"The Marrow of Tradition," though a title that gives no clew in advance, is the deeply significant name of a book by Charles W. Chesnutt (Boston and New York; Houghton, Mifflin & Co.) which for more than one reason deserves and is likely to win a permanent place in American literature. One of the distinguishing things about it is the fact that its author is a Negro, a member of the Ohio bar, practicing in Cleveland. But more than that, it is a Negro’s story of the new South, absorbingly interesting as to characters and plot, for which the relations of the Negro race to the hostile white race furnish the motive, and the Negro outlook the point of view. Through the author of the book the Negro race becomes articulate in literature. We have had speeches by Negroes and for Negroes, but it is the orator and not his race that has spoken. We have had poetry by Negroes and of Negroes, but for white men, in which only the superficial peculiarities of the Negro, mirthful and sad, have found expression. Mr. Chesnutt has the distinction of first enabling his race to disclose itself. In this story of contemporaneous life at the South, the Negro does not say what he is, or thinks, or hopes for, but shows it all by his conduct in the unfolding of the narrative. And he turns out to be just a man, as all races do when they deliver their message. Of the literary qualities of the book let the professional critics speak. For the ordinary reader it is enough to know that it not only does not offend against ordinary standards of literary taste, but upon the whole is of superior quality, and that as a narrative it commands attention in the first chapter and retains it to the sensational climax at the end. The characters are alive, the whites as well as the blacks; the environment is true in outline and color; the principal incidents are as a rule historical, while the minor and fictitious ones are in no respect distorted; and throughout the story the reader finds himself unconsciously looking out upon the world through the eye of the Negro race. Yet the white race is treated with entire fairness. This is one of the most remarkable features of the book. Not only are the weaknesses and wickednesses of the Negro freely displayed, but the lovable side of even intense Negro haters is placed in the best light. No reader will lay down the story with any feeling of resentment toward the dominant race at the South. On the contrary, he will carry away truer and more agreeable impressions of the Southern gentleman than most Northern men possess and quite as much consideration for the white ruffians of the South as they deserve. No white writer has ever been so judicially fair to the Negro as this Negro writer is to the white man. But he must have a narrow mind and strong prejudices whom Mr. Chesnutt’s book does not stir with a sense of righteous wrath at race hatred and injustice of all kinds.
Rev. of The Marrow of Tradition in "Book Notices," The Publi [Chicago] 4 (Feb. 1, 1902): 687-88.