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Chesnutt in the Classroom

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SATURDAY, DECEMBER 14, 1901, ST. PAUL DISPATCH
Books and Bookmen A New Uncle Tomís Cabin

For once the publisherís puff which adorns the cover is right in its estimate of a book. "The Marrow of Tradition" is to the negro problem of today what "Uncle Tomís Cabin" was to the negro problem of ante-bellum days. That the later book will not have the influence of the earlier is true. Eighteen hundred and fifty-two was a year when menís passions and menís imaginations were quickly fired. "Uncle Tomís Cabin" was the spark which caused the North countryís wrath to flame. Nineteen hundred and one is a different year. Men differ, the spirit of the time differs. We are more lethargic; we think more and do less; we refuse to let our passions run away with our actions. And we are become so accustomed to the negro problem, which, like the negro, seems destined to remain with us, that we are become indifferent to it.

That there is a problem no one can doubt who reads this book; that it is as far from solution as it was fifty years ago is equally true. Mr. Chestnutt has done for his own race what Mrs. Stowe did for his fatherís. The very fact that this book and two or three others exist to the credit of Mr. Chestnutt is a proof that the negro problem can be solved.

The book is as full of prejudice as was Mrs. Stoweís story, as full of bitterness. Mr. Chestnutt sees the difficulties of his race out of all proportion, and off color. Possibly, if it were not known that the writer looks at the world from the standpoint of a despised race--despised because it is not developed--it would not be so inevitable that one sees just the degree of negro development shown by this very piece of writing. The differences in strength of the character drawing, the curious attention to details, the impossibility of a conclusion, the oppression of fate, are all sharply thrust upon the attention of the reader. There is no character in the book, not a colored mammy or a colored doctor who exists so absolutely as Capt. McBain. He is the Legree of this book. It is because the negro has feared the overseer generation after generation that Mr. Chestnutt is able to paint the trashy white man with all the grossness and villainy that are a heritage of this class from slavery days. Misí Polly Ochiltree is another character who is finely delineated, and this because the old Southern dame, who oppressed the negro in the house quite as much as the overseer oppressed him in the field, has fastened herself upon Mr. Chestnuttís conception. Her abhorrence of the oppressive negro, and her easy, almost comradeship, with the negro who still is servant, is most marked.

This is indeed one of the painful teachings of Mr. Chestnuttís book, that the Southerner makes no objection to a free negro if he be servant, but let him be a commercial equal and he can have no hope of recognition. The Southerner is really not wrong. He is obedient in his leisurely fashion to evolution. Mr. Booker T. Washington has said let the negro learn trades. He has thus indorsed the Southernerís attitude. The Northerner also stands ready to indorse that attitude. Except that when the Washingtons and Dunbars and Chestnutts appear the Northerners take them at their mental worth.

The book has some indefinable atmosphere about it which makes it essentially as much a product of a child from a race that is still in the childhood stage, as "Hugh Wynne" for instance is the product of a man-member of a race cultured for centuries. It is in itself a curious psychological study. And however little it solves the great problem--and this it does not attempt--it yet contributes a view of that problem which could be obtained only from within.

("The Marrow of Tradition." By Chas. W. Chestnutt. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. St. Paul Book & Stationery Co. $1.50.)

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"A New Uncle Tomís Cabin," in "Books and Bookmen," St. Paul Dispatch, 14 Dec. 1901: 5.