The Literature of the Day
A Story of Race Conflict*
As a thrilling and we are inclined to think, essentially accurate portrayal of conditions in the South, Mr. Chesnutt's last book is a notable production. As a story, it falls short of the artistic finish and symmetry essential to a great novel, but even as a work of fiction it will enhance the author's reputation. The master hand is evident in the creation of the characters, the firm grasp of the material, the perception of dramatic situations, in touches of biting irony and in painful, but not overwrought, descriptions of but the tragedies arising from racial collisions.
The book can hardly be said to have a distinctive hero or heroine, and the thread of the love story is slender and often disappears from view. But the reader follows with absorbing interest the efforts of the white minority in a typical Southern town to terrorize and dominate the black majority. These efforts are at last successful and transform a community in which black men were little by little rising to positions of eminence and usefulness in law, medicine and business into one with bitter antipathies, culminating in wild disorder.
This, of course, is the other side of that story of Negro domination of which we have heard so much, and Mr. Chesnutt has done well to subordinate his exceptional gifts as a writer to setting it forth in a telling way. He evidently has striven to be fair. Indeed, he writes with great restraint, considering that in his veins flows the hot blood of a man whose ancestors were victims of slavery and whose contemporaries are still under the curse of its effects. He does not hesitate to depict the shiftless, time-serving, brutal Negro, though over against him he places such a splendid specimen of Negro attainment as his principal character, Dr. Miller, whose hospital, the crowning work of his devoted service for his race, is burned at last by the whites. Moreover, Mr. Chesnutt's white characters are not all off the same piece. The admirable old-time Southern gentleman is here in the person of Mr. Delamere, and the arguments which reasonable men in the South advance to justify their attitude toward the blacks are stated with remarkable fairness and cogency.
Whether Mr. Chesnutt has any solution of the problem, this book does not disclose. It leaves it before the reader unrelieved by any intimation of a possible path into the light. In the mysterious providence of God two great races are thrown across each other's path. Each is the cause of untold suffering to the other. Each by its essential difference is constantly provoking the other to strife. One is left prostrate at the feet of the other, and yet their destiny is so interwoven that the service of the vanquished is still essential to the life of the victor.
* "The Marrow of Tradition," by C. W. Chesnutt, pp. 329. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. $1.50.
"A Story of Race Conflict," a review of The Marrow of Tradition, in "Literature of the Day," The Congregationalist and Christian World 86 (Dec. 7, 1901): 897-98.