Dunbar & Chesnutt: The North-South Argument

This paper will attempt to look at the opening paragraphs of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, and explain how the two books shape the understanding of the latter, especially with respect to the themes employed by Dunbar.

The beginning of The Marrow of Tradition appears to be deliberately crafted to draw readers in with its suspenseful scene of hope mixed with fear. Chesnutt dangles a promise of new life, something most readers could connect with. This overt Romanticism tugs at the emotions, and while the reader is thus distracted, Chesnutt begins constructing his argument, which seems to be that harmony between the descendants of Europeans and African must be worked for or the country will not survive. Because of its delicate nature, he treads carefully, first offering characters he intends to besmirch in a sympathetic light (e.g. the worried future father whose life has not been a bed of roses and the ailing future mother who may not live to see her newborn grow old). He toys with the Plantation Myth by adding in Aunt Jane, a woman who appears to be the spitting image of every ugly ex-slave stereotype one could think of.

With this interesting dynamic setup, Chesnutt then deploys dialect to give the reader backstory that will be important later, as though mocking us. Imagine someone sending you a letter of grave importance in coded script. That is what Chesnutt does. The backstory is nigh unintelligible, deliberately drifts off into valleys and side paths that it, apparently, has no business delving into as evidenced by Doctor Price’s words, “..but you haven’t told me yet what happened to Mrs. Carteret to-day…”(Gutenburg.org.) The good doctor has to steer the story along, asking probing questions to keep the old nanny on track.  This opening scene ends with Dr. Price patronizingly inviting Aunt Jane, clearly his subordinate, to “come up”, an action mimicked in the closing scene, only this time it is a young doctor inviting someone who is clearly, at the very least, his equal. Notably, Aunt Jane’s obscurantist exposition of the family history mimics majority of the story written by Chesnutt. The Marrow of Tradition meanders, deliberately avoiding its main topic, the riot, while setting up scathing side arguments that barely manage to keep the reader flipping pages.

In stark contrast, Dunbar seems unwilling to hold anything back, opening The Sport of the Gods with a fiery salvo on the Plantation Myth. he does not appear to have any desire to placate his audience with sweet nothings while setting up an argument, not because he cannot (his word choice and plot structure point to a keen and well educated mind) but because he deems the subject entirely too grave to beat about the bush. In the opening scenes he toys with the idea of the Plantation Myth, having Berry living with his former master, but adds twist like describing Berry’s home as “…unlike the cabin of the elder day…” rather it is “…a neatly furnished, modern house, the home of a typical, good-living negro.”(archive.org)

Berry may mirror Aunt Jane in his devotion to his former master and their usage of dialect to express themselves but that is as far as the similarities go. Berry seems less attached than Aunt Jane, having “…wandered from place to place…. waiting, working, and struggling…”(archive.org) before returning to live near Mister Oakley. In this, Dunbar seems to be pointing to the fragile nature of the bonds connecting ex-slaves to their masters, as if he were saying that as soon as these ex-slaves were given the opportunity they got as far away from the plantations as possible. That is, he doesn’t bother setting up a straw man to beat, his argument is that the Plantation Myth is fallacious from the very first paragraph, and having stated that he then moves on to address the real issue: the error of believing the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

These contrasting views appear to be the ‘stereotypical’ North-South arguments employed by De Bois and Washington, or Al-Ḥajj Malik Shabbāẓ and Martin Luther King. If Chesnutt, in the vein of de Bois, appears to be arguing for active change, Dunbar seems to be on the other side, arguing that leaving the South for the big city is not the answer. He vividly depicts the strong role that environment plays in molding and sculpting the character of individuals, and its sometimes pernicious influence in corrupting, or bringing out submerged bad qualities in, the innocent. The staunch Naturalist vein running through the work, as well as his well timed use of Romanticism to play on emotions, seem a deliberate attempt to persuade the reader that despite whatever problems one may be experiencing in the South, fleeing will not solve them. The entire book mimics the words of Washington in his famous “Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are” speech: “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of preservating(sic) friendly relations with the southern white man who is their next door neighbor…” Especially as Dunbar closes the book by returning what is left of the family to their old house, as though saying, “See, you should have never left.”


Works Cited

Archive.org. ”Full Text of “The Sport of the Gods” Archive.org, 25 Feb. 2006. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

“”Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are”: Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.”History Matters. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Gutenburg.org. ”Project Gutenberg’s The Marrow of Tradition, by Charles W. Chesnutt.” Project Gutenberg Etext. Project Gutenberg, 22 Feb. 2004. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

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