ANY novel dealing with the race problem in America would be of peculiar interest at this time; and when such a novel is written by a man who champions his own people, the interest is more than doubled. Mr. Chesnutt is, moreover, an author of established reputation, and a new story from his pen would suggest delightful memories to the many readers who have enjoyed his former work-especially that remarkable story called "The Wife of His Youth."
Whether "The Marrow of Tradition" will fulfil the expectations raised by these circumstances depends very largely upon each reader's point of view. Those who, above all else, seek literary charm will probably be disappointed. Mr. Chesnutt's novel is capital in point of construction, but is lacking in grace and distinction of style, as well as in vitality of character drawing or the deep emotional power which distinguishes Mrs. Stowe's great work.
On the other hand, those who seek a dramatic presentation of the negro problem as it exists to-day in Southern States will find their hopes fully realized in "The Marrow of Tradition." In this respect it must stand as the legitimate follower of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," since it paints conditions as they exist to-day, while its predecessor portrayed those of slavery times.
These conditions are depicted, also, with a fine attempt at dispassionate judgment and expression. This is not to say that our author writes from the white man's point of view-from that of the Southern white man, at least. But it is true that Mr. Chesnutt proves himself, in this work, to be a conscientious and broadminded seeker after truth, and that he has honestly tried to represent things as they are.
Upon one point, however, he is distinctly influenced by his race affiliation-and that is the pivotal point of the whole matter. The results of race prejudice and white domination are, probably, as cruel and unjust as Mr. Chesnutt paints them. The real question at issue, however, is the situation which causes this race prejudice and high-handed domination. According to nearly all white residents of our Southern States-to that very class of residents, be it noted, which produces presumably reliable witnesses-the situation is a very grave one, menacing both the purity of the home and the proper conduct of local government. The fact that the negroes are numerically stronger than the whites in itself is cited to justify apprehension, and serves, in a measure, to explain the extreme measures resorted to.
Now, this is exactly the condition of affairs which Mr. Chesnutt either does not fully appreciate or does not care to squarely trace. Yet it is the key to the whole problem. Good logic and passionate human nature are ever at odds, and even the friends of the negro can understand the state of mind under which the white Southerner acts, if his view of the situation be a just one, To say that the true remedy lies in the making and administering of adequate laws; that violence breeds violence and can only to deplorable results, is to speak the undeniable truth; but the mere statement of truth does not change the laws which regulate human conduct.
It is evident, moreover, that Mr. Chesnutt fully recognizes the great strength of the position taken by the white man when he represents his own case to the world; for, though he does not acknowledge the justice of the fears expressed concerning negro domination in politics, and the safety of the white woman, he seeks, in every way, to minimize the effects produced upon the North by these Southern arguments. This he does by dwelling upon the resulting injustice and cruelty to the negro, and not at all by facing the situation claimed.
This is but to be expected, and by no means detracts from the interest which attaches to the enlightened expression of the negro point of view; while the vicious results of such measures as lynching, and any race discrimination in the matter of the franchise, can scarcely be painted in colors too vivid, or depicted through scenes too terrible.
When Mr. Chesnutt touches upon tragedy he writes with a pen of fire. The narrowly averted lynching of an innocent man, and the raising of the whites against the blacks are episodes of the story which impress themselves deeply upon the mind of the reader. And so, also, does the final scene, which involves in its climax both the human interest and the problem interest of the story. The reader shares Mr. Carteret's experience when, "for a moment the veil of race prejudice was rent in twain, and he saw things as they were, in their correct proportions and relations." This is the result at which Mr. Chesnutt has aimed, and to achieve it is a veritable triumph.
The love story which runs through the book is of little interest, and of less than secondary importance. There seems to be no effort made to characterize the girl, and her two suitors only fare better, apparently, because they are involved in the problem element of the book. But even Tom Delamere, who plays such an important part, serves merely as a type of the dissipating young degenerate in which so many fine old families are fated to end. Having no redeeming feature, he is not especially interesting.
McBane, the ex-contractor for negro convict labor, is also representative of a class rather than an individual. But he is very well done, and makes a clear impression. The most vital people in the book are old Mrs. Ochiltree and old Mr. Delamere-the latter, especially, possessing some fine favor of individuality. Upon one occasion, however, he speaks in a way which suggests that he is serving as a mouth-piece for the author's own views rather than as the representative of the old-school Southern Gentleman. From such a one the following utterance, or anything approaching it, would be decidedly surprising:
"We thought to overrule God's laws, and we enslaved these people for our greed, and sought to escape the manstealer's curse by laying to our souls the flattering unction that we were making of barbarous negroes civilized and Christian men. If we did not, if instead of making them Christians we have made some of them brutes, we have only ourselves to blame, and if these prey upon society, it is our just punishment!"
Mrs. Ochiltree indulges in a very different-and a far more convincing-style of conversation.
"In early life she had been accustomed to impale fools on epigrams, like flies on pins, to see them wriggle. But with advancing years she had lost in some measure the faculty of nice discrimination-it was pleasant to see her victims squirm, whether they were fools or friends."
To her dissipated but handsome young nephew, Tom Delamere, she says: " 'If you are as good as you look * * * some one has been slandering you."
And his rival, Mr. Ellis, she characterizes as follows:
" 'There is Mr. Ellis * * * who is not half so good looking as, but is steady as a clock, I daresay.' "
Unfortunately, Mr. Chesnutt is at pains, to explain that this remark does not please its target, but the lack of literary distinction in the story has already been commented upon.
There is, however, a philosophic strain which conforms well with the theme of the book, and which is, upon the whole, just and wise in its quality, The negro physician, Dr. Miller, upon being forced to ride in the "colored" car, reflects as follows:
"Was it not, after all, a wise provision of nature that had given to a race, destined to long servitude and a slow emergence therefrom, a cheerfulness of spirit which enabled them to catch pleasure on the wing, and endure with equanimity the ills that seemed inevitable? The ability to live and thrive under adverse circumstances is the surest guaranty of the future. The race which at the last shall inherit the earth-the residuary legatee of civilization-will be the race which remains longest upon it."
Concerning race prejudice, Mr. Chesnutt is admirable dispassionate for one of his blood, but the subject naturally fires his mind and quickens his pen. In connection with the rising of the whites against the negroes he writes:
"To one unfamiliar with Southern life it might have seemed impossible that these good Christian people, who thronged the churches on Sunday, and wept over the sufferings of the lowly Nazarene, and sent missionaries to the heathens, could be hungering and thirsting for blood of their fellow-men."
And he makes the colored lawyer, Watson, say:
"When the race cry is started in this neck of the woods, friendship, religion, humanity, reason, all shrivel up like dry leaves in a raging furnace."
With the causes of such a rising he attempts to deal justly, no doubt, but he minimizes them as far as possible and leaves out, as usual, the pivotal point.
"The petty annoyances of a few negroes in office; the unnatural resentment of a proud people at what had seemed to them a presumptuous freedom of speech and lack of deference on the part of their inferiors-these things, which he knew were to be made the excuse for overthrowing the city government, he realized full well were no sort of justification for the wholesale murder or other horrors which might well ensue before the day was done."
Mr. Chesnutt, however, offers no hint of a solution. He contents himself with depicting the present situation from the negro point of view, and thus trying to influence the reader in favor of his people. And perhaps, he is wise in this course.
"The Marrow of Tradition," by Charles W. Chesnutt. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York.
Anon. "Mr. Chesnutt and the Negro Problem." Newark Sunday News. December 29, 1901: Magazine Section, 6.