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Chesnutt in the Classroom

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THE SUNDAY HERALD-BOSTON, OCTOBER 27, 1901
THE RACE QUESTION IN FICTION.

The colored people have an advocate of their cause as it is presented in the southern section of the country today among the newer novelists developed in the present era of literature in the form of fiction. He is Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, and he writes well. He knows how to tell a story so as to make it interesting, and he has an open eye to what is transpiring about him. Mr. Chesnutt challenged attention some years since by an impressive short story in the Atlantic Monthly. He later wrote a really effective novel, with the title, "The House Behind the Cedars," in which the hardships of woman as the result of race prejudices and antipathies were depicted. He has now attacked the race question directly as it operates socially and politically at the South in a story having the name, "The Marrow of Tradition." This appears to be based considerably upon what has transpired in North Carolina, but it comprehends the social ostracism of the blacks in its general phases, and makes a strong showing of the wrongs and the dangers of the lynching practices of the South.

The colored people are fortunate in having such a champion as Mr. Chesnutt. As a novelist, aside from his theme, he bears comparison well with the most of his contemporary writers. He makes good use of the material at his hand. His is a picture of the South in its race relations as viewed from the Negro standpoint, and it is only fair that it should be given. We have had something like it from the other side in the "Red Rock" of Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, a novel which has been much read and generally admired. That book depicted the southern whites under conditions of government alien to their sympathies. This one gives the southern blacks in the same condition. Mr. Chesnutt is not so experienced a writer as Mr. Page, but he feels his side of the case as strongly, and he depicts it with real effectiveness.

The book is intended to present in dramatic form the operation of oppression of the colored race in the southern states. It is altogether too much to claim for it that there is a parallel between these and the wrongs wrought by slavery, which induced the writing of "Uncle Tomís Cabin," yet both books are an appeal against injustice and oppression, and there are instances of these in the present story which will awaken for those who suffer from them the sympathy of many readers. We think there are few who will not agree that, at least in the matter of lynching at the South, there is a wrong upon which public opinion should be brought to bear. We can conceive of no more legitimate field for the novelist than is afforded in depicting the wrong and the risk of it. Mr. Chesnuttís side of the case ought to be heard, and he is deserving of the thanks of more than the colored race for the manner of which he has presented it.

We think, however, that the effect of Mr. Chesnuttís book would have been strengthened if he had been fairer to the representatives of the white race whom he selects to bring about the wrong wrought in his story. He makes mere weakness in this man adequate to cause the commission on hs part of the most fiendish crimes. Here is a serious defect in his story. In the comprison of the races it is important that justice be done to the white race, if thosed who composed it are to be effectively addressed, as we assume, it is the desire of the author of this book that they shall be in its pages. Aside from this, the terrible effects which may result from lynching could hardly have been more impressively illustrated than they are in the story. It is shown to be entirely possible that one of the most amiable and inoffensive of Negroes may be made its victim under circumstances of extreme cruelty. We think no one can read the vivid account of the escape of an innocent man here without a renewed sense of the fearful hazard in putting lynch law in operation

The book has its lesson not alone here. The description of a white uprising in defiance of the law for the overthrow of the ascendancy of the colored race in a southern city we assume to be based on what really occurred in a locality in North Carolina. Those of us who are familiar with current history are aware that there is another side to this story; indeed, the book itself suggests as much. But the fact remains that lawless outbreaks of this character are certain to go beyond the remedying of any real grievance, and that, with the prejudice existing against the colored race that they intensify and inflame, outrage and cruelty are sure to be invoked. The social prejudice on the point of color is one of the best treated features of the book. Mr. Chesnutt shows the skill of the genuine novelist in the manner in which it is woven into the story. The reader is fairly carried along by it in unrestrained sympathy for the representatives of the race tabooed by their white brethren.

The story itself was worth writing, and it is worth reading. It relates to a feature in the history of our time which should be resented from more than one point of view. The white race should not have the monopoly of relating its story, and the colored race is to be congratulated on having found so able a champion as is the author of this book. He has written a novel that is especially appropriate to the present period, and the perusal of which will reward readers on its narrative and dramatics methods, aside from the lesson that is taught in it.

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"The Race Question in Fiction," a rev. of The Marrow of Tradition in The Sunday Herald [Boston] 27 Oct. 1901: 16.