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The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition, C. W. Chesnutt. It is interesting to watch the growth and development of a work of genius. Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, in the opening chapters of his latest novel, "The Marrow of Tradition," introduces the reader to the christening party of an infant whose fate is inextricably interwoven with the larger movement of the plot. The editor of MODERN CULTURE had the unusual privilege of witnessing the conception, the development, the gradual perfection and the final christening of this, the author's latest brain-child, and he disclaims at the outset all pretensions to cool and impartial criticism. He has a very lively interest in the success of the work, although not wholly from personal reasons. This story, like "The Wife of His Youth," and "The House Behind the Cedars," is a story with a motive. It teaches a lesson, and although like the others it is a story of the color-line, its lesson is one of profound significance and importance, not so much to the black race, as to the white race, both north and south. The scene of the story is laid in North Carolina in a community which has suffered in the past from the evils of negro domination, but in which the white race has reasserted its power. This study of a Southern town, although not sympathetic, is full of vigorous touches and presents a picture of provincial American life that is sui generis. No village of England or the continent is more self-centered, more out of the current of national life and cosmopolitan thought and interest, than a typical Southern country town. Mr. Chesnutt has pictured such a community with faithful realism, and the passions, prejudices, sentiments, and ideas of his characters are fairly representative of the people of the South. There is a thread of sentimental interest in the book, but it is not a love story he is writing, and he makes no attempt to picture the romantic side of the Southern character. He shows the supreme absorption of the Southern mind in questions of local politics, /260/ in the question, that of race supremacv, which is to the Southerner of as vital urgency as the right to worship" in their own peculiar way was to the Puritans. It is needless to say, that he is not in sympathy with this determination on the part of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South to rule regardless of numbers or of the rights of the blacks. His onesixteenth of African blood cries out against the tyranny of the race with which he is most closely allied, and he feels the terrible slavery of "caste" into which the former bondsmen of the South have been "freed." Nowhere in the wide world except in India and in the United States of America could such pictures of caste prejudice be drawn as Mr. Chesnutt has faithfully depicted in this and his earlier stories of the color line; but in "The Marrow of Tradition" he is not primarily concerned with this social side of the question. A more fundamental problem is dealt with here, and the question this book raises concerns the civilization of the white race, not of the black race, in the South. Is that civilization on the retrograde toward barbarism? And is the penalty for the awful iniquity of lynch law to be the growth of a love of turbulence, a passion for violence, an apetite for blood, a savage delight in torture, like that frenzy of the Iroquois which in the seventeenth century swept the forests of Canada and the Middle West almost clear of neighboring tribes, or like the Spanish descent from the chivalry of the middle ages to the cruelty of the Inquisition? Mr. Chesnutt does not ask this question; but the picture which he draws of a town given over to mob violence under the leadership of what should be the conservative element in its political and social organism forces the question on the attention of every thoughtful reader. There is very little political discussion in the book, still less of preaching, but the story points its own moral, points it with force and emphasis, and the reader who passes it by will miss a vigorous and exciting novel, full of dramatic incident, and yet fuller of moral and political significance-a work which alone among novels of this generation bears comparison with "Uncle Tom's Cabin." W. W. H. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.)

"The Literary World", Modern Culture, 14 (1901): 260-261