Realist Historiography and the Legacies of Reconstruction in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realist Historiography and the Legacies of Reconstruction in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

American Literary Realism
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2016
pages 147-165

Peter Zogas

Charles W. Chesnutt had high hopes for his novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). He thought that his retelling of the 1898 race riot and Democratic coup in Wilmington, N.C., was “by far the best thing I have done,” and he noted in a letter to Booker T. Washington that he thought he “may have ‘arrived’ with this book.” Chesnutt’s optimism extended to the political effects The Marrow of Tradition might have as well. The novel “is not a study in pessimism,” he noted, “for it is the writer’s belief that the forces of progress will in the end prevail, and that in time a remedy may be found for every social ill.” However, it was not the success that Chesnutt had hoped for, and critics, most famously W. D. Howells, objected to its portrayal of race relations punctuated by violence and revolution.

Yet we can consider the significance of Chesnutt’s optimism and desire for progress in relation to Amy Kaplan’s analysis of realism as an encounter with the mechanisms of social change. In The Marrow of Tradition this encounter takes on a decidedly historiographic dimension. The precarious hope presented by the novel’s final line—“There’s time enough, but none to spare!”—references pressing concerns ranging from the restructuring of the local and national political systems to the enfranchisement of freed slaves, threats of racial violence, and the necessity of economic reform (718). In this way, we can read The Marrow of Tradition as intimately engaged with the legacies of Reconstruction and offering a counterpoint to Chesnutt’s more explicit treatment in his later novel The Colonel’s Dream (1905). The progress that Chesnutt anticipates ties his project of realism with the contested status of Reconstruction as a historical concept at the turn of the twentieth century. Chesnutt’s particular employment of realism creates a historiographic project that contests contemporaneously emerging narratives of Reconstruction that would play a determining role in imagining the nation’s progress into the twentieth century.

William A. Dunning and the South’s “cruel dilemma”

The era of Reconstruction was first conceptualized in historical discourse during the late 1880s and 1890s, most systematically through the work of the historian William A. Dunning. As one of a new generation of historians who followed positivistic methodologies, Dunning was deeply involved in establishing history as an academic field in the United States. He was awarded his Ph.D. by Columbia University in 1885, and he expanded his dissertation to be published as Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction in 1898 (a revised edition appeared in 1904). Like many of his peers, Dunning spent time in Berlin studying under the influence of Leopold von Ranke, and beginning in 1886 he served on the faculty of Columbia, where he taught until his death in 1922. During that time Dunning trained an influential generation of graduate students, and many of them completed their doctoral work by writing accounts of Reconstruction efforts in individual states.

Contemporary readers are quick to grasp the racial prejudice at work in the histories of Dunning and his disciples, to the extent that it is easy to lose sight of just how influential such work was throughout much of the twentieth century. It was not until after the Civil Rights era that Dunning’s basic narrative of Reconstruction as a failed project—one anchored in misguided attempts to enfranchise African Americans while simultaneously disenfranchising whites through post-war loyalty oaths—was dismantled in historical studies. But this is not to say that his pronouncements went unchallenged. As early as 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois identified the central thesis in the so-called “Columbia school”: “first, endless sympathy with the white South; second, ridicule, contempt, or silence for the Negro; third, a judicial attitude towards the North, which concludes that the North under great misapprehension did a grievous wrong, but eventually saw its mistake and retreated.” For Du Bois, Dunning’s methods clearly demonstrate the prejudiced political and racial attitudes that determine his analysis. Of Dunning’s explicit vilification of African Americans, Du Bois pointedly asks, “if the negro was admittedly sub-human, what need to waste time delving into…

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