Charles W. Chestnutt's The Marrow of Tradition
Clearly, one can expect differing critical views of a novel; from the
author's perspective we see one view, from a publisher's another, and from
the reviewer's yet another. This is especially true of Charles W.
Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition. If one observes both the contemporary
reviews of the novel and letters exchanged between Chesnutt and his
friends and publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., one will see the
disparity in opinions regarding the work. Chesnutt himself felt the work
was of at least good quality, and remarked often of its significant
purpose in letters to Booker T. Washington, Houghton, Mifflin, Isaiah B.
Scott, and William H. Moody. Reviewers, too, were able to see the
"purpose" of the novel as a significant one as evidenced by reviews in
Chautauquan, the New York Times, The Literary World, Nation, and New York
However, most reviews, even those which pointed out the important theme of
the novel, suggested that it was not a well written one, often seeming
overly dramatic and too fictionalized. Even Chesnutt's friend, W.D.
Howells, was quick to attack the quality of the novel. And, as one might
expect, a few reviews (especially those of a Southern origin) were nothing
but negative. Examples of these are the Atlanta Journal, Bookman, and the
Independent. Particularly scathing is that of the Independent, a magazine
which was considered friendly to the cause of Black rights. In a series of
letters to his publisher, Chesnutt ponders the cause of his lack of
reviews in the Independent, and upon eventually being reviewed negatively,
finds that the author of the criticism was a Southerner.
Reflecting upon the title of this essay, The American People Are Too
Sensible to Waste Their Time Upon Such Silly Rot, taken from the review of
The Marrow of Tradition by Katherine Glover, it is interesting to note
that the novel did receive a certain amount of public success. Chesnutt
revealed the popularity of the novel to daughter Ethel in October of its
publication year (prior to the reviews cited here). The line from Glover's
review is obviously a mean-spirited attack by a racist reviewer, and is
ultimately ironic in that it did not accurately depict the sentiments of
the reading public. And in a series of letters to Booker T. Washington
Chesnutt expresses his belief that the novel has helped him to "arrive" as
a popular novelist. He also...