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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932
The Marrow of Tradition
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901.

Summary

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858 to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anna Maria Sampson, free African Americans living in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1866, the Chesnutt family returned to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where young Charles Chesnutt worked in his father's grocery store. He attended the Howard School in Fayetteville and proved an apt student who read extensively. He later became a pupil-teacher at age fourteen, initiating a decade-long career as a teacher in Charlotte and Fayetteville. Having grown frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, he moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. After passing the Ohio bar in 1887, Chesnutt launched a successful stenography business, which he briefly closed in 1899 in order to devote himself to writing full time. Unfortunately, poor sales of The Marrow of Tradition — despite having been widely reviewed — compelled Chesnutt to reopen his stenography firm in late 1901. He died in Cleveland in 1932.

In terms of his literary contributions, most critics consider Charles Chesnutt the most influential African American fiction writer during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chesnutt's book-length works of fiction include two collections of short stories and three novels. The popular and critical success of his short stories in The Conjure Woman (March 1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (fall 1899) set the stage for the 1900 publication of his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, was published a year later in 1901. Neither The Marrow of Tradition nor Chesnutt's final novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), sold well. Consequently, his later publications were reduced to only the occasional short story. In 1928, Charles Chesnutt was awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in recognition of his literary achievements.

Chesnutt's ambitious and complex novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), was based on the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, which some of Chesnutt's relatives survived. This event left a considerable number of African Americans dead and expelled thousands more from their homes. Set in the fictional town of Wellington, The Marrow of Tradition centers on two prominent families, the Carterets and the Millers, and explores their remarkably intersected lives. Major Philip Carteret, editor of The Morning Chronicle newspaper, emerges as the unabashed white supremacist who, along with General Belmont and Captain George McBane, seeks to overthrow "Negro domination," setting in motion those events that culminate in the murderous "revolution." Dr. William Miller, following his medical education in the North and abroad, has returned home to "his people," establishing a local black hospital in Wellington. Dr. Miller's wife, Janet, is the racially mixed half-sister of Major Carteret's wife, Olivia. Not surprisingly, Olivia Merkell Carteret struggles to suppress the truth of her father's scandalous second marriage to Julia Brown, his black servant and Janet Miller's mother. The novel also contains several intricate subplots involving a wide cast of secondary characters: a heroic rebel's vow to avenge his father's wrongful death; a staged robbery that results in an ostensible murder; romantic entanglements; and endless doublings and pairings of both white and black characters. Yet throughout The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt depicts the problems afflicting the New South, offering an invective that criticizes the nation's panicked responses to issues of social equality and miscegenation.

See also the entry for Charles W. Chesnutt from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris, eds., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Sundquist, Eric J., Introduction, The Marrow of Tradition, Ed. Eric J. Sundquist, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, vii-xliv; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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