Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Marrow of Tradition redux

Numerous Googlers have found this site over the past couple of weeks because The Marrow of Tradition came up in their searches for free papers on Chesnutt's novel. I know this sounds cynical, but I can only assume that some professors have assigned this novel and/or The House Behind the Cedars and some students, in search of aids of various sorts as paper deadlines approach, stumble onto my postings, which, if you visit them, pretty much say only that I've been reading these books. Sorry, guys/gals. So, as a service to them, and because I need to update my remarks in that earlier post, I thought I'd share a tidbit about The Marrow of Tradition-as-title's source.
If only I'd turned to the damned first page of the novel, I'd have seen this epigraph:

I like you and your book, ingenious Hone!
In whose capacious all-embracing leaves
The very marrow of tradition 's shown.
--Charles Lamb, "To the Editor of the Every-Day Book"

To Google I went, and here I found William Hone's Every-Day Book (the webmasters are still putting pages on the site, but enough is there so you get the idea). N.B., future Googlers et al.: I haven't done anything like a close examination of Hone's book, but I want to speculate, just for fun, on what I think Chesnutt is up to in his novel by making an oblique reference to it.
The Every-Day Book is anxious not to offend. Its tone is mainstream-bland as it addresses certain significances of each day of the year. But it also does a fair amount of assuming that its audience shares in its values. The excerpt from Lamb's obviously-approving poem is further evidence that Hone hasn't misjudged that audience. Thus, its tone is a complacent one: it preaches to a choir it knows well. Nothing really wrong with that in the abstract, of course. But complacency has a nasty tendency to stagnate and ossify and resort to stereotype (and worse) with regard to those not included in, in this case, Hone's (and his audience's) sense of the genteel British reading public.
It's that complacency, among other things, that Chesnutt takes on in many of his writings and, in particular, The Marrow of Tradition. His setting is Wellington, North Carolina (a fictionalized Wilmington, NC), some years after the Civil War. For white Southerners, it is the world turned upside-down: the old order is no longer THE order: Blacks no longer step off the sidewalks in deference to approaching whites, and those whites who seek to defend what remains of that old order are bewildered and angry. The dynamics of Jim Crow are shown to lead to an unexpected consequence: restrictions on white as well as black behavior. Even as the guest and friend of a white man, a black doctor cannot sit in the Whites-Only railcar . . . nor can the white man join his black friend in the Coloreds-Only car.
All this is to say that Chesnutt takes a rather more complicated look at the particular marrow of the tradition that is the post-bellum South--that marrow being the legally- and socially-sanctioned segregation of blacks and whites. He is less welcoming of what he finds than is Lamb of what he finds in Hone's book.
As I say, Googlers, this is rather thin gruel, coming as it does from some half-informed speculation. But. Credit where credit is due, and all that.

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