Academic journal article Style

Focalization as Education: The Race Relation Optimism of the Narrator of Charles Chesnutt's the Marrow of Tradition (1901)

Academic journal article Style

Focalization as Education: The Race Relation Optimism of the Narrator of Charles Chesnutt's the Marrow of Tradition (1901)

Article excerpt

How Ideas from Narrative Theory Can Inform Debates about Chesnutt's Novel

Charles Chesnutt's 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition is nominally set in the fictional town of Wellington, but actually relates to events of the 1898 white supremacist race riot that took place in the real town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Janet and Doctor William Miller, Olivia and Major Edward Carteret are the two couples at the center of the plot. The Carterets are white: Edward is a member of the town' s "Big Three" white supremacist leadership and owner-editor of the foremost newspaper, which he uses to agitate for a white uprising against the elected Populist government. The Millers are mulattoes, which in white Wellington society stigmatizes them as social outcasts, although William is a world-class surgeon and a rich man. (1) The tie between the two families is that Janet and Olivia are half-sisters of the same father. Janet would like her sister to acknowledge her; Olivia would prefer not to notice Janet's existence. Against the backdrop of building tension and violent execution of the race riot, the plot brings the two families into dramatic conflict with one another, but the story ends by implying that reconciliation between the Millers and Carterets is possible, further suggesting that this particular racial reconciliation might be extended to blacks and whites in general. Chesnutt envisioned Tradition as a "literary successor" to earlier books like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (McElrath 498). However, poor initial reviews and sales prevented Tradition from having the immediate social impact Chesnutt had hoped for, and it was not until the 1970s that the book began to enjoy any kind of widespread and positive reputation.

By 1993, Eric Sundquist influentially claimed that Tradition was the turn of the twentieth century's best novelistic representation "of the racial politics of the nation in the aftermath of Reconstruction" (453). Sundquist would seem to agree with the interpretation of relations between the novel's two principal families--the Carterets and the Millers--as Chesnutt's optimistic allegory for twentieth century race relations between blacks and whites (406-7, 449). But many other scholars disagree that Tradition carries any message of optimism, and express their interpretive decision by designating a specific character as the hero of the novel. Most critics who agree with Sundquist in characterizing Tradition's racial politics as "optimistic" choose William as the book's hero. Other scholars leaning towards a "pessimistic" reading select William's wife, Janet, while still others name the character of Josh Green, who leads other blacks in violent resistance to the riot launched by Edward's racist newspaper. Which of these three characters the critic chooses as hero anticipates a whole reading of the novel. If one picks William, the story is guardedly optimistic about future race relations. If one chooses Janet, the book is probably read as black-separatist and feminist. If one picks Josh, Tradition is a black-militant declaration of defensive war. (2)

However, some scholars who refuse William the status of protagonist-hero seem to equate their own interpretations of Tradition with the beliefs of Charles Chesnutt. If these scholars are, as they seem to be, making claims about the flesh and blood Chesnutt, then biographical information becomes relevant. Chesnutt self-identified as seven-eighths white, may have felt "intellectually and racially" estranged from both blacks and whites, and once claimed never to have written "as a Negro" (Fossett 113; Gleason 30, 36). Photographs prove that one could probably not distinguish Chesnutt as having African-American ancestry without being told so (Fossett 118). In 1900, two years after the Wilmington riot and one year before publication of Tradition, Chesnutt published an article titled "The Future American: A Complete Race Amalgamation Likely to Occur," making it unlikely that the biographical Charles Chesnutt was at this period willing to publicly represent himself as anything other than a racial assimilationist. …

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