work of art that speaks so clearly to our contemporary moment.
What happened in 1898 was an answer in search of a problem. It was an old white woman demanding the lynching of black men for sexual assaults that had not occurred. The same base impulse was on display when a presidential candidate took the escalator down from a gold-covered apartment to deliver a speech about Mexico sending rapists and criminals it did not send. The same blind fear and anger led a group of young white men with torches to chant “Jews will not replace us” around a statue of a losing general erected for a war that general lost. A cynic may claim that history is simply repeating itself, but a realist would acknowledge that to repeat implies a cessation or at least a change in course. Chesnutt was nothing if he was not a realist, and he would be the first to acknowledge that America is not repeating 1898because 1898 has never stopped happening.