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.”
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 beasts—then 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 seed—the 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’ rights—which is Southern code for legalizing race prejudice—in 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 1898—because 1898 has never stopped happening.