Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism with its emphasis on the ordinary, mundane life of the middle class and depiction of the individuals struggle for an ethical responses to life arose as an ‘-ism’ in “the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century” and may be considered a response to the rapid changes in society during that period.(Campbell) It is this idea of change and the question of how one should respond correctly to it that tinges Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt, who passed the bar in 1887, has written a story that is the quintessential expression of Realism.

Through his careful crafting of events and characters drawn from a historic incident, he manages to depict the horror of immoral responses and the monstrous consequences that ensue from the aforementioned. Set in the south, The Marrow of Tradition has as its main characters, not senators and congressman, but a doctor, a housewife, employees of a newspaper, etc. That is, it is set squarely in the mundane.  These characters are then depicted going about their daily life. We are witness to a birth. We watch as Tom Delamere woos Clara, and fights his gambling addiction. We see Dr. William Miller navigating the strictures of an unjust law as he returns from the North. Chesnutt drags his reader through the quotidian routine of Southern life, deliberately building up his “individuals” before confronting them with “the struggle for ethical responses to life”.

The climax of this novel may be said to be the riot, a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which a mob went on a rampage causing the death of between 6 to 100 people. The original riot, like the fictional one, is not squashed by the government. It runs its course under the raging power of ordinary citizens in the grip of unyielding prejudice. We then have three points of “life” in the novel. There is the first one, which is the riot itself, and then the response to the riot’s aftermath. The riot, itself, is a point in relation to the white Southerners who are faced with a choice between giving into the prejudices unleashed by Captain McBane and his co-conspirators or leaving the individual accountable for the individual. That is, they have a choice between seeing individuals as responsible for their own actions, or blaming an entire group. Chesnutt depicts them as having made the wrong choice at this critical point. They give into emotions and cast reason to the winds.

The second point is in relation to Dr. William Miller, who may be seen as a symbolic representative of a specific class of blacks, ones who have not had to bear the harsh sting of racism in the form of loved one lost and who may still hold a favorable opinion towards the whites. His test comes in his response to Major Carteret’s request to aid his child. Having just lost his own child to the blind fury of rampaging mob who share commonality with Major Carteret, should Dr. William rush to aid this child? Is it ethically wrong to run his back on an innocent babe in need? Chesnutt answers this question in a unique way, reinforcing the Realism in his novel. He, again, shows us a regular, middle class individual giving into his emotions.

Perhaps, had Chesnutt ended the novel there, on such a dark note, it would have been, at the very least, cathartic. However, still working within the framework set out by Realism, he adds a third point: the reunion of the sisters. Janet, having just lost her own child and having born humiliations at the hands of Clara, chooses to forgive her half-sister, and urges her husband, Dr. William, to save the child. Chesnutt anchors this response in reality, acknowledging the pain born by this woman while at the same time allowing her to take the high ground as he writes: “…that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her…”(195) It may be worth noting that Chesnutt makes the character who takes the moral high ground, the one who makes the right and ethical decision, a woman. Perhaps, he is toying with Realism and stereotypical European ideas of womanhood in his time, or perhaps he is hinting that “masculine”, rather than chivalric, codes of revenge will tear the world in two, leaving its burnt husk for none to enjoy.

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Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Viking, 2007. Print. 189 pp. ISBN: 978-0-14-311367-6

Themes of Empowerment and Victimization

The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears was written by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green,  professors of history at University of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill respectively, and edited by Professor Colin G. Calloway of Dartmouth College. Both Perdue and Green have written other books. In the case of Perdue, she wrote  Cherokee Women, in which she “examine[d] the roles and responsibilities of Cherokee women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,”(“Cherokee Women – University of Nebraska Press.”) and Sifters, a “rich collection of biographical essays on Native American women”(“Sifters”).  Green is the author of The Politics of Indian Removal, a book about the Creek Indians that is “ based heavily on a wide variety of primary sources” (“Politics of Indian Removal – University of Nebraska Press.”). It sounds like a powerhouse combination, one author steeped in Cherokee history, the other apparently knowledgeable about the politics involved in the subject. One would have hoped to be informed through first-person narratives and vivacious prose, since this is not the authors first try at writing a book and you can only get better with practice.


The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears starts in the fourteenth century and ostensibly ends in 2005, though really it stops in the nineteenth century with a brief overview of events occurring after that point. Its focus is not on the horror of the Trail of Tears, as the title suggests, but on the politics and events leading up to this event. It utilizes a full 115 pages doing this, sparing the last 49 pages for the Trail of Tears and its aftermath. It does little to draw the reader’s attention, an appalling lapse when dealing with such an important topic, especially when it claims it is an “American story” and that “ we should make sure that it is a lesson well learned”(P. 164). If it is as important as they claim, and it is, they would have done well to make it more accessible and engaging. This is, after all, the history of the very foundation of this country and therefore the tale of where we all have come from, and, if we are not careful, the tale of where we are also heading. The point of looking into the past is not to merely spectate, it is to take admonition and learn lessons. However, as any teacher worth their salt will tell you those lessons must be made accessible to the students.


A dreary monologue on the land and its people frames the story, probably meant to draw the reader in by dropping them down in the middle of the Cherokee cosmology. It reeks of fluff, seeming more an attempt at showing the authors’ deep knowledge of the subject as opposed to the offering up of useful information. If it was meant to engender sympathy and humanize the victims portrayed later on, they would have been better served opening up with a firsthand account of the aftermath of the Trail of Tears, and then backing up to the causes leading up to what had been described. Or if they found it important to show the deep connection the Cherokee had to the land and a first-person narrative was not available, a reader might excuse them if they started off by writing “Farming in the Southeast probably began about 3000 B.C.E.”(Page. 8)


Although it does a good job at pointing out the injustices being heaped upon the Cherokees, it has an undercurrent that seems to whisper, ‘but it was their fault’. Take for instance the “group of Lower Town chiefs led by Doublehead”(p.37) who “ceded the last Cherokee hunting grounds.”(p. 37) One may well argue that  this was just a “legacy perhaps of the individualistic ethos of warriors.” However, it should be noted that in doing so blame is shifted from those trying to get their grubby hands on the land in the first place. While it is a known fact that Africans didn’t get into massive boats bound for the New World without a little help from their fellow Africans, it is something altogether different to say that the European who bought those people did so with pure intentions and clean hands, having done nothing to instigate and help along the exchange of flesh for commodities. In a similar manner, to point out the greed of certain chiefs who stupidly sold off lands their people had lived on for centuries cannot so nicely sweep under the rug the fact that the people trying to get their hands on the land did not have ‘pure hearts’. It may have been far better to point out that the people buying the land at times purchased it from short-sighted chiefs. Wording is everything.


In the end, while the information contained in the book is interesting enough, pointing out the Cherokee’s consolidation in an attempt to fight off the encroaching Americans, the publishing of their own paper, one that had “a very salutary & happy effect” (P. 76), and the humorous way they adopted what suited them when it came to “civilization”, to get to it one must wade through prose as lively as a mummy, and paragraphs whose bare starkness assault the eye. When held up to the likes of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Where White Men Fear to Tread, Mankiller, or Crow Dog this book withers. Where they paint a harsh picture of reality through vivid first-person narratives, and, yes, sometimes pictures that tugs at ones heart and makes one think, wonder, and gasp in horror, this book falls short. This could be excused as the constraints of an academic work more concerned with portraying facts, but its epilogue is a travesty. To end a tale of genocide and forced exile with the upbeat speech of some chief proclaiming, “We are not a people of the past. We are a people of the present, and for many centuries, we will be a people of the future,”(P. 164) smells like a large paint brush being brought down over the reader’s mind. “Forget what passed before,” it whispers. “They live on!”

It would be in the readers best interest to ask what kind of Nation survived into the present century? In what areas have they been completely cut off from their traditions? Where they were cut off was the loss compensated by a gain of, at least, equal proportions? How have their children’s worldview been shaped, and to what extent will that mold the future of this once proud tribe? Are they bitter, self-hating drunkards who root for the cowboys as they chase down Mexicans masquerading as Native Americans? Was this the best way to treat the themes of empowerment and victimization that it deals with?

Charles Chesnutt’s The Passing of Grandison

Read on its own it is a delightful, intriguing story with a twist at the end that leaves one pleasantly surprised. However, if one knew the background behind the story, the suspense would be much stronger. If one knew that Chesnutt was a member of the NAACP, that he had tried to write in order to bring about positive change in the society and fight against racism, when you see the words flowing from the mouths of both slaves and masters in the story, one will more easily detect the sarcasm dripping from every letter like thick strands of green slime. When Grandison returns with his outlandish tale of escape from the brutal hands of the abolitionist, one’s suspicions will be aroused, and when the final act plays out, one will read it with appreciation for what the author was trying to do, and not sit there wondering “where did that come from”.

Contemplating The Great Gatsby

A man came to Ibrāhīm Ibn Adham, a Muslim scholar, with a gift. Ibrāhīm put a condition on the man that in order for him to take the gift the man must be wealthy. The man responded that he was wealthy. Ibrāhīm asked him how much he had. The man said that he had so-and-so amount of money. Ibrāhīm asked the man if he would like a larger amount, and the man replied in the affirmative.  Ibrāhīm Ibn Adham told the man that he would not accept the gift because the man was not wealthy (i.e. he was not content with what he had)[1]. The characters in Gatsby do not appear to have any contentment of heart.

In spite of the wealth that they possess, which one normally assumes is the means to happiness, they appear bored and… normal, for lack of a better word. By normal I mean that they are not trying to do anything grand or even significant. Much like the man in the Lovesong, they are aiming so painfully low, and I find it hard to excuse them, not to speak of that guy in Lovesong, for being so nonchalant about life. These characters are wasting away the precious minutes of their existence, as much as fictional characters have an existence, eavesdropping on people on the telephone, gossiping about the butler’s nose, trying to wreck other people’s marriages in the pursuit of “true love”, or, as in the case of Nick, standing by the side of the road watching life go by.

One would hope that they would be doing something more important, or at least be of benefit to their fellow man. One would hope that they would find something better to do with the money they have been blessed with other than wasting it on parties. I wonder if that is not the point of the book, that it is a fiery cannonball blasted into the midst of the upper class with a smiley face on it, just to add insult to injury. Is the author sticking his tongue out at the rich people whose affluence he’s been denied, while pointing out that those riches are not the source of happiness? Is he trying to say that “true riches lies in contentment”? Or is he just pining, like Nick and Gatsby, for something he can’t have? I’m inclined to say that it is a mixture of the two, since we, as human beings, are complicated and very rarely can one stand on the outside and paint another using only one brush without getting to know that individual.

[1] Ibn Asad Al-Muhasabiy Al Basriy, Harith. Risalatul Mustarshideen. Beirut: Darul Bashairil Islamiyyah, 2005. Print.

War’s Horror

I believe attention should also be payed to the effect that the Civil War, and war in general, has on society. Literature, as a professor put it, was a form of entertainment for the people of the past, akin to movies and TV shows for us. The Civil War was so traumatic that there was a shift in literature, from Romanticism, looking at the word through rosy glasses, to Realism, a depiction of life as it is. This professor, who happens to be in the English department, while going over Realism, said that the loss of human life in the Civil War was so high that there was no one who had not lost someone in it.

We can fast forward to the so called “Great War”, and again we find the same horrifying reaction. Society is so aghast at what has happened it calls the war, the “Great War” because it hasn’t seen anything like this death and killing, but then it becomes inured and we see civilian casualties shooting through the roof in the Second World War. In the documentary, Fog of War, it is mentioned that civilian casualties became acceptable. They even coined a new term for this, a nice little euphemism to cover up cold blooded murder, “collateral damage.”

My mother has often mentioned that “they” tried to get rid of her generation, and very few of them survived with their minds intact. The ones who didn’t lose it because of drugs, lost it because of Vietnam. My theory is that there is something about modern warfare that is inherently wrong and the soldiers know this deep down in themselves. This, I believe, is one of the reasons we see them so disturbed, and it is a shame that we don’t take care of them properly when we bring them back.

I am not saying war is evil or bad in and of itself. War has its place in society and benefits, like warding off harm or protection. However it must be done within certain boundaries. I think it interesting that societies claiming to be at the height of “progress”, instead of enforcing laws to prevent the murder of civilians, have deemed this an acceptable loss. How can you kill innocent people?

Birches

Birches

“…Die now, in this love… die now, and do not fear this death, for you will come forth from this earth and seize the heavens.”- Rumi

The child of William Prescott Frost Jr. and Isabelle Frost, Robert was born in 1874 in San Fransisco.(Frostfriends.org) His mother “was a spiritual woman, who read to her children from the Bible and Scottish legend.”(Frostfriends.org) Robert Frost wrote his first poems while a student at Lawrence High School, and in 1913 published A Boy’s Will.(English.illinois.edu) His  third work “Mountain Interval, which appeared in November 1916, offered readers some of his finest poems, such as ‘Birches’”.(English.illinois.edu) “Birches” followed the format of a Greek ode, with a strophe (introduction of talking points), antistrophe (development of aforesaid talking points), and epode (a conclusion commenting on those talking points). Greek odes were a serious, stately, and elegant treatment of a subject (normally athletic achievement), and lends itself well to the topic Frost is dealing with. Fond of deep philosophical thinking and posing questions about the ‘eternal verities’, it is little wonder that he would use the somber format of a Greek ode for this particular poem. In the following lines we will look at the development of “Birches” (i.e. the talking points and final comments), as well as explore some of the meanings behind the poem in the context of the Greek ode.

To proceed, we find that the poem opens up with a description of birch trees bent “to left and right.”(line 1) This image of bowed deciduous hardwood trees, “associated with the Tírna nÓg, the land of the dead and the Sidhe, in Gaelic folklore, and as such frequently appear[ring] in Scottish, Irish, and English folksongs and ballads in association with death, or fairies, or returning from the grave,”(Facts) is juxtaposed by the description of a nameless mass of “straighter darker trees”(line 2) hovering, almost ominously, in the background.

This mixture of contrasting images is developed throughout the poem and continues as the poet begins wistfully describing how he envisions a boy “swinging them”(line 3) as the cause for their bent forms, and refutes this notion in the next lines by stating “But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay./ Ice-storms do that.”(lines 4-5) That is, despite the romantic notion that this is just the boisterous fun of children, something more serious is at work on the trees. As he draws the strophe to a close, he utilizes ironic imagery: “Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground/ Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.”(lines 18-20) This incongruity between youthful males and females frolicking and the pale, bent forms of what must certainly be old trees, an apt metaphor for the elderly, as well as the vagaries of life as signified by the ice-storm is developed throughout the poem. The themes of death, life, tribulations, youth, and old age  seem to be the main topics he is developing as his ‘talking points’.

The theme of youth and old age persists in the antistrophe. But here youth’s benign, if a bit dangerous, amusements are depicted as lessons, a form of learning at the hands of the wizened birch tree. The notion that the tree is symbolic of an erudite teacher is added, while Truth (death) continues to hover in the background. Frost speaks of youth gaining experience from his carefree play, “conquer[ing]”(line 32) and “subdu[ing]”(line 28) these stately trees, while detailing in a jubilant manner the glee with which this same youth “flung outward, feet first, with a swish”(line 39) Interestingly, the joyous state of the boy in this daydream, if you will, is shaped in spite of the truth. As the Arab poet has said: ladū lil mawt wabnū lil kharāb “beget for death and build […] for ruin” (Google Books) The ice-storm (reality, the vagaries of life, or death) has worn these trees, and us, down. He, and we, would prefer the wear and tear to be caused by the playing of boys, but “Truth broke in/ with all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm”(lines 21-22) Reality, it would seem, cannot be covered up so easily no matter how much tamannī (fanciful wishing) is done. Life collects a tax from us all.

This idea that life is finite, and riddled with both joys and sorrows, is something an old poet stated while lamenting the fall of al-Andalus. An old poet possessing the agnomen, Abū Ṣāliḥ/Abū al-Baqā (d. 1285), writes: Fa jāicu al-dahru anwācun munawwacatun wa liz zamāni musarrātun wa aḥzānu (The misfortunes of time are of varied types/ Time possesses happinesses and sorrows).(Fiqh ul Islam) In the epode, Robert Frost openly states that he was “once […] a swinger of birches,”(line 41) but the vigor of youth has departed, replaced, as he says, by a desire “to get away from earth for a while.”(line 48) Why is this so? The preceding lines list the reasons. He tells us he is “weary”(line 43) then draws a metaphor for his state in an individual whose “one eye is weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed across it open,”(lines 46-47) and whose “face burns and tickles.”(line 45) He states that “life is too much”. Despite this, he does not wish for death, that great destroyer of opportunity. He would like to climb birches until he was near heaven and “the tree could bear no more.”

For a poet fond of deep philosophical musings, the format of the Greek odes, especially the Pindaric which is ”generally more tranquil and contemplative than the Pindaric ode,” lends itself well to the serious contemplation of mortality. (Poets.org) Within the lines of “Birches”, in particular the epode, Frost vividly depicts the vagaries of life, contrasting youthful energy and fearlessness with the sorrows of old age when navigating the forest has become a chore, and giving up seems like a very good idea. However, he adds that there is something that makes life worthwhile, that smooths over the weariness, and is a soothing balm to the burning face. What is this cure for the sojourner through this world? Love. For “Earth’s the right place for love,”(line 52) Here, it does not seem to refer to eros, philia, or storge, due to the references to heaven, and thus, I believe, Frost speaks of love for the Creator. This is the balm, though for some the realization only comes in later years.


Works Cited


Facts, Birch. ‘Birch Facts |’. Birchcream.ie. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.


Fiqh ul Islam. ‘Ar-Randi’S Elegy’. N.p., 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.


Frostfriends.org. ‘Places And Poetry’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.


English.illinois.edu. ‘Frost’s Life And Career–By William H. Pritchard And Stanley Burnshaw’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.


Google Books,. ‘ʻabbasid Studies’. N.p., 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.


Poets.org. ‘Poetic Form: Ode | Academy Of American Poets’. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

In Miami, School aims for ‘Biliterate’ Education

At Corral Way Elementary School in Miami-Dade County, morning classes are conducted in Spanish, and afternoon classes are conducted in English. In one fourth-grade class, reading assignments, science, math and social studies lessons are entirely in Spanish. The principal, Josephine Otero, is one of a long line of bilingual principals at this school that is considered a “gold standard” of public bilingual education in America. Majority of the 1,500 students are low-income, but their test scores are among the highest in the city. After eighth grade, many go on to Miami’s top private and public high schools. Some take up a third and fourth language. America has around 440 public bilingual immersion schools across the country, up from only a handful in the seventies. However California, Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts have banned bilingual immersion programs because majority of the voters in these places don’t think children can learn proper English and hold on to a foreign language and culture at the same time. It’s an in issue that gets caught up in the angry debate over illegal immigration, especially Spanish-speaking immigrants.

(Source: Npr.org)