Mr. Chestnut's new novel belongs in a class of fiction that does not come easily within the range of average criticism; you cannot measure such a work by the usual standards. This in spite of its obvious literary defects, its faults of construction and its extravagancies. It is a "purpose novel," and never did fiction of that type proclaim its purpose so patently. It is the forces and the problems that the book represents rather than the story itself that give it importance. Anyone reading it or attempting to measure its quality who loses sight of these things misses the grave significance of the tale. It is something that has come at white heat from the author's heart, and by reason of the peculiar conditions environing both himself and the theme of his fiction, it is passionate--incoherent at times--but it is the passion and incoherence that spring from a burning sense of wrong. Whether it will be productive of any good thing, whether it will help along the dawn of a better day for the people whose wrongs it presents, may be a question. It is a philippic rather than an argument, a chronicle of injustice and suffering instead of a discussion of methods for betterment. It could not well be anything else than what it is.
"The Marrow of Tradition" deals with the American race question--the Afro-American problem. It seems to have been suggested by the recent political movements in the South to deprive the negro of the franchise, for it portrays that movement in a certain locality, and pictures conditions and results. The intensity of the white prejudice is pictured, and its injustice is forcefully presented by drawing a picture abounding in startling contrasts. The action, for the most part, takes place in a Southern provincial town, where the editor of the local journal begins a campaign for the assertion of "white supremacy," in which he is assisted by a clever lawyer, a politician and another man, whose father had been an overseer in the salve days and whose own brutal instincts had been fostered by a term of service as warden of the state convict camps at a time when their administration abounded in gross cruelties. The only thing that appeals to him is a policy of brute force. The editor and the politician belong to the "old families"; the third man is only tolerated, but not liked. The contrast is enforced by the character of a young colored physician in the town, who has won distinction as a surgeon and whose ability is everywhere recognized. The editor refuses to consent to call him to assist in an operation on his own child, because of his color, and this in spite of the protests of an eminent surgeon brought from Philadelphia, under whom the young man had studied. The young doctor's wife is of mixed blood, and is the half-sister of the editor's wife. This sort of social tragedy, common in slave days, is worked into the story and furnishes opportunity for the strongest dramatic incident in the book. Then there is a young white man of high social standing, the grandson of one of the most eminent men in the town. He is a drunkard, a miserable weakling, who gambles and is expelled from his club for cheating at cards. To obtain the money to pay his gambling debts he robs an aged and eccentric relative, causing her death, and manages to throw suspicion on his grandfather's body servant, Sam, so cleverly that the poor negro is in grave danger of being lynched and is only saved by the disclosure of the identity of the real murderer to a secret conclave of white leaders of the town. To enforce a fresh contrast, the white man's crime is covered up, that the family "honor" may be saved. Meanwhile, the campaign for "white domination" has made such strong advances that a race war is the result. This affords the opportunity for a dramatic incident, which is handled with unusual power and intensity. With this the book closes.
It is probable that the author has warrant in real life for all or most of the incidents brought into the story. Similar occurrences have happened in the recent history of the South, but they have always been isolated. The bringing of them together in one locality results in a false perspective when regarded from the viewpoint of real life. It is to this combining of incidents that the book owes its intense quality. It is inevitable, however, that the author should fail to take into account the heritage which each race has received, from which both suffer to-day, but for which neither is responsible. This does not excuse injustice, but it does help to explain its existence. He would be a dreamer, indeed, who should hope to change these conditions save by the slow processes of growth. But such a discussion is foreign to the present purpose--and yet it is almost impossible to discuss the quality of Mr. Chestnut's work, without becoming entangled in the meshes of such a debate, for the simple reason that the conditions which have produced the book, and which make it possible, are so inextricably woven into its texture. The conditions which the book presents in the attitude of the two races living side by side, are true; they do exist, they are self evident, their expression more often than not is as foolish, as illogical, as inhuman and oppressive as they are made to appear in this story. This being so, it is not to be wondered at that the tense quality of the book should impress the reader, nor is it strange that an imaginative author, writing about them, should have been strongly impressed by their shadow. Regarded from a literary standpoint, the book has many defects; from the standpoint of humanity it is a very strong and impressive work. The delicacy and fancy which is found in Mr. Chestnut's short stories is not present here; but in their place is a fire of passion and sarcasm that burns and scorches with the heat of a fierce indignation. The disfranchising policies of Southern commonwealths are likely to bring about a recrudescence of fiction of the "Fool's Errand" type, modified by changed conditions and the absence of the lingering passions of civil war. "The Marrow of Tradition" is one of the first fruits of the new agitation. Whether it will be helpful remains to be seen. But it is a very strong and virile story. (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., cloth, 12mo, $1.50. Cook & Roberts, Brooklyn.)
Review of "The Marrow of Tradition," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 November 1901.