"The Marrow of Tradition." By Charles W. Chesnutt. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
"It is a great problem Miller, the future of your race," said Dr. Burns, "a tremendously interesting problem. It is a serial story which we are all reading, and which grows in vital interest with each successive installment. It is not only your problem but ours. The race must come up or drag ours down."
"We shall come up," declared Miller; "Slowly and painfully, perhaps, but we shall win our way. If our race had made as much progress everywhere as they have in Wellington the problem would be well on the way towards solution."
"Wellington?' exclaimed Dr. Burns. "That is where I'm going. A Dr. Price of Wellington has sent for me to perform an operation on a child's throat. Do you know Dr. Price?"
"Quite well," replied Miller. "He's a friend of mine."
"So much the better, I shall want you to assist me. I read in the Medical Gazette the other day an account of an interesting operation of yours. I felt proud to number you among my pupils. It was a remarkable case-a rare case. I must certainly have you with me in this one."
"I shall be delighted, sir," returned Miller, "if it is agreeable to all concerned."
This incident comes near the heart of this singularly powerful story, one of the most artistic and effective stories that has lately anywhere appeared.
Dr. Burns was the distinguished surgeon of Philadelphia who was summoned to perform a critical operation on the throat of Major Carteret's little boy, an only child, in a Southern town, known as Wellington. Dr. Miller was a young colored physician, who had studied with distinction in the best medical schools of America and Europe. His father, once a slave who had bought his own freedom, had afterward thriftily acquired considerable property. From the wealth inherited from his father young Dr. Miller had founded a hospital in his town, to which was to be added a training school for nurses, and in time perhaps a medical college and a school of pharmacy. Though strongly tempted to leave the South and seek a home and a career under freer conditions, he resolved to stay and do his work among his own people. What became of the hospital is another part of the story.
Major Carteret coming home after the war had married Olivia Merkell. His own fortune lost, with her money he had founded the Morning Chronicle, and made it the most influential journal in the state. What was the actual relationship between Major Carteret's wife and Dr. Weller's wife, that is still another part of the story.
Olivia was the daughter of Samuel Merkell, and shortly after her mother's death she had been turned over to the care of her aunt, Widow Polly Ochiltree, who turns out to be the ogre of the story. Aunt Polly would have remained in the Merkell home had she not made it the absolute condition of her doing so that he should drive away the mulatto servant Julia, who had for years been house-keeper and as one of the family. "Ef I stays, Julia goes." insisted Aunt Polly. As Mammy Jane explained it: "Miss Polly she r'ared an' she pitched, but Mars Sam helt on like grim death. Mis' Polly would'n give in neither, an' so she finally went away." "And Julia staid?" "Julia Staid, suh, an' a couple er years later her chile was bawn, right here in de house."
Though the marriage had duly taken place in a neighboring State, where such marriage was then legal, yet it had not been acknowledged. At the death of Mr. Merkell a few years later Aunt Polly had managed to get hold of both the will and the marriage acknowledgement, and had driven the young mother and her child from the house. Not long after the outcast mother died of hardship and broken heart.
"And the child?"
"One er de No'the'n w'ite lady teachers at de mission school tuck a likin' to little Janet, an' put her thoo school an' den sent her off ter der No'th fer ter study ter be a schoolteacher. W'en she come back 'stead er teacher, she ma'ied ole Adam Miller's son."
"The Rich stevedor's son, Mr. Miller?"
"Yes, suh, dat's de man-you knows 'im. Disyer boy wuz jes' gwine 'way for ter study ter be a doctur, an' he ma'ied dis Janet, an' tuck her away wid him to Europe, er somewhere er' other, an' come back las' year an' sta'ted dis yer hospital an' school fer ter train de black gals fer nurses."
Meanwhile Major Carteret had been busy with his paper, doing his utmost to champion the "white man's government" scheme and to work up the anti-negro sentiment. In this a "Captain McBane, a brutal wretch who had grown rich by means of convict labor contracts with the government, and who would never speak of a negro but as a "damned nigger," was an essential figure in the local campaign for "white supremacy."
When Dr. Burns reached the home of Major Carteret to perform the operation the major persistently refused to allow the presence of Dr. Miller, although all the other doctors wished him to come in.
Then there follows a sufficiently fascinating variety of complications, some of love affairs and other more tragical. Old Polly Ochiltree is found one night the victim of murder and robbery. Sandy, a most faithful negro, is arrested under suspicious circumstances. The mob crowds about the jail, prepared to hang and to burn. At the last moment the mystery is cleared up and Sandy is allowed to go free. It was a white renegade who had done the deviltry.
But the quiet which followed was only the lull before the storm. One "damn nigger" after another is singled out as getting too prominent in the business and affairs of the town. Inquiries are made about the colored doctor with the hospital. A good word is spoken for him, as a negro who doesn't meddle with politics nor tread on anyone's toes; who spends money in the community and contributes to the general prosperity. "That sort of nigger, though, sets a bad example," retorts McBane. "They make it all the harder to keep the rest of 'em down."
It would not be fair to quote further from the book. The tale is one of great power. It is also one which appeals to every one in the present state of the negro, North and South. Mr. Chesnutt has colored blood in his veins. He frequently contributes to the best magazines, and his mastery of English is at times surprising.
"A Powerful Story." Rev. of The Marrow of Tradition. In: "Books of the Week." The Chicago Daily Tribune. November 20, 1901: 13.