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  • Beyond “Bitter”:Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition
  • Sydney Bufkin

At the beginning of Charles W. Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), Major Carteret, the editor of the Morning Chronicle in fictional Wellington, N.C., has an audience problem.1 More precisely, he finds himself without an audience for his editorials advocating white supremacy:

In spite of the force and intelligence with which Carteret had expressed these and similar views, they had not met the immediate response anticipated. There were thoughtful men, willing to let well enough alone, who saw no necessity for such a movement. … There were timid men who shrank from civic strife. … There were a few fair men, prepared to admit, privately, that a class constituting half to two thirds of the population were fairly entitled to some representation in the law-making bodies. Perhaps there might have been found, somewhere in the state, a single white man ready to concede that all men were entitled to equal rights before the law.


The Morning Chronicle may be the primary newspaper in Wellington and the “acknowledged organ” of the Democratic party, but its readers are presented as heterogenous in their personal interests and political beliefs and largely uninterested in the ideology of white supremacy (30). Carteret’s editorials do not have an audience, and without an audience his campaign to regain the state after the Fusion victory in 1896 is bound to fail.

As an author, Chesnutt maintains this attention to audience throughout the novel, acknowledging a variety of readers and observers of news from the South. Chesnutt’s white characters are equally aware of the importance of audience. As General Belmont, Major Carteret’s co-conspirator, informs him, “This is the age of crowds, and we must have the crowd with us” (81). In a novel that culminates in the elevation of crowd to mob during a thinly [End Page 230] veiled account of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, the role of the printed word in creating and directing audiences is no small matter.

Chesnutt had similar ideas about the role of novels in shaping public opinion. In an oft-quoted journal entry from May 1880, Chesnutt wrote, “The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites. … The Negro’s part is to prepare himself for recognition and equality, and it is the province of literature to open the way for him to get it—to accustom the public mind to the idea; to lead people out, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.”2 That same sentiment was at work as Chesnutt was writing The Marrow of Tradition, and in December 1900 he wrote his cousin John P. Green, “I think you understand how difficult it is to write race problem books so that white people will read them.”3 Getting audiences to read the novel proved difficult. The book sold barely three thousand copies in its first year, a great disappointment both to Chesnutt and his publisher, which had invested a significant amount of money and effort in advertising the book.4 The sales of the novel fell so far short of what Chesnutt and Houghton Mifflin had expected, particularly given the success of Chesnutt’s earlier novel and short story collections, that Chesnutt abandoned his attempt to make a living as a professional author and returned to his work as a court stenographer.

Our current critical understanding of The Marrow of Tradition’s financial failure is closely tied to the white audience Chesnutt imagined for the novel. Critics often link that failure to W. D. Howells’ famous (and famously ambivalent) review of the novel in the North American Review, which characterized the book as “bitter.”5 Critics tend to equate Howells with the novel’s audience, and Howells’ review with its reception. In his examination of Chesnutt’s and Howells’ literary relationship, William L. Andrews writes, “The significance of Chesnutt’s and Howells’s disagreement over The Marrow of Tradition lies not so much in the novel’s actual or reputed bitterness as in what it suggested to Howells and, by implication, other...


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pp. 230-250
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