Charles Chesnutt's Dilemma: Professional Ethics, Social Justice, and Domestic Feminism in the Marrow of Tradition

By Danielson, Susan | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Charles Chesnutt's Dilemma: Professional Ethics, Social Justice, and Domestic Feminism in the Marrow of Tradition


Danielson, Susan, The Southern Literary Journal


Only the Black Woman can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'

--Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South

Over the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in Charles Chesnutt's work, reclaiming his multifaceted narratives and stunning stylistic strategies as he strove to give voice to black aspirations in an increasingly segregated America. Unlike his earlier dialect tales, which were enthusiastically reviewed in the white press, The Marrow of Tradition, his 1901 novel known to be a fictional recreation of the Wilmington, North Carolina race riot of 1898 in which at least nineteen black men and women were murdered, received only a lukewarm response at its publication. (1) William Dean Howells called it a "bitter, bitter" book and others commented on its lack of artistry (Pickens 49, 82). Recent criticism, however, has reclaimed and reevaluated the novel, giving particular attention to the stylistic inventiveness of one of its several plots, and exploring the possible meanings of his text for the white audience we know was his primary target (Chesnutt 50).

Chesnutt's complex narrative invites such a focus. Its private, sentimental plot, introduced and developed in the early chapters, traces the legacy of slavery through a host of minor characters: Colonel and Tom Delamere, Sandy (Delamere's lifelong servant), Olivia Carteret and her Aunt Polly, and Josh Green (a sharecropper's son who had promised his mother he would kill the man who lynched his father), reaching its climax when Sandy is accused of murdering Aunt Polly. With the rescue of the innocent Sandy by the Colonel and the banishment of Delamere's son, who is exposed as the true murderer, this plot line seems resolved. However, two other parallel narratives remain unfinished as Tom slinks off the page. In the novel's concluding chapters, the public and professional worlds of postbellum Wellington as well as their respective racial and gender relations emerge more clearly. The "public" and apparently major plot involves the white leaders of Wellington (Major Carteret, General Belmont, and McBane, a slave driver turned entrepreneur), as they try to reestablish their political supremacy in a town "threatened" by the success of the Fusion party with the collapse of Reconstruction and the growing ascendancy of Jim Crow. Their manipulations end in an outbreak of white violence against the black population. Paralleling both the sentimental and public plots is the novel's "professional" narrative which traces the return to Wellington of black physician Dr. Miller from his medical studies with his mixed-race wife Janet (half sister to Carteret's wife Olivia) and their son to establish a medical practice and build a black hospital. It is Miller's professional standing and Janet's familial connections that allow them to circulate, though not penetrate, through the white community and provide a glimpse into the instability of the racial and social order that governs the town.

After the freeing of Sandy and the subsequent outbreak of white violence, the public and professional plot lines converge. When no white doctor is available to treat Major and Olivia Carteret's sickly child, Dodie, they solicit help from Dr. Miller. Only then do the Carterets learn that the white mob, instigated by Carteret, has killed the Millers' only son. Balanced against the novel's opening chapters, these concluding chapters also occur in a private, domestic setting: the Miller home, where Janet stands beside the body of her murdered son.

Standard critical readings of The Marrow of Tradition focus on the Delamere-Sandy "sentimental" narrative and the "public," "realistic" plot that overtly condemns the white community's assault on the black. But they steer clear of the "professional" plot and the concluding two chapters by claiming that they are ambiguous; after all, at the end of the novel, we do not know if Dr. …

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