The Quarry

The Quarry


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Was Donald Glover really what he seemed--a handsome, dedicated, and clever African-American star of the Harlem Renaissance, whose looks made him the "quarry" of a variety of women? Or could the secrets of his birth change his destiny entirely? Focusing on the culture of Harlem in the 1920s, Charles Chesnutt's final novel dramatizes the political and aesthetic life of the exciting period we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Mixing fact and fiction, and real and imagined characters, The Quarry is peopled with so many figures of the time--including Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey--that it constitutes a virtual guide to this inspiring period in American history. Protagonist Glover is a light-skinned man whose adoptive black parents are determined that he become a leader of the black people. Moving from Ohio to Tennessee, from rural Kentucky to Harlem, his story depicts not only his conflicted relationship to his heritage but also the situation of a variety of black people struggling to escape prejudice and to take advantage of new opportunities.

Although he was the first African-American writer of fiction to gain acceptance by America's white literary establishment, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) has been eclipsed in popularity by other writers who later rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. Recently, this pathbreaking American writer has been receiving an increasing amount of attention. Two of his novels, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (completed in 1921) and The Quarry (completed in 1928), were considered too incendiary to be published during Chesnutt's lifetime. Their publication now provides us not only the opportunity to read these two books previously missing from Chesnutt's oeuvre but also the chance to appreciate better the intellectual progress of this literary pioneer. Chesnutt was the author of many other works, including The Conjure Woman & Other Conjure Tales, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow Tradition, and Mandy Oxendine. Princeton University Press recently published To Be an Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905 (edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III).

Originally published in 1999.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691635477
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #70
Pages: 318
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Dean McWilliams is Professor of English at Ohio University. He is the author of books on Michel Butor and on John Gardner.

Read an Excerpt


By Charles W. Chesnutt, Dean McWilliams


Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05995-2


ONE SPRING DAY early in the present century a small red two-cylinder automobile, one of the earliest models developed, turned into the yard of the Columbus City Hospital and drew up before the main entrance. The structure which faced the occupants of the car was built of dark red brick, pointed with black mortar. Along the cornice ran a terra cotta frieze set with metopes containing portraits in bas relief of Aesculapius, Hippocrates, Galen, Harvey, Jenner, Pasteur and others of the world's great healers. The city was very proud of its new hospital, which had recently been erected at large expense and furnished with the latest and most approved equipment.

Angus Seaton, who first descended from the car, was a tall, rather slender man with a kindly face, sharp features, grey eyes and sandy hair. The lady whom he helped out of the car was a handsome woman in the early thirties, of medium height, with well-rounded contours, dark hair and eyes, and quick movements which suggested a nervous or neurotic temperament.

Angus and Grace Seaton had been married nearly six years but were still childless. They had been fellow students at the State University. Theirs had been a love match, and they had lived together in the perfect intimacy of happy married life. They had very much desired children, had looked forward to them and had been greatly disappointed as the years rolled on and did not bring them. Experts whom they consulted declared them perfectly fit—there was no physical reason why they should not have children. But they did not, and the fact had begun to prey upon Mrs. Seaton's mind. She felt herself a born mother and her maternal instincts clamored for expression.

Mrs. Seaton had not given up the hope of offspring without a struggle. She had read all the books she saw advertised as "Advice to Young Married Women," "Hints to Expectant Mothers," and others of a similar nature, and found them either of no merit whatever, or mere appeals to a morbid curiosity, or applying to a condition which did not yet exist in her case, but which she never ceased to hope for, and for which she wished to be prepared when it arrived.

She had gone to Cincinnati and had herself psychoanalyzed by an eminent practitioner of that esoteric art, which was then in its infancy. She told him her dreams, which were largely of children, and he made a weird diagnosis which embraced suppressed sexual desires, and a lot of other things which certainly had never entered her conscious mind. He advised a temporary separation from her husband and for a couple of months they slept in different rooms, but all to no avail.

At the suggestion of a friend of the family, and without the knowledge of her husband, who was above all things a practical man, and would not have approved of it, she consulted a well-known psychic and seeress, with a local vogue, who pumped her dry and then told her that the thing she wanted most in the world was a child, and that she would have one within a year. A condition of success was that she should believe the prediction. However, perhaps from lack of faith, the year passed without any favorable auguries.

A well-educated and sophisticated woman friend to whom she voiced her desire suggested that she read Maupassant's L'Héritage, which she procured in a translation, read through to the clever, cynical and immoral solution of the problem presented, which was her own with a different motivation, then threw it into the fire and struck her friend's name off her calling list for a long time, indeed until she became a mother in the conventional way.

Of course, the idea of adopting a baby had been discussed in the household, but only as a last resort. Marriages for a long time sterile had sometimes proved fruitful later on. Mrs. Seaton's desire was a child of her own on whom she could pour out the flood of starved mother love which surged through her heart.

Seaton, on his part, knew from the memory of his own upbringing, in a household of narrow means, what it meant to rear a child, and he, too, much preferred that the longed-for baby should be their own. But finally, out of love for his wife and concern for her health and happiness, he agreed with her that since it seemed extremely unlikely that they would ever have a child of their own, they should accept the alternative and adopt a baby. And as they wanted a child with no strings on it, no parents or relations in the background who might claim it or grieve because they could not claim it, they picked out the Infants Ward of the City Hospital as the most likely place to find a suitable candidate.

The visitors mounted the stone steps to the door, which stood invitingly open, after the manner of hospital doors in good weather. Near the front of the long and wide hall which extended toward the rear, there was a desk, and behind the desk an attendant in nurse's uniform, of whom they asked if they might see the superintendent. The young woman ushered them into a waiting room to the right of the entrance.

"Pray be seated," she said, "and I'll call him."

After a lapse of about ten minutes, a very capable-looking man in the forties came in, of typically professional appearance. He had dark hair greying slightly on the edges, wore a pince-nez secured by a long cord, and his manner was at once suave and businesslike. The attendant introduced him as Dr. Freeman, the superintendent in charge.

"And how can I serve you?" he demanded, after they had given their names and exchanged greetings.

"We wish," said Mr. Seaton, "to consult you about adopting a baby. Have you some very young children we could select from? My wife is childless, and would like to assume all the responsibilities of a mother. If the child is old enough to be taken away, the younger the better."

"You're the sort of visitors we welcome," Dr. Freeman replied. "It is easy enough to get the babies—there are so many of them that nobody wants! Our problem is to dispose of them. By the way, would you care to visit the nursery? We keep the babies for a short time, until they are either adopted or ready to be sent to the orphan asylum. It isn't the best practice to admit visitors to the nursery, but we have been putting in some new equipment which you might find interesting. We have the most up-to-date hospital in the Middle West.

They assented and the doctor led them back through the hall, past the open door of the lying-in department to the nursery beyond, which they entered by another door from the corridor. The tiled floors, the whitewashed walls, the furniture and fittings, of the latest sanitary type, were all immaculately clean. On one side, at the front end of the large room, stood half a dozen couveuses or incubators, where, in a scientifically regulated atmosphere, prematurely born babies were encouraged to live and breathe. Dr. Freeman explained the method, which was quite interesting, and gave some statistics to show to what extent the law of the survival of the fittest was defied and nature's efforts to keep down the population thwarted.

Another section of the room held a row of bassinets containing newborn babies and a little farther along a line of little cribs with infants of one to two months old. Most of these looked more or less alike, but now and then there was one of marked individuality. For instance, in one bed there was a solemn-looking Negro baby, the whites of its big eyes looking soberly out from its little black face.

"How's young Booker T. getting along today?" asked Dr. Freeman of the nurse in charge.

"Fine," was the reply. "He's very well behaved."

"Do you get many colored children?" asked Seaton.

"A few," answered the superintendent. "Many of the mothers come here for delivery, but most of them take the babies away, even under circumstances where white mothers would leave them. Negroes are very fond of their children, though they often neglect them because of wretched home surroundings. We don't really care to have them leave them, because the orphan asylums dislike to take them—they are harder to get rid of."

"Oh, what a beautiful baby!" exclaimed Mrs. Seaton, as they paused beside a certain bed. The infant thus characterized was a boy about two months old, a well-developed child for its age. There was a rather thick thatch of dark brown curly hair on its finely molded head. Its features were, for a baby of its age, clean-cut and well-defined. Its complexion was a clear olive, suggesting a possible Latin strain. Its mouth was a little Cupid's bow, and there was a dimple in its diminutive chin. Even at its early age there was a perceptible twinkle in its dark brown eyes.

"He's smiling at me," exclaimed Mrs. Seaton. "I think he likes my looks, the little darling."

"How could he help it?" said the doctor gallantly. "He's an intelligent baby, as well as strong, healthy and promising in every way."

"Is he open for adoption?" asked Seaton.

"Oh, please say yes," exclaimed Mrs. Seaton. "May I have him? Let me hold him a moment."

The attendant nurse lifted the baby from its crib and placed it in the visitor's arms. Mrs. Seaton rocked it to and fro and cooed over it. The child exhibited pronounced signs of pleasure, kicking its little feet and clinging tenaciously with one hand to the finger Mr. Seaton extended.

"I guess it'll be all right," said Dr. Freeman, "but we'll first have to look up his pedigree and see whether he's the kind of child you want. We have a perfect recording system and you can rely on it implicitly. Ours is a very mixed population and most of these children are of foreign extraction. We have Italians, Greeks, only rarely a Jew, and all the Eastern European types, besides our own English, Scotch-Irish and German mixture. I don't think we have ever had a full-blooded Chinese or Japanese child left for adoption, although an occasional Eurasian child is delivered here."

"Is it necessary to look any further, doctor?" asked Mrs. Seaton. "I want a child that is all my own. I don't attach a great deal of importance to heredity. This is a good and beautiful baby and I'm willing to take him on faith. I don't see how he could have anything but a good heredity. We'll give him a happy home in a good environment, and I'm sure the little angel will turn out all we could desire."

"Very well," rejoined Dr. Freeman. "The risk is yours, but I don't think there is any. I don't know his history without looking it up, but there are no strings to him. He'll be all yours. No one will ever claim him."

And so it was decided. They were to make the necessary arrangements to receive the child in their home, and were to call for him in a day or two.

"You can take him on trial," said the superintendent, "and if you decide that you don't want to keep him, we'll take him back within a reasonable time, though I hope we won't have to."


THE REARING OF a modern infant is a complicated, and, for those who can afford it, an expensive process. Little Donald—they named him after Seaton's grandfather—had all the attention any young child needed. The science of babiculture had not developed, at that time, to its present advanced stage. The specialist who comes to the house once a week with his little black bag, looks the baby over, makes suggestions as to diet and clothing and sanitation, vaccinates it for all imaginable diseases from infantile paralysis to senile dementia, and leaves each time with his minimum fee of five dollars, was as yet unknown in the city; but the family doctor, who knew little about serums or vitamins or calories, with fewer visits and for a smaller fee did all that was considered necessary. The modern prepared baby foods were not yet invented, but mothers learned how to sterilize and otherwise prepare the milk for the baby's bottle. Young Donald was fed on schedule, his B.M.'s and P.M.'s were watched and regulated, his hours of sleep fixed. He was a good baby and conformed to these rules quite as well as most infants. If he did not always eat or sleep at the proper time, he always got enough food and sleep. Whatever further care he needed was supplied in ample measure.

Mrs. Seaton could not have nursed him more devotedly or loved him more dearly had he been of her own flesh. In caring for him she found a healthy outlet for the hitherto repressed maternal instinct which was so strong an element of her character.

Some three months after little Donald was taken into the household, Seaton moved to Cleveland. He was the inventor, patentee and manufacturer of the Seaton carburetor, an automobile appliance which was destined, with the increasing development of the automobile industry, to make the inventor a wealthy man. He had decided that Cleveland offered a better market for his commodity, and he moved his family to that already large and rapidly growing city.

All the conditions of the time were favorable to rapid economic progress. McKinley had come and gone; Roosevelt was sitting in the saddle, riproaring and swinging the big stick. The high tariff and the steel trust had made the country safe for plutocracy and were filling it up with new types of immigrants who lowered our living standard while they increased our production and our markets. Mr. Bryan, a voice fated to futility, was still chasing rainbows. Locally, Tom L. Johnson, having cleaned out the Augean stables of the city council, was riding high on his hobby horse of three-cent railroad fare, with Newton D. Baker, pipe in hand, argent of tongue and ardent of spirit, holding on to his leader's stirrup straps until he could get into his own stride.

The Seatons took up their residence in a suburban neighborhood on the West Side, in an eight-room house on Ethel Avenue, a pleasant, shaded side street, off Lorain Avenue. They added a sleeping porch and a sun room, and were able to live comfortably, with a room for a servant and plenty of space for the baby to play in.

Young Donald grew like a weed, and proved a most precocious infant. At six months he could babble a simple musical phrase. At twelve months he could pronounce simple syllables. At fifteen months he could make his wants intelligibly known. At eighteen months he could form simple sentences. When he was a year old he could walk. He reacted instinctively to musical sounds and at fifteen months could stagger through what would be called in these degenerate days a Charleston—an epileptic terpsichorean orgy to the formlessness of which the tender limbs and soft muscles of a growing child easily lent themselves.

He developed a Gargantuan appetite—not sixty cows' milk but part of one's was his daily portion. It was the day of one cow's milk. Pasteurization was in its infancy, and the organization of great dairy companies which monopolize the milk products industry and exploit both producer and consumer impartially had not yet begun. It was not lawful to keep a cow in the city, but one could find perhaps a dairyman who would, or at least would promise, to supply the milk of one cow; when he did not, and the milk was properly sterilized, the difference, if any, was not perceptible to the tongue of faith. In due course Donald's milk diet was varied with mashed vegetables, and he became a large consumer of fried bacon, spinach and carrots at a very tender age.

He cut his first tooth when he was three months old, far in advance of the normal time for his milk dentition. He was a husky little devil, as restless as a maggot, as playful as a puppy.

"It's a good thing I'm a strong woman," his mother was wont to say, "or Donald would wear me out."

The Seatons told no one that Donald was an adopted child. Mrs. Seaton was sensitive on the subject of her childlessness and revelled, without any sense of guilt, in the compliments she received on her wonderful baby. Indeed, she and Seaton made the child as much their own as possible. He was formally adopted through appropriate legal proceedings in the probate court of the county, by which little Donald relinquished by proxy the name which he was born to but never knew and which the Seatons did not themselves know, and assumed, or rather had thrust upon him the first of the several names he was destined from time to time to bear. By virtue of this proceeding he became the lawful son of his adopted father, entitled to all a child's rights, including support and education during his nonage, and the right to inherit should his parents die intestate.


Excerpted from THE QUARRY by Charles W. Chesnutt, Dean McWilliams. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Introduction, pg. vii
  • The Quarry, pg. 1
  • Notes, pg. 287
  • Work Cited, pg. 297

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