Romance and Riot: Charles Chesnutt, the Romantic South, and the Conventions of Extralegal Violence.
Despite the novel's historically grounded cynicism, African American characters repeatedly respond to extralegal violence with the hope that "De gov'ner er de President is gwine ter sen' soldiers ter stop dese gwines-on" (300). By inserting the regulative expectation that the government should intervene, the novel supplements the question of how to stop a lynching with a more fundamental one about why such extralegal violence is permitted in the first place. The state should, after all, maintain a monopoly over the legitimate forms of violence within its territory. (1) Lynching is not only illegitimate violence, but it also threatens the very legitimacy of the state. As one turn-of-the-century commentator noted, "Lynch law is actual and concrete anarchy; the one complete form in which anarchism appears in our midst. The United States cannot afford to tolerate it within the national domain if the power of prevention exists" (Pillsbury 707). So why do the soldiers fail to arrive? More pointedly, does this novel reveal a cultural logic that allows the state to abandon African Americans? (2)
One answer to these questions is simply that the "power of prevention" doesn't exist. By pointing out that the "the whole machinery of the state is in the hands of white men," the novel initially blames the weakness of a state corrupted by racism. The state does not permit mob violence; it just cannot prevent it. While this version of the weak state thesis was often forwarded to explain lynching, the novel quickly complicates it by introducing a quasi-legal justification of mob violence that was in wide circulation during the period. Responding to a group of African Americans seeking government intervention, Judge Everton "admitted that lynching was, as a rule, unjustifiable, but maintained that there were exceptions to all rules,--that laws were made, after all, to express the will of the people in regard to the ordinary administration of justice, but that in an emergency the sovereign people might assert itself and take the law into its own hands,--the creature was not greater than the creator" (193).
Positing a form of popular sovereignty, Everton refers simultaneously to "the ordinary administration of justice" and to the exceptional power to suspend ordinary law in "an emergency." While Everton conceives of sovereignty according to its common definition as a supreme power ("the creature was not greater than the creator"), he also conveys something akin to Carl Schmitt's "state of exception," wherein the "[s]overeign is he who decides on the exception" (5). Everton's "sovereign people" are not so simply because they are the supreme power, but because they decide when the ordinary legal order can be suspended. Lynching, for Everton, is not a transgression of the law that the state is too weak to repress; it is instead a suspension of the law that paradoxically makes the legal order possible. As Giorgio Agamben explains in his reading of Schmitt: "Through the state of exception the sovereign 'creates and guarantees the situation' that the law needs for its own validity" (Homo Sacer 17).
The recent critical interest in Schmitt's theory of sovereignty makes it tempting to read this extralegal violence as a state of exception. (3) Indeed, Ryan Jay Friedman's recent essay on biopolitical racism in Chesnutt's work sees The Marrow of Tradilion as an extended exploration of a state of exception that equates whiteness with sovereignty (49). Friedman, however, passes too quickly over the difference between a state that "decides what must live and what must die," and the unofficial instigators of the riot, the "self-appointed defenders of the white population (who are not generally elected officials or jurists)" (47). Not only must one be careful when applying a set of concepts that arose out of a parliamentary crisis in Germany in the 1920s onto a situation rooted in the specificities of U. S. racial history and Anglo- American jurisprudence, but one must also attend to the difference between a form of boundless state power that decides when to apply the law and the unofficial acts of mob violence that occupy spaces the state has abandoned. Nevertheless, what remains useful is Schmitt's insight that the suspension of the law is intimately connected to the legal order itself. The sovereign is both inside and outside the legal order, and Schmitt reveals a "zone of indifference" between the legal and extralegal (State of Exception 23). (4) Chesnutt, I argue, similarly reveals an indifference between the legal and the extralegal, but one that takes place in what I will call a "state of abandonment," a situation wherein the state relinquishes its monopoly on violence. The relation between the legal and the extralegal is not just indifferent. It is, more specifically, indeterminate, for what Chesnutt reveals is a situation where the limits of the state are both marked and erased. The result of this situation is that unlike a state of exception where the state remains the exclusive source of extralegal violence, the state instead permits violence without being its author. State officials often participated in this mob violence, but not as representatives of the government. (5)
The legal particularities of this state of abandonment are inseparable from the titular theme of Chesnutt's novel. "Tradition" is central both to Chesnutt's novel and to the legal rationale that the Supreme Court used to legalize segregation. As I will demonstrate, the Supreme Court ambivalently figured tradition both as a form of social regulation that was distinct from state action and as a legitimating rationale for the law that conflated society and state. Jim Crow jurisprudence therefore created an indeterminate boundary between legal and social forms of regulation, one that simultaneously marked and erased a difference between social and political spheres. This indeterminacy, however, was appropriate for a system where the very act of regulation was often left to quasi-official individuals, like railway conductors and private white citizens, who were not official representatives of the state but were given wide latitude to enforce laws concerning race relations. In its most pernicious form, this indeterminacy leads to a situation described in Chesnutt's novel wherein African Americans are abandoned by the state and left vulnerable to the extralegal violence that permeates social relations. This abandonment is not simply the absence or weakness of the state, but rather the result of a particular constellation of law and tradition that the courts sanctioned and that Chesnutt explores in the way that he structures the social and political narratives of his novel through romantic conventions.
The aesthetic particularities of this state of abandonment are no less important than the legal ones. At the very same moment that the courts were defending Jim Crow laws through an appeal to tradition, Southern tradition was increasingly being described through the conventions of the chivalric romance. The Marrow of Tradition takes place at this intersection of the literary and the legal, and the novel suggestively links the literary mode of the Southern chivalric romance to an indeterminate relation between social and political spheres. While Marrow is a somewhat polemical critique of Jim Crow violence, it also directs its opprobrium at a literary culture that equated the South with a world of romance. The novel faults romantic representations of Southern culture not simply by denouncing their tendency to idealize the South, but also by tracing how romantic conventions render the distinction between social and political regulation indeterminate. I argue that this indeterminacy helped constitute a situation wherein the state could abandon racialized populations to extralegal violence while still appearing legitimate and sovereign. Chesnutt thus critiques a homology between romance and riot by demonstrating how both assume an indeterminate relation between the social and the political.
Indeterminacy and Jim Crow Law
Based on the 1898 Wilmington race riots, Marrow chronicles how a group of white politicians manipulate public opinion and use extralegal violence to overthrow a racially mixed local government. The historic riots were the culmination of carefully planned disorder and an ongoing campaign in the conservative press to inflame public passions. They were also largely a response to the elections of 1894 and 1896, in which Democrats lost local and statewide offices to Republican and Fusionist candidates, resulting in the election and appointment of African American office holders, whose very visibility in public spaces often provoked violence. (6) Democrats made race the primary issue in their bid to regain power in 1898 and used the press to launch a concerted campaign against "Negro Domination." In the midst of this campaign, a group of white Democrats, calling themselves the "Secret Nine," planned election-day violence to prevent African Americans from voting. Although Democrats won the election, the Secret Nine nevertheless orchestrated post-election riots by strategically re-releasing an editorial written by Alexander Manly, an African American editor, who pointed out that white women often entered into consensual sexual relations with African American men. (7) The violence led to anywhere from fourteen to sixty African American deaths and to the expulsion of many duly appointed African American and Republican officials from the city (Wilmington Race Riot Commission iv). It was essentially a coup d'etat, and one that the federal government did nothing to prevent or punish.
In Marrow, Chesnutt fictionalizes these events and weaves together social and political narratives centered on the riots. The political narrative follows the historical events leading up to the 1898 riots but also adds a fictionalized account of the nearlynching of an African American suspected of murder. Chesnutt replaces the Secret Nine with the "Big Three," and narrates how these wealthy, white men manipulate public sentiment by appealing to romantic values and how they seize power through extralegal violence. The social narrative primarily traces the story of two families: the Carterets and the Millers. The Carterets are a wealthy, white family with roots in a Southern plantation aristocracy. Major Carteret is a virulently racist newspaper editor and one of the Big Three. The Millers, also wealthy, are African American. Dr. Miller is the son of a stevedore who made his own fortune after the Civil War. Trained as a surgeon in the North, Miller returns to Wellington (i.e. Wilmington) to open a hospital for African Americans. The two families are linked genealogically, for Miller's wife Janet is the mulatto half-sister of Carteret's wife Olivia. The social narrative also traces an emerging love affair between Ellis, the assistant editor of Carteret's paper, and Clara, Carteret's niece. This element of the story is connected to the moral degeneration of Tom Delamere, a young aristocrat and Clara's fiance.
Throughout his novel, Chesnutt attends to both the social and legal contexts contributing to the racial violence. The legal context is most explicitly referenced early in the novel when Chesnutt stages a familiar scene of Jim Crow segregation. While traveling in a first-class rail car from New York to North Carolina, Miller runs into Dr. Burns, a white surgeon from the North who was once Miller's mentor. They sit together and converse until, somewhere south of Richmond, a conductor insists that Miller move to the Jim Crow car. The ensuing scene is peppered with references to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that legalized the segregation of rail cars and established the principle of "separate but equal," (8)
Chesnutt initially touches on the legal-formalist arguments of the case, for Burns argues that Miller "has his rights to maintain" (54). Echoing the arguments of the majority opinion in Plessy, the conductor counters that the law is "strictly impartial" and "applies to both races alike" (55). From here, the scene moves from the formal legal reasoning of "separate but equal" to the social facts of the laws application. Miller not only observes the unequal enforcement of the law, but he also reflects upon the way that the law transforms putatively neutral racial categories into a form of stigma. Even if there were formal equality in the enforcement of the law, the separation stigmatizes one race and not the other. This criticism of Jim Crow jurisprudence echoes Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy and has remained as an important aspect of the work of critical race theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw, who defend rights discourse as a crucial site for negotiating racial inequality while simultaneously arguing that the formal legal abstraction of categories like "equality" and "rights" often hides or even establishes forms of discrimination (Crenshaw 103-22).
Comparing this train scene to the display of lynched African Americans later in the novel, Nancy Bentley points out how stigma produces a disturbing continuity between the legal and the extralegal: "As a stigmatic sign, the 'body of a dead negro' is finally no different--only more effective than the placid 'colored' sign hanging in the Jim Crow railway car" (465). Bentley highlights how Chesnutt makes evident a dehumanizing logic that reduces people to signs. She also highlights how the affective dimensions of the law that get attached to stigma confuse the boundaries of legal authority. Even so, this continuity between the legal and the extralegal has an additional source in the shift from the law's formal rationality to its application and enforcement. When Burns questions whether the conductor has the authority to enforce such a law, the conductor responds by threatening legally sanctioned mob violence: "The law gives me the right to remove him by force. I can call on the train crew to assist me, or on the other passengers. If I should choose to put him off the train entirely, in the middle of a swamp, he would have no redress" (55). The "legal" segregation on the train and the extralegal actions of the white conspirators later in the novel have strikingly similar methods of enforcement. They both involve individuals who do not officially represent the state, but who nevertheless put together mobs of private citizens to commit violence for which there is no legal "redress."
To understand how this muddle of legal and extralegal enforcement becomes possible, we must examine the novel's central theme: tradition. Chesnutt's novel is, after all, less concerned with "equality" and "rights" than with "tradition" and "custom," terms that are equally central to the legal arguments of post-reconstruction civil fights cases. Though Doctors Miller and Burns seem united on the question of public rights, the force of custom separates them only two chapters later when Burns invites Miller to assist him with a delicate surgery on Carteret's only son. Carteret refuses to let Miller into his house and states: "I do not know ... what the customs of Philadelphia or Vienna may be; but in the South we do not call Negro doctors to attend white patient." It is custom, rather than rights, that constitutes the "inflexible rules of conduct by which [Carteret] regulates his life" (71).
In this transition from the train to the home, Chesnutt marks the importance of the social and political demarcations of Jim Crow segregation. While fights discourse in segregation cases raised important questions about citizenship and equality, the more prevalent issue of custom raised fundamental questions about the jurisdiction of the state, the boundary between social and political spheres, and the relation between law and an extralegal realm of social regulation that the courts increasingly sanctioned. Jim Crow laws redefined the boundaries of society and state, and segregation was not just a matter of marking racial difference or restricting rights; it was also a matter of delimiting realms of social and state regulation.
Many of the Fourteenth Amendment cases argued between 1872 and 1910 hinged upon the law's relation to social custom. Rather than clarify this relation, these cases rendered it indeterminate by simultaneously arguing two seemingly contradictory positions. On the one hand, Jim Crow cases marked continuity between society and state by arguing that social custom provided the normative rationale for the law; on the other, they consistently shifted from a normative justification of the law to arguments about its factual application. When doing so, the cases emphasized a difference between legal and social forms of regulation by claiming that the government's administration of the law was formally distinct from tradition's regulation of society.
The continuity between society and state appears at moments when the court argued that segregation law was "reasonable" because it was an extension of Southern custom. Justice Brown, for example, would claim in Plessy that the "reasonableness" of legal segregation lay in the "established usages, customs, and traditions of the people" (550). Justice Clifford, in Hall v. Decuir (1877), would compare segregation law to the regulation of "vulgar habits of conduct" and would argue that it is "not an unreasonable regulation to seat passengers so as to preserve order and decorum" (503). Similarly, Justice McKenna would later argue in Chiles v. Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (1910) that "regulations which are induced by the general sentiment of the community for whom they are made and upon whom they operate cannot be said to be unreasonable" (77). Other cases, like the Civil Rights Cases (1883) would make similar arguments, and all of these cases reflect the reasoning of Oliver Wendell Holmes's influential 1881 treatise The Common Law, in which Holmes argues that the law extends social custom, that "[t]he first requirement of a sound body of law is that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether fight or wrong" (36).
In contrast to such reasoning, many cases simultaneously argued that social custom and law were formally distinct modes of administration, that they were in fact discontinuous and should not interfere with one another. In Plessy, Justice Brown contests the idea that "social prejudices may be overcome by legislation" while other cases would very carefully delineate the differences between social rights and those pertaining to the legal rights of citizenship (551). One finds this reasoning in the Civil Rights Cases, where Justice Bradley limits the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment by arguing that it "has respect, not to distinctions of race, or class, or color, but to slavery" (24), and that slavery was a legal and economic system rather than a social one. Justice Bradley then argues that the Thirteenth Amendment did not "adjust what may be called the social rights of men and races in the community," and only pertained to the legal rights of citizenship (22). In other words, the Thirteenth Amendment could end slavery only because slavery was a legal and economic system. The Amendment could not, however, affect prejudice, because such prejudice was fundamentally social and therefore outside the administrative capacity of the federal government.
Some of the social theory of this period produced a similar alternation between the continuity and discontinuity of society and state. Take, for example, William Graham Sumner's influential book Folkways. Based on lectures delivered in the 1890s, Strainer's book argued that "folkways"--or customs, traditions, and mores--are "one of the chief forces by which a society is made to be what it is" (3). Defining these folkways as "channels of habit" (61), Sumner argues that customs produce both laws and state institutions. Although he notes the inseparability of custom and law, Sumner also understood folkways as a "directive force" (38) that was formally distinct from the governmental "art of societal administration" (117). Unlike the German Staatstheorie or centralized European state that Folkways rejects, Sumner sharply distinguishes between the spheres of society and the state: "Inasmuch as the mores are a phenomenon of the society and not of the state, and inasmuch as the machinery of administration belongs to the state and not to the society ... there is no administration of the mores.... The state administration fails if it tries to deal with the mores, because it goes out of its province" (117; emphasis added).
From the standpoint of legal reasoning, there are certainly ways to make the arguments in these cases logically consistent. But rather than faulty reasoning, what interests me here and what becomes a concern in The Marrow of Tradition is the indeterminacy that these arguments produce and how it allowed for the ambiguous authority of quasi-official individuals who were not official representatives of the state. (9) The extralegal violence represented in Marrow is inseparable from such ambiguous authority, but it additionally introduces an important aesthetic dimension to the indeterminacy underlying it. The courts might have sanctioned indeterminacy because it allowed for convenient forms of authority, but Chesnutt also demonstrates that the narrative conventions figuring Southern culture during this period played a role in making such indeterminacies more intelligible, if not quite conventional.
Social and Political Romances
Written amidst the growing popularity of Southern race romances, Marrow links e indeterminacy produced by custom to the literary forms that figured Southern custom. More specifically, the novel examines the role that romantic conventions played in demarcating social and political boundaries in a world where both Southern society and politics were increasingly being figured as romantic. Indicative of this trend was an emerging genre of Southern race romances, which would find their most popular expression in the work of Thomas Dixon and Thomas Nelson Page, writers who rewrote the history of Reconstruction through the form of the chivalric romance. In their novels, a beleaguered white aristocracy must resort to extralegal violence to restore honor and good governance to a corrupt state. Equating the political participation of African Americans with miscegenation, Dixon and Page transform politics into a chivalric and extralegal quest to redeem a people who were figured as aristocratic in their sentiments and white in their genealogy. Romance becomes synonymous with an idyllic Southern culture, one marked by racial purity and an aristocratic social order that must be vigilantly protected through violence.
Like these Southern race romances, Marrow presents Southern tradition a through a specifically romantic mode. (10) Chesnutt not only highlights the romantic rendering of Southern traditions; he also extends romance into the workings of political power. The political goal of a white government becomes a romantic matter of "divine right." Carteret, for example, bases his political "conscience" on the fact that he "believed in the divine right of white men and gentlemen, as his ancestors had believed in and died for the divine right of kings" (33-34). Chesnutt litters the narrative with references to the aristocratic heritage of the white community as well as to chivalric notions of honor and etiquette. The Big Three figure their political coup as a "crusade" (39), while the "impending revolution" is in the service of "family honor" and the "aristocracy" of the South (228).
Though such moments clearly deploy romantic conventions, the question of whether or not Chesnutt writes romances has long been a point of critical contention. Both praised as a work of social realism and damned as a piece of political melodrama, Marrow seemed to confound an easy classification when it came out in 1901. Only a year earlier, William Dean Howells had designated Chesnutt a realist, claiming that because of his "passionless handling of a phase of our common life," Chesnutt "belongs to the good school, the only school" (Howells 699). However, as Joseph R. McElrath has pointed out, Marrow seemed to mark an end to Chesnutt's relationship with Howells, and Howells noted the polemics of the novel rather than its realism ("W. D. Howells and Race" 475). Chesnutt himself complicates this realist label with his own account of the novel. On the one hand, he claims that Marrow "attempt[s] to picture, through the medium of dramatic narrative, the atmosphere in which these problems [of race] must be worked out" (Chesnutt, "Charles W. Chesnutt" 169). On the other, Chesnutt implies that the literary merits of the novel lie in its romantic form. Not only does Chesnutt claim that one purpose of his novel is to "entertain," a purpose espoused by defenders of romantic fiction like Agnes Repplier, but he is also sure to point out that his novel contains "a love story with a happy ending" (169). (11)
Some of this confusion can be attributed to the imprecision of late-nineteenth- century generic categories. The term "romance" designated works ranging from popular adventure novels to sentimental fiction. Chesnutt's field of reference should be understood synchronically, and his use of "romance" can be more narrowly situated in an intertextual field involving an array of writers who mapped romantic conventions onto representation of Southern culture. (12) Mark Twain, for example, would poke fun at this connection in Life on the Mississippi while Albion Tourgee, who is known both for his Reconstruction novels and for his defense of Homer Plessy in Plessy v. Ferguson, championed the romance as the literary form that best expressed the "romantic material" of Southern history (Tourgee, "South as a Field for Fiction"). The most immediate coordinates of Chesnutt's intertextual field are the aforementioned Southern historical romances by writers like Page and Dixon, and Chesnutt came to see Marrow as a response to Page's Red Rock (Wilson, Whiteness 122) and to Dixon's racist account of the Wilmington riots in The Leopard's Spots (Sundquist 427).
The novels of Page and Dixon were overtly racist in their conception, but it would nevertheless be a mistake to align the romance with any particular race ideology. Romance was certainly becoming associated with Southern racism, but it could also be put to other uses. Such alternative uses are registered not only in Chesnutt's own description of his novel as a romance, but also in the romances of writers like Tourgee, Frances Harper, and Pauline Hopkins, writers who used the romantic form to both critique Southern racism and depict racial uplift. In the preface to her novel Contending Forces, Hopkins writes that her "venture within the wide field of romantic literature" was a "humble way to raise the stigma of degradation from my race" (13). The romance was often deployed polemically, but it never consolidated into a singular polemic or set of political ideas about race. Carla Peterson, for example, has recently demonstrated how postbellum/pre-Harlem African American novels deploy the romance to remake a national history that includes African Americans within the nation's modernity. (13) The cultural politics of romance are thus more usefully explored as a literary mode than as a set of ideas contained within a genre. Questions of genre are questions of kind. Mode, on the other hand, is that which designates a "world" or representational milieu of intelligibility. (14) Such a milieu can present a number of cultural sensibilities simultaneously, but cannot be reduced to a single set of ideas about race. (15)
In Southern race romances, the romantic mode evokes a number of expectations around how characters should act and perceive themselves as moral and political agents. It evokes a chivalric ethos that values heroic action, the defense of female virtue, a privileging of lineage, and a conservative attachment to tradition. Terms like "honor, "courage," and "heritage" take on an exaggerated importance in guiding narrative events and character development. When Chesnutt deploys romantic conventions, he references a world-view where moral conduct is connected to family, tradition, and heritage rather than to social contract or positive law. This romantic mode is one where the horizon of expectations that dictates action is determined in large part by one's social and familial (rather than legal and financial) status.
Romantic Performance and Racial Politics
Throughout Marrow, romance is a dominant mode, but Chesnutt carefully demonstrates that the South is not a fully romantic world. Consequently, although the romantic mode values heroism, there are very few acts of heroism in the novel. Dr. Miller even warns against such acts (283); when heroism does occur, Chesnutt gives it an ambivalent moral frame. For example, when Josh Green, the embittered African American dockworker, leads a group of armed African Americans to defend Miller's hospital from the rioting mobs, Chesnutt undermines his act of heroism by conflating it with revenge. When Chesnutt first introduces Green, we learn that McBane, one of the Big Three, killed Green's father in a Klan attack, and that Green is thus obsessed with the idea of revenge. Revenge and filial piety are certainly compatible with romantic conventions of heroism. However, Chesnutt deliberately sets such heroism in contrast to Miller's more civic sensibility. While introducing Green to the readers, Miller expresses the view that "[t]o die in defense of the right was heroic. To kill another for revenge was pitifully human and weak" (114). This statement haunts Green's final moments in the novel. Not only does Green draw the ire of the mob upon the hospital, leading to its destruction, but Green also kills McBane, leaving the reader with two seemingly incompatible frames by which to judge his actions. Is Green a civic hero who dies defending a public good, or is he a romantic hero avenging his father at the expense of a public good?
At other moments in the novel, romance is reduced to a prop within the plot. Characters deploy its conventions and stage its normative values while explicitly acknowledging that they no longer live in a romantic world. Romance fails to constitute the world-view of the novel, and Chesnutt figures romantic values as anachronistic. Whereas the race romances of writers like Dixon and Page figure the romantic ethos as being organically connected to the actions and beliefs of the characters, Chesnutt deliberately displays the extent to which this ethos is out of place and out of time. In his own account of his novel, Chesnutt writes that "[t]he old order has passed away, but these opinions, deeply implanted in the consciousness of two races, still persists" (Chesnutt, "Charles W. Chesnutt's Own View" 169).
This anachronism becomes most evident in the scenes leading up to the near- lynching of an African American who is suspected of murder, and the lynching chapters demonstrate both the license and the limits of romantic ideals in the Jim Crow South. These chapters contain many of the same plot elements found in the later riot scenes: the Big Three orchestrate the violence; Miller, Green, and Watson, an African American lawyer, meet up to discuss the events; the government fails to intervene; Ellis expresses disgust at the lawlessness; Green offers to put together a violent resistance to the mob; and the mob is drunk and difficult to control. Romance, however, is more explicitly thematized as a political factor in the earlier chapters because of the way the lynching section focuses on Mr. Delamere, a character who attempts to extend his romantic values into the practices of Jim Crow regulation. Delamere is an "ideal gentleman of an ideal past" (214) who lives his life through a romantic mode. Not only is his estate "like a baronial castle ... rich in legendary lore and replete with historic distinction" (196), but chivalry also structures the values and codes through which he lives his life. It creates his moral universe, a moral universe centered upon notions of family honor and a feudal paternalism that includes his former slaves. As soon as Delamere extends these romantic values into the politics of post-Reconstruction race relations, their anachronism becomes painfully evident. When Delamere defends Sandy, his former slave who is falsely accused of murder, he extends the romantic value of familial honor to Sandy in a way that is unimaginable to the characters of Carteret's generation: "The man was raised by me.... Sandy has too much respect for the family to do anything that would reflect disgrace upon it" (210). Delamere vouches for his former slave by evoking a chivalric code of honor, believing that his "bare word" should be enough to exonerate Sandy. He also explicitly places this code in the past by repeating the phrase "time was": "Time was, sir, when the word of a Delamere was held as good as his bond.... Time was, sir, when the law was enforced in this state in a manner to command the respect of the world." Increasingly frustrated by the disjuncture between his romantic values and the new South, Delamere finally declares that he has "outlasted [his] epoch."
Chesnutt further emphasizes this anachronism by stressing a generational difference between Delamere and his grandson Tom, who is actually guilty of the murder. Delamere is "the apex of an ideal aristocratic development." He has "courage and strength of will, courtliness of bearing, deference to his superiors, of whom there had been few, courtesy to his equals, kindness and consideration for those less highly favored, and above all, a scrupulous sense of honor" (211). In contrast, Tom "was merely the shadow without the substance, the empty husk without the grain. Of grace he had plenty. In manners he could be perfect, when he so chose. Courage and strength he had none" (96). Tom deploys the mannerism of a romantic mode, but the values of that ethos are all surface and performance. For Tom, "while principles were of little moment, the externals of social intercourse possessed an exaggerated importance" (160).
Although romantic values are anachronistic, they do not simply disappear when their anachronism is made evident. They still circulate as a kind of performance. Such performances take on an explicitly public character during the lynching scenes. For example, after Delamere presents evidence to the Big Three that his grandson Tom actually committed the murder for which Sandy is about to be lynched, Carteret finds himself in a bind. Although he does not want Sandy to be lynched for a crime he did not commit, he equally does not want to compromise the "reputation of the [white] race." He asks Delamere to "consider the family honor" and notes that "[t]hey must not lynch the negro, and yet, for the credit of the town, its aristocracy, and the race, the truth of this ghastly story must not see the light" (228). In order to sustain the romance of white reputation and honor, Carteret has Delamere publicly swear that he was with Sandy on the night of the murder. Delamere's "word," the very same "word" that Carteret earlier rejected as a romantic anachronism, becomes the public warrant that exonerates Sandy. Ironically though, Delamere's word is a lie, and when he publicly performs his aristocratic reputation, the performance is "hollow and unnatural" (231).
In To Wake the Nations, Eric Sundquist explores the racial politics of such performances in Chesnutt's novel. Staging cakewalks and stump speeches, the novel makes performance a major theme, and Sundquist examines the way that "Chesnutt's authorial cakewalk ... exposes the south's political masquerade" (Sundquist 453). This exposure does more than display "false minstrel images" that "cover revolutionary violence," for it also displays the discontinuity between romantic values and the social order that might generate such values. The "political masquerade" that Chesnutt exposes is not a false image that hides the true workings of a racist society, but rather the scandalous fact that romantic values circulate without being grounded in a social order that the performance itself produces the authority of romantic traditions.
These performances of romantic values have a certain resonance with Judith Butler's description of the performativity of norms, Giving a deconstructive twist to J. L. Austin's theory of performative speech acts, Butler explores the authority of norms through their citation. She inverts the relation between acts of citation and the authority of norms. A norm is not cited because it has a prior power, but instead has power only in and through the act of citation (Butler 225). In Marrow, romantic customs similarly have authority in and through their repeated citation and not because they are grounded in a social order that is prior to that performance. Romantic values are all surface; they are--like Mr. Delamere's citation of his word of honor--"hollow." Chesnutt deliberately denies these values a stable social ground, particularly when they circulate in the political narratives of the novel. Delamere's word of honor is actually a lie, and Carteret's investment in a "good name" is merely a matter of "pretense" (81). Chesnutt persistently displays a disjuncture between the content of romantic values and their enunciative function at the moment they are cited.
Butler suggests that exposing such performativity is potentially subversive (231). Similarly, Sundquist argues that Chesnutt unsettles Jim Crow politics by exposing the extent to which Southern tradition is a "masquerade" with no normative ground. Other critics have followed suit by connecting the novel's performativity to its politics. Stephen Knadler, for example, demonstrates the extent to which "whiteness" is a "performance that is always in the process of (but never quite successful at) imitating and approximating itself" (428). The political effect of this is that the novel "positioned its Anglo-American readers so that they would be compelled to ponder the unnaturalness of their race" (429). Taking a more linguistic approach, Ian Finseth posits that Marrow describes a society in which "racial identity is a matter of performance and disguise, where the language of race deals in partial truths and slippery shibboleths" (2-3). Shifting his analysis from the level of the statement (what language means) to the level of its enunciation (language as a performance), he argues that Chesnutt critiques racism by "dramatizing in concrete detail how his society fashioned the disguise of 'natural' white supremacy" (16).
Turning to the concerns of this paper, I would similarly argue that drawing attention to these dramatizations and performances during the lynching scenes is undoubtedly a significant part of Chesnutt's literary politics. At the very least, it helps to denaturalize the romantic conventions through which extralegal violence was often justified. However, even if the novel's political intervention is partly constituted by the way it reveals the masquerade of Jim Crow rule, this revelation seems to have little bearing upon the Big Three's use of romantic conventions. Simply knowing that romance is a masquerade does not necessarily make it ineffective. Mr. Delamere becomes disillusioned when he has to perform his romantic reputation to preserve a lie, but the performance works nonetheless. Transformative ideology critique does not necessarily occur through revelation. In fact, as Dean McWilliams asserts, an awareness of how racist ideology functions in the South works to both the detriment and benefit of racist power in the novel (163). Even more disturbing is what Ryan Simmons discovers in his reading of the novel when he points out that the characters in the novel "fully know" that their "beliefs are lies," and that "the horror of the novel is that these characters can act as they do despite their submerged awareness of the immorality of their behavior" (101)
But if revealing the fact of performativity is not enough to render performance ineffective, then how does Chesnutt critique these performances? The answer, I believe, lies in how Chesnutt draws attention to the form, not just the fact, of performances of "Southern tradition." The novel repeatedly highlights a set of specifically romantic norms, and we should ask if there is any reason why romance (rather than some other set of conventions) becomes the literary mode of Southern tradition during this period. Answering this question helps to explain the violence at the end of the novel as well as the ultimate success of these performances as a form of power despite their repeated exposure.
What I would suggest is that while revealing the performativity of norms is an important part of Chesnutt's literary politics, just as important are the conventions through which these performances occur. Traditions romantic conventions create an indeterminate relation between social and political spheres that is similar to the one I traced in the legal cases. In the legal cases, a contradiction between legal norms (the legal reasoning justifying the law) and legal facticity (the administration of the law) both marks and erases a distinction between the social and the political. In the novel, a contradiction between the specific content of romantic norms and their performance within a segregated society produces a similar ambivalence.
The Southern romance assumes continuity between the social and the political. Such continuity subtends Delamere's deployment of chivalric values within the political narrative of the novel, for Delamere marks no distinction between his social and political capital. The social and political goals of a hero in a chivalric romance are one and the same; marriage, the family, and reputation are inseparable from political power, and his legitimacy as a political actor is coextensive with his social status, Delamere's "word of honor" should extend from his social status into his attempt to prevent Sandy from being lynched. As Todd McGowan argues in his analysis of Mr. Delamere, "the performative power of the monarch's word ... is present in [his] very name," leaving "no disjunction between his/her will and the social reality" (61-62).
A disjunction remains, however, and this is largely due to another convention of the Southern romance, one that marks a distinction between the social and the political. According to this convention, the chivalric hero must act within a social sphere that is figured as distinct from the official sphere of the state and the law. The social and the political might be continuous from the standpoint of political legitimacy, but as spheres of action they are distinct, and the sphere of official state action is treated with notable disdain. Put simply, the chivalric hero resorts to a social field of honor rather than to the courts. I'll turn to Chesnutt's rendering of this convention in a moment, but first it is important to note how prevalent it was in romantic fictionalizations of the South. Mark Twain, for example, pokes fun at this convention in his novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, when Tom Driscoll's aristocratic uncle disinherits Tom because he sought redress for an insult through the courts rather than through a duel. In the work of Thomas Dixon and Thomas Nelson Page, the villains are usually elected or appointed officials, and the sphere of official politics is figured with a great amount of suspicion. This suspicion is in large part because the official political sphere is figured as a place of class and racial mixing. According to a racist logic that appeared in both Southern romances and in the popular press, to have a racially mixed government was to have a racially mixed "society," and thus to open up the possibility of miscegenation. (16) The hero of the racist Southern romance works to purify the state by excluding African Americans, but he must act from within a social sphere that is not tainted by miscegenation and is figured as distinctly separate from the official sphere of law and legislation.
Of course, the social sphere was in actual fact rife with miscegenation, and part of Chesnutt's critique of the Southern romance lies in the way that he sketches out a tangled web of interracial familial relations. Marrow not only draws attention to the fact that miscegenation occurs despite social and legal prohibitions, but also reveals how the romantic continuity between the social and the political must be repressed at times to keep this miscegenation out of sight. The novel does this by simultaneously marking and erasing the distinction between the social and political narratives of the novel at moments where romantic ideals of nobility and familial obligation confront the prejudices of segregation and the facts of miscegenation. The novel, in other words, produces an indeterminacy between the social and the political. Take for example the christening party that the Carterets throw in honor of their only son in the second chapter. A discussion about race and government interrupts the social chitchat when, unable to resist expounding on his objections to "being governed by an inferior and servile race" (25), Carteret begins talking politics with Delamere. This discussion is appropriate to the occasion because Carteret inextricably links his son's social future to the political future of the city. In the course of the conversation, Mr. Delamere mentions Dr. Miller's hospital, leading up to the following passage:
Mrs. Carteret's face wore a tired expression. This question was her husband's hobby, and therefore her own nightmare. Moreover, she had her personal grievance against the negro race, and the names mentioned by old Mr. Delamere had brought it vividly before her mind. She had no desire to mar the harmony of the occasion by the discussion of a distasteful subject. (25)
The "personal grievance" that Olivia harbors is that others often confuse her for her mulatto half-sister. The discussion of racial politics interrupts the texture of social intercourse as it "mars the harmony of the occasion" and is a "distasteful subject." However, at the same time that racial politics disrupts the social texture of the scene, it also becomes confused with that very same texture as Olivia conflates her husband's political grievance with her own social one. In this passage, Olivia conflates the social and the political at the very same moment that she marks their incompatibility to avoid the topic of miscegenation. This occurs when Delamere unwittingly refers to her extended family, a family that the Carterets would not include within the "roll of honor" that constitutes their son's lineage (2).
In the next chapter when the Big Three meet to plot their coup, there is a similar conflation of the social and political. Early in the chapter, Carteret conflates his political scheming with the preservation of his son's social status: "Quite obviously the career of a Carteret must not be left to chance,--it must be planned and worked out with a due sense of the value of good blood" (29). A few pages later, this planning becomes the political scheming of the Big Three at their first meeting. General Belmont opens the session by connecting Carteret's personal interest in his son's future to the political future of their community: "And now that you have a son, Major, you'll be all the more interested in doing something to make this town fit to live in" 03). Belmont follows with a list of "outrages" that alternate between the political and the social:
Things are in an awful condition! A negro justice of the peace has opened an office on Market Street, and only yesterday summoned a white man to appear before him. Negro lawyers get most of the business in the criminal court. Last evening a group of white ladies, going quietly along the street arm-in-arm, were forced off the sidewalk by a crowd of negro girls. Coming down the street just now, I saw a spectacle of social equality and negro domination that made my blood boil with indignation,--a white and black convict chained together, crossing the city in charge of a negro officer (33).
This passage deliberately conflates state and society, as a "group of white ladies" forced off the sidewalk is conflated with complaints about "negro lawyers" and judges. Similarly, the equal participation of African Americans in the operations of the state becomes a "spectacle of social equality." In addition, Carteret's desire for the social well-being of his son (his romantic attachment to patrilineal descent and family honor) becomes the rationale for the subsequent political "crusade" that extends a romantic hierarchy based on birth and family into the political sphere.
This conflation of social and political is only one aspect of the political scheming that follows, for the incompatibility of these spheres is just as evident. While Carteret continually struggles to lend some social propriety to his cohort's political schemes, he also tries to avoid getting personally involved in the actual execution of their plans. Ellis, who criticizes mob violence, likewise notes an incompatibility between the social and the political, but directly in relation to the procedures of the state. After Tom frames Sandy for the murder that he himself committed, Ellis comes across evidence that would exonerate Sandy and indict Tom. But doing the right thing from a legal standpoint would prove to be socially embarrassing. In spite of the way that romance collapses political and social action, politics and society do not always mix, particularly when politics concerns the official laws and actions of the state. Ellis ponders:
[W]ould Miss Pemberton ever speak to the man who had been the instrument of bringing disgrace upon her family? Spies, detectives, police officers, may be useful citizens, but they are rarely pleasant company for other people. We fee the executioner, but we do not touch his bloody hand. We might feel a certain tragic admiration for Brutus condemning his sons to death, but we would scarcely invite Brutus to dinner after the event (218).
Although the values of a romantic tradition extend from Olivia's dinner party at the opening of the novel into the political scheming of the Big Three, politics itself must not be invited to dinner. Like the legal cases we examined, the social becomes intimately entangled with the political, but is at the same time incompatible with it.
Extralegal Violence and a State of Abandonment
Chesnutt's novel exposes a number of consequences for this indeterminacy between the social and the political. Perhaps the most obvious is how it allows for quasi-official forms of regulation. The Big Three are citizens "representing no organized body, and clothed with no legal authority," who nevertheless take over many of the functions of the state (180). They conduct trials, set limits to political participation, and deploy violence. Like the train conductor who threatens to put together a lynch mob to enforce the law, the Big Three operate in a world where the distinction between the legal and extralegal is unclear because the limits of official regulation are indeterminate. Their actions are not legal, but nevertheless appear legitimate to the white community throughout the novel. (17) On the one hand, a romantic ethos justifies such actions because it imagines a world where expressing the social prejudices of a community is inseparable from expressing that community's political order. On the other hand, these actions must simultaneously remain extralegal because of the way romance values social rather than legal action. In a society where the state is figured as a site of possible miscegenation, the Big Three act independently of the state to assure its racial purity rather than through it.
The novel thus describes a coup, but this coup does not seem to threaten the sovereignty of the state or even elicit a response from the state or federal governments. Again, we can look to the indeterminate relation between the social and the political for an explanation. More specifically, indeterminacy allows violence to permeate the everyday while inoculating the state from any responsibility for that violence. Legitimate violence is limited to the jurisdiction of the state, but in the Jim Crow South, the very boundary of state action becomes ambivalent. By erasing the boundary between society and state, romantic indeterminacy allows the violence that should be contained by the state to bleed into everyday social relations; however, by simultaneously marking this boundary, the state avoids a legitimation crisis that would result from erasing its jurisdictional boundaries altogether. (18)
This violence should be understood as abandonment. Riot is like a state of exception where the law has been suspended. It similarly produces what Agamben calls a "zone of indifference," in which it is difficult to determine what is inside or outside of the legal order. However, unlike a state of exception, which is a theory of the plenitude of sovereign power (the power of the sovereign to exceed its own laws), the state instead evacuates a space where any number of quasi-official agents might swoop in and suspend legal procedure while enforcing the rules of segregation. Unlike a state of exception, there is no designation of who decides when the law is suspended, for as Chesnutt demonstrates, the mob can consist of just about anyone who is white. (19) Even the Big Three lose control of the violence, and what Chesnutt ultimately describes is a form of vulnerability rather than a positive form of power. This abandonment is not, however, simply the absence of the state. It is instead inseparable from the very conventions that were being used to describe the Southern customs that became the basis of Jim Crow laws.
There is certainly a long legal history where the indeterminate boundaries of the state can be understood as a "state of exception," and where indeterminacy leads to state-administered violence that marks exceptions to the rule of everyday legal norms. Such indeterminacy appears in the idea of a "domestic dependent nation" of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, in the designation of imperial holdings as "foreign in a domestic sense" in the 1901 Insular Cases, and most recently in the arguments of the George W. Bush administration that designated the Guantanamo detention facility as both a part of, and apart from, the U. S. (thus becoming a space where the U. S. is sovereign, but where legal rights don't apply). However, the lesson we should take from Chesnutt's presentation of romance and riot is that while we must continue to be vigilant about our Cherokee Nations, our Insular Cases, and our Guantanomos, we must be equally vigilant about the conventions through which the state is allowed to disappear and abandon groups to an extralegal violence that the state does not administer.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1995. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
--. State of Exception. 2003. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
Bentley, Nancy. "The Strange Career of Love and Slavery: Chesnutt, Engels, Masoch." American Literary History 17.3 (Fall 2005): 460-85.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits Of "Sex". New York: Routledge, 1993.
Chesnutt, Charles W. "Charles W. Chesnutt's Own View of His New Story, The Marrow of Tradition (1901)." Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches. Eds. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Robert C. Leitz, III, and Jesse S. Crisler. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
--. The House Behind the Cedars. 1900. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.
--. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Chiles v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company. 218 U.S. 71. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1910.
Civil Rights Cases. 109 U.S. 3. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1883.
Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams, "Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law." Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. Eds. Kimberle Krenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas. New York: New, 1995. 103-22.
Dixon, Thomas. The Leopard's Spots. New York: Doubleday and Page, 1902.
Finseth, Ian. "How Shall the Truth be Told?: Language and Race in The Marrow of Tradition." American Literary Realism 31.3 (Spring 1999): 1-20.
Friedman, Ryan Jay. "'Between Absorption and Extinction': Charles Chesnutt and Biopolitical Racism." Arizona Quarterly 63.4 (Winter 2007): 39-62.
Goldsby, Jacqueline. A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.
Hall v. Decuir. 95 U.S. 485. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1877.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Common Law. Boston: Little, Brown, 1881.
Hopkins, Pauline E. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. 1900. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Howells, William Dean. "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories." Atlantic Monthly 85 (May 1900): 699-701.
Knadler, Stephen. "Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness." American Literary History 8.3 (Fall 1996): 426-48.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. "W. D. Howells and Race: Charles W. Chesnutt's Disappointment of the Dean." Nineteenth Century Literature 51.4 (March 1997): 474-99.
--. "Why Charles Chesnutt Is Not a Realist." American Literary Realism 32.2 (Winter 2000): 91-108.
McGowan, Todd. "Acting Without the Father: Charles Chesnutt's New Aristocrat." American Literary Realism 30.1 (Fall 1997): 59-74.
McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
Page, Thomas Nelson. The Negro: The Southerner's Problem. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904.
--. Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898.
Peterson, Carla L. "Commemorative Ceremonies and Invented Traditions: History, Memory, and Modernity in the 'New Negro' Novel of the Nadir." Post-Bellum, Pre- Harlem. Eds. Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard. New York: New York UP, 2006. 133-45.
Pillsbury, Albert E. "A Brief Inquiry into a Federal Remedy for Lynching." Harvard Law Review 15.9 (May 1902): 707-13.
Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537. U.S. Sup. Ct. 1896.
Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. 1934. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
Simmons, Ryan. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2006.
Sumner, William Graham. Folkways; a Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Boston: Ginn, 1907.
Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1993.
Tourgee, Albion. "Assignment of Errors." The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in History. Ed. Otto H. Olsen. New York: Humanities, 1967. 74-77.
--. "The South as a Field for Fiction." Forum 6 (December 1888): 404-13.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. 1883. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Warren, Kenneth W. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.
Wilmington Race Riot Commission. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report. Raleigh: Office of Archives and History, 2006. Web. 3 Jan. 2009.
Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2004.
--. "Who Has the Right to Say? Charles W. Chesnutt, Whiteness, and the Public Sphere." College Literature 26.2 (Spring 1999): 18-35.
(1.) In U. S. debates about lynching at the turn of the century, even its apologists agreed that legitimate violence was the province of the state. See, for example, Page's The Negro: The Southerner's Problem, where he criticizes lynching for "overriding of the law" even as he blames African American criminality (90).
(2.) I borrow the term "cultural logic" from Goldsby's book, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American life and Literature. A cultural logic is a Weltanschauung, or world-view, and refers to "lynching's synchronicities or its fit with developments in national society and culture" (26). It marks a reciprocal and dialectical relationship between an interpretive matrix and the material facts of racial violence. Whereas Goldsby's work examines lynching as a spectacle constituted through the conventions of modernism and mass-mediated representation, this essay examines lynching in terms of its legal world-view and the conventions of the romance.
(3.) Much of this interest has been in response to the post-9/11 policies of the "War on Terror," which have often tried to justify departures from legal procedure. The term has also recently been used to rethink the cultural history of American imperialism. See, for example, Exceptional State: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the New Imperialism, Ashley Dawson and Malini Johar Schueller, eds. (Durham: Duke UP, 2007).
(4.) Agamben highlights this indifference in his reading of Schmitt in State of Exception. He points out that "the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concern precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other, but rather blur with each other" (23).
(5.) The Wilmington riot was largely orchestrated by private businessmen, who were not currently holding office. However, they did have the support of the Wilmington Light Infantry, which was an official state militia that coordinated its actions with Red Shirt brigades and white citizen patrols during the riot. The city's postmaster, H. Chadbourne, Jr., was also instrumental in brokering the coup d'etat that followed the violence. See Leon Prather, We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1984), and chapter five of the 2006 report of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission.
(6.) Bryan Wagner offers a compelling account of how African American visibility leads to violence in his essay, "Charles Chesnutt and the Epistemology of Racial Violence," American Literature 73.2 (June 2001): 311-37. My approach differs in that I am less concerned with the social causes of extralegal violence and more concerned with the cultural logic that allows the state to ignore such violence.
(7.) For a detailed history of these events, see Leon Prather, We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1984).
(8.) Chesnutt touches upon many of the central elements of the case: the jurisdictional question confronting the courts, the notion of the "strict impartiality" of the law, the labeling of cars as required in the original Louisiana statute, the exemption for African American nurses, and even the exemption of Chinese noncitizens, which Justice Harlan would point out in his dissenting opinion. Brook Thomas has commented extensively on these connections. See Thomas, "The Legal Argument of Charles W. Chesnntt's Novels," Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 18 (2002), 311- 34; "Introduction: The Legal Background," in Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents, Brook Thomas, ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997); and "Plessy v. Ferguson and the Literary Imagination," Cardoza Studies in Law and Literature 9 ( 1997): 45-65.
(9.) This form of authority was an issue in legal challenges to segregation. In the "Assignment of Errors" filed in Plessy, Albion Touree questioned this quasi-official authority by pointing out that the ability of a conductor to determine the race of a passenger had no grounding in the law. There was no statute in Louisiana defining race, and even if there was, allowing a conductor to make such a statutory determination would be to deny the passengers due process (Tourgee, "Assignment of Errors").
(10.) In his earlier novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Chesnutt makes the connection between Southern tradition and literary romance even more explicit. Early in the novel, John Warwick, a mulatto who passes as white, transforms his sister from a light-skinned mulatto into a white woman of society. When she finally emerges, it is not into a parlor room, but rather into a Sir Walter Scott novel. She literally comes out as white at an annual jousting tournament, a tournament complete with heralds, bugles, and "knights masquerading in fanciful costumes" (46). The novel explicitly links the tournament to "the influence of Walter Scott," and Rena Walden becomes Rowena Warwick, named after the heroine of Ivanhoe (45).
(11.) Historical hindsight has done little to situate the Marrow of Tradition. Anthologies like The Portable American Realism Reader have included Chesnutt's stories, and his works figure prominently in book length studies of realism. But Chesnutt's status as a realist has not gone unchallenged. Thomas, for example, notes realist tendencies in Chesnutt's fiction, but also argues that Chesnutt appeals to sentiment (163). Likewise, McElrath has made a case for (to quote the title of his essay) "Why Charles W. Chesnutt Is Not a Realist." McElrath traces Chesnutt's use of romantic conventions and further argues that Howells's classification of Chesnutt as a realist comes from Howells's own romanticizing of race relations.
(12.) Like the idea of "literary competence" that Jonathan Culler develops in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975), I understand conventions through the relations between texts that coexist contemporaneously.
(13.) See Peterson.
(14.) See Frederic Jameson's useful distinction between mode and genre in his essay "Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre," New Literary History 7 (Autumn 1975): 135-63.
(15.) My approach here is in part indebted to Warren's Black and White Strangers, which insists that that "divergent literary tastes ... did not point to opposing political beliefs." Warren examines the aesthetic investments of realism "to highlight the intellectual and cultural anxieties that have made separatism and discrimination in a variety of forms seem viable solutions to the social problems of a supposedly democratic society." Warren is careful, however, not to "construct a racially integrated literary utopia" (10) Rather than laud or denounce realism for representing a set of political ideas, he traces the work that realism does as a milieu of intelligibility. Realism, according to Warren, dissolved the distinction between social and civil spheres and therefore inadvertently supported the segregationist fear that establishing civil and political equality between the races would be tantamount to establishing social equality. Rather than align literary conventions with political opinions, Warren examines the way that realism created a "climate of opinion that undermined the North's capacity to resist Southern arguments against political equality for African Americans during the 1880s and 1890s through its conflicted participation in discussions about the American social order" (13). Warren's interest, then, is not in the racial ideas of realism, but rather the world-view that realism creates to authorize ideas about race.
(16.) Many of the public attacks on the Fusion Party conflated political participation and miscegenation. For example, one contemporary New York Times editorial stated that "Fusion is a marriage of two parties having no principles in common. The endorsement of the miscegenation leader is the legitimate heir of [this political] union" (qtd. in Sundquist 409).
(17.) Wilson argues that Chesnutt's white audience would have also shared the assumption that the extralegal violence of the Wilmington riots was justified and legitimate.
(18.) One framework for understanding this mechanism can be found in Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, trans. (1962; Cambridge: MIT P, 1989). For Habermas, the legitimation of the modem democratic state occurs in a public sphere that is predicated on the distinction between the social and the political. The indeterminacy that Chesnutt reveals in his novel produces such a distinction but simultaneously collapses it. It creates the conditions for legitimation while simultaneously conflating political and social violence. As Wilson has argued in his essay "Who Has the Right to Say?," much of The Marrow of Tradition can be read as Chesnutt's attempt to rehabilitate the public sphere and to make it more racially inclusive. I would only revise Wilson's claim to argue that Chesnutt is reacting not simply to the loss of this public sphere, but to the situation that makes it simultaneously possible and impossible.
(19.) The novel emphasizes this when Miller moves through the town during the riots. He is searched by a number of white rioters, including acquaintances, former criminals, and a Jewish merchant, who Miller notes has "forgotten twenty centuries of history as to join in the persecution of another oppressed race" (289-90).
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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