Charlest Chesnutt, “The House Behind the Cedars” and “The Marrow of Tradition”

“As a matter of fact, substantially all of my writings, with the exception of The Conjure Woman, have dealt with the problems of people of mixed blood, which, while in the main the same as those of the true Negro, are in some instances and in some respects much more complex and difficult of treatment, in fiction as in life.” (910-911)  The Library of American collection of Charles Chesnutt’s writings ends with his essay “Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem”, which considered the black literary scene in American in the later 19th century and is semi-autobiographical (Chesnutt being one of the first generation of black writers after the war – and the first to seriously explore the short story).  I through this quote up, in part to justify my comparatively terse treatment of Chesnutt’s work.  In truth, I am behind on my schedule, but I am not sure I would have much more to stay if I spread this out over two posts.  So, here I will consider Chesnutt’s two major novels The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition.  They look at the dilemma of the color line the personal level (House Behind the Cedars) and the institutional (The Marrow of Tradition).


The first novel tells the story of a young biracial woman, who goes with his brother to a new city in order to “pass” as whites.  While there, her brother, a promising lawyer, moves into the various circles of society.  Eventually, the young woman, Rena, meets a white man who courts her.  They fall in love and set to marry.  This engagement, if not the feelings the suitor has for Rena, falls apart when Rena’s secret is exposed.  Complicating Rena’s life are the pressures of her family and community that hope she will marry a locally influential “widower” (he was indeed abusive).  Her cousin and best friend, Frank, secretly loves her as well.  In a rather too sentimental ending, Rena collapses from the pressures of her disastrous love life and soon dies, ending the novel.  The novel does do a nice job of discussing the difficulty of passing – in respect to one’s hometown and culture.  Locally, Rena’s family had marriage plans for her.  In order to pass as white she would have had to abandon forever the society of her birth.  Her failure to turn her back on tradition (understandable to be sure) is what exposes her secret.  Chesnutt reminds us that the color line is as much a product of education as of color.  Other biracial characters cannot “pass” due to their education.  When Rena’s white suitor breaks off the engagement, he tells Rena’s brother that he “shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man,” largely due to his education and success (369).  This makes the color line ridiculous and suggests there was a deeper line of culture that intersected at certain points the line of tradition.

I found The Marrow of Tradition, a bit more thematically interesting mostly because it deals with the institutions of racial oppression.  It seems to me, that any struggle for liberty must take on institutionalized power.  No matter of personal growth is adequate.  (Even Rena’s suitor evolved in his views on the color line, but this did little to avert tragedy.  The marriage was institutionally impossible.)   The Marrow of Tradition is set in the context of the efforts to institutionalize white supremacy in disfranchisement laws.  It is set in Wellington (based on Wilmington North Carolina). To aid this efforts to institutionalize racism, one of the novel’s major characters Major Carteret uses his newspaper to ferment racial hatred.   His own family has close ties to the local black community, through the history of slavery, employment, and his wife’s father who remarried a black woman and gave birth to some biracial children.  These connections complicate the plot in interesting ways.  We are constantly reminded that there are not two separate communities in Wellington, but rather one integrated society rife with internal contradictions.  However, Carteret’s racism is on display throughout the novel.  When his son requires surgery for a throat obstruction, he calls in a Pennsylvania doctor, who brings with him a young black doctor, Miller, who is returning to his hometown anyway.  Carteret does not allow the black doctor to perform the surgery.  Miller’s wife, Janet, is actually Mrs. Carteret’s half-sister through their father.  Later in the novel, an older white woman Polly Ochitree is killed by Tom Delamere, over gambling debts.  He successfully frames Sandy, a long-time black servant of the Delamere family.  A lynching of Sandy is narrowly averted by the intervention of the patriarch of the Delamere family, who seems to be a man of integrity, even as his family profited from racial oppression.  His defense of Sandy is rooted in white privileged and a belief that “his servants” raised by his family could never commit a crime as vile as murder.

A lynching adverted, the novel continues with the efforts of Carteret to implement white supremacy by using the media to stir up racial hostilities.  These efforts reach their climax in a race riot that leaves several blacks dead, including Miller’s child. As the novel ends, Carteret’s child is again stricken ill and requires surgery.  Miller first refuses to treat him.  Only with Mrs. Carteret convinced her half-sister, does Dr. Miller treat the child.

Chesnutt describes the theme of the novel as the power of tradition.  He believed that only by confronting tradition could the problem of the color line be resolved.  “Tradition made the white people masters, rulers, who absorbed all the power, the wealth, the honors of the community and jealously guarded this monopoly, with white they claimed to be divinely endowed, by denying to those who were not of their cast the opportunity to acquire any of these desirable things.  Tradition, on the other hand, made the Negro a slave, an underling, existing by favor and not by right, his place the lowest in the social scale, to which, by the same divine warrant, he was hopelessly confined.  The old order has passed away, by these opinions, deeply implanted in the consciousness of two races, still persist, and The Marrow of Tradition seeks to show the efforts of the people of a later generation to adjust themselves in this traditional atmosphere to the altered conditions of a new era.” (872)  Yet, when reading the novel, I am struck by how difficult racial supremacy was to maintain.  Given this tradition, Carteret still had to apply violence, the media, economic oppression, legal injustices, and even a lynch mob to implement his vision of racial supremacy.  This is not to say that tradition is not powerful, but it alone cannot maintain chains.

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot