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In her Introduction to African American Literature class, Stefanie read Charles Chesnutt’s late nineteenth-century novel The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt was an African American writer born to free black parents during slavery. His writing focused on the aftermath of slavery at the turn of the twentieth century. The Marrow of Tradition fictionalized and commented on the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina. The story explores the lives of both white and black characters, and Stefanie was interested in the ways these communities are represented in conflict and cooperation around the character of Dodie Cartaret, the infant son of a prominent white family in the novel’s fictional town, who must be saved by Dr. Miller, a young black man.
Here is Stefanie’s proposal. You can see that she’s not yet developed a detailed claim about Dodie but is working with complex ideas that will lead her to a rich, debatable, and engaging claim later in her writing process.
Paper Proposal #2
October 1, 20–
Paper Proposal #2
Evidence that will help to solve my “problem.”
The Carterets’ love for Dodie instigates many instances of racial conflict.
Dodie is, for the Carteret’s, a reassurance of their superiority.
When Olivia finally gives birth to a child, she feels as though she is no longer threatened by her more fertile half-sister.
Dodie’s fever serves as an equalizer for Carteret and Dr. Miller.
In order to save Dodie or, in the symbolic case, American society, the Carteret’s must appeal to the Millers.
As Stefanie develops her paper in response to her instructor’s comments, she hones in on precisely what Dodie symbolizes and how he “affects major points of the novel.” Eventually she develops that vague idea into a well-honed introduction with a specific, debatable claim:
At first glance, it may seem that Dodie, an infant, has little to say about racism in American society. However, as a baby, Dodie is symbolic of the potential for a new birth in American racial relations. Once readers pay attention to Dodie’s presence in the novel, they can recognize how his health parallels the tumultuous life of Wellington and thus grasp an understanding of how racism affects a community. Furthermore, by observing Dodie’s relationship to characters like his mulatto cousin or situations like his expectoration of an old rattle, readers reveal Chesnutt’s underlying themes of racial identity and his suggestions for how societal change can be made.
Keeping that claim in mind, let’s look at Stefanie’s entire paper:
Professor Karlyn Crowley
November 5, 20–
Dodie Carteret and The Marrow of Tradition: “The Burden of the Nation” On An Infant’s Shoulders
During the time of the American Reconstruction, many whites believed that racial inequality was solely a “Negro problem.” However, in his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois argues that “the burden belongs to the nation,” meaning that blacks and whites are both responsible for creating a more equal society. In The Marrow of Tradition author Chesnutt echoes DuBois’s message of interracial cooperation with the story arch surrounding Theodore “Dodie” Carteret, the infant son of the novel’s primary white characters, Major Phillip and Mrs. Olivia Carteret. While many critics have focused on the importance of the novel’s adult characters, they have neglected the importance of baby Dodie Carteret. At first glance, it may seem that Dodie, an infant, has little to say about racism in American society. However, as a baby, Dodie is symbolic of the potential for a new birth in American racial relations. Once readers pay attention to Dodie’s presence in the novel, they can recognize how his health parallels the tumultuous life of Wellington and thus grasp an understanding of how racism affects a community. Furthermore, by observing Dodie’s relationship to characters like his mulatto cousin or situations like his expectoration of an old rattle, readers reveal Chesnutt’s underlying themes of racial identity and his suggestions for how societal change can be made. Finally, by accepting the importance of Dodie to The Marrow of Tradition, readers also accept their responsibility to promote social change and equality for all races.
Born in the first chapter of the novel and near death in the last, Dodie Carteret lives in tandem with the novel’s plot. Dodie’s birth sets into motion Major Carteret’s plan for white supremacy. That movement causes the fictional Wellington race riot, an event based on an actual riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, that is central to the novel’s plot. Dodie also plays a role in the heated confrontations between the Carterets and the Millers, two couples who represent the white and black races, respectively. Near the conclusion, Dodie develops a fever when Wellington erupts in the flames of racial violence. The events of Dodie’s life mirror those occurring in Wellington, and by constructing such parallels between Dodie’s life and Wellington’s racial climate, Chesnutt magnifies the effects of racism on a community. For example, shortly after Dodie’s christening, Major Carteret meets with Captain McBane and General Beaumont to establish the white supremacy campaign. Here, Dodie’s birth coincides with the birth of changes in the social structure of Wellington. Major Carteret’s family lost their fortune in the Civil War; now that he has a son to receive inheritance and power, Carteret desires to create a world in which African American businesses and causes will not threaten Dodie’s chances of wealth and happiness (44). Carteret’s scathing articles about African Americans in his newspaper create violence and hatred in a once ideal community.
Dodie not only symbolizes the birth of a new era in Wellington history; his arrival also indicates the death of an old one. Dodie is part of a new generation that has never experienced slavery, and thus he would be unfamiliar with plantation life and its demoralizing attitude towards African Americans. How he and other children react towards the attitudes of the past will help to determine the future of Wellington and American society. Charles Chesnutt uses this aspect of Dodie’s character to his advantage. He constructs a symbolic event centering on Dodie in which the baby’s reaction to his own near-death experience hints at Chesnutt’s desires for the new generation. At Dodie’s christening, Polly Ochiltree gives her great-nephew an old rattle. Aunt Polly Ochiltree is one of Chesnutt’s characterizations of the “Old South,”–the era of pre-Civil War history immortalized in plantation fiction. She upholds the “Old South” mentality of supporting black inferiority and submission. When Dodie is born she declares “I shall leave my house and land to this child! He is a Carteret—he would never sell them to a negro” yet she inadvertently threatens her bequest by giving Dodie the rattle. Dodie begins gasping for air after he chokes on a piece of Aunt Polly’s rattle. He is physically strangled by a figurative piece of the “Old South” (123). When Dodie finally spits out the rattle on his own, Chesnutt is making an important statement. In order to breathe, society—like Dodie—must discharge that which is strangling it.
A further parallel between Dodie and Wellington is created when Dodie contracts croup near the end of the novel. Throughout The Marrow of Tradition, Dodie suffers from colds and other common childhood infections; he recuperates from each and continues growing and developing. Similarly, life in Wellington remains relatively quiet as the supremacist movement grows and develops. Then, when Carteret’s campaign gets out of hand and the riot ensues, life in town is disrupted. At the same time Dodie, Carteret’s son, contracts the croup. The croup is an inflammation of the bronchi that involves congestion, mucus, and a high fever. Such symptoms are comparative to the intense heat and congested streets of the riot. During the riot, fire silences screams; the streets run red with the blood of blacks and whites; an angry mob tramples citizens; and, when the riot reaches fever-pitch, Dr. Miller’s hospital is burned to the ground.
When Dr. Miller encounters the riot, he describes its emotional heat as one in which “friendship, religion, humanity, reason, all shrivel up like dry leaves in a raging furnace” (217). Such a furnace could only reside in Hell, to which Wellington’s riotous state bears similarities. In her haste to escape the danger of the hellish riot, Dodie’s nurse leaves him near the draught of an open window, so he catches cold and develops the croup (235). Dodie’s croup and Wellington’s riot share the same root cause: Major Carteret’s white supremacist movement, which brought Hell to earth. Chesnutt’s narrator observes how even Carteret is surprised by the damage his movement has done. “‘Is it serious?’…He had always thought of the croup as a childish ailment, that yielded readily to proper treatment; but the child’s evident distress impressed him with sudden fear” (236). The major’s amazement, while directed toward his son’s illness, also infers that Carteret realizes he can no longer control the riot and fears that he will suffer for his part in it. Indeed, Dodie “burns” with fever over the flames of his father’s earthly Hell. Since Dodie is Chesnutt’s symbol for future generations of white Americans, his fever warns white readers that, though African Americans are the ones attacked during the Wellington riot, the white race will pay for their sins if racial violence continues.
Chesnutt’s decision to construct parallels between Wellington and Dodie, the white child of upper-class parents, is important to the novel’s overall message of interracial cooperation. It would be easy for readers to identify the effects of racism and racial oppression upon an African American child; that child is on the receiving end of the oppression. When Chesnutt focuses on a white child amidst an environment of racial oppression and inequality, however, readers recognize the negative effects of supremacy on the oppressors. Furthermore, readers can observe how whites’ prejudice towards blacks endangers them and their children. Major Carteret expects Dodie to live a life of ease, free from “Negro domination,” because he, as Dr. Price informs Dr. Miller, “has certain principles…certain inflexible rules of conduct by which he regulates his life. One of these…forbids the recognition of the Negro as a social equal” (88). However, Carteret’s efforts to protect Dodie by upholding the “purity and prestige of [his] race” are worthless (89). By showcasing Dodie’s swallowing of the rattle, his near-tumble from the window, and his deathly bout with croup, Chesnutt proves the futility of Major Carteret’s white supremacist movement. Carteret establishes the campaign in an effort to protect his son and any assets his son would inherit; yet that campaign does nothing to shield his progeny from the clutches of disease or the violence of a town riot.
Continuing with his examination of the effects of white supremacy Chesnutt highlights the invisibility of African Americans as well as their undetermined future by naming the white child, Dodie, while leaving the black child, the Millers’ son, to die nameless and unknown to readers. Early in the novel, Chesnutt’s narrator makes it a point to describe in detail the naming of Dodie Carteret, saying, “they named the Carteret baby Theodore Felix…Having thus given the child two beautiful names, replete with religious and sentimental significance, they called him—‘Dodie’” (50). The sarcastic tone with which Dodie’s nickname is introduced suggests not only are the white traditions of naming and nicknaming silly and self-degrading but also that Dodie is, from birth, a spoiled child. However, it is when Dodie is being doted upon—whether being given a new toy, held near the window to see a mockingbird, or cared for by a nanny—that his well-being is threatened. In this way, Chesnutt suggests that a coddled society has the potential to die young.
In contrast to his spoiled cousin, the Millers’ son is never given a name by the narrator. He is rarely mentioned other than when he is seen traveling with his mother, and his life has little significance to the narrative until he dies. Even then, he and his mother are lumped among the dead bodies in the streets after the riot. They are nameless, faceless, and lost until Dr. Miller finds them near a lamppost (227). The mob’s cruelty towards African American women and children speaks to the dehumanizing nature of racism and its devastating consequences. Furthermore, the namelessness of the Millers’ son in comparison to the publicized life of Dodie subtly hints at the invisibility most African Americans suffered during the Reconstruction Era. Here, the neglected society also dies young. By juxtaposing the two children, Chesnutt implies that a happy medium must be met in which both children—and both races—are given equal attention in order for them to survive.
The comparison and contrast of Dodie and his African American cousin can be extended into the relationship between their parents, the Carterets and the Millers. While Dodie’s parallel to Wellington is important to the message of The Marrow of Tradition, Dodie serves the novel best as the thread which sews together the Millers’ and the Carterets’ fates. Initially, Dodie is a source of pride and achievement for the Carterets in their desire to be superior to the Millers. At the beginning of the novel Dodie is as much a welcomed miracle as he is a status symbol, because his birth reestablishes Major Carteret’s position as a dominant male in Wellington. Indeed, Major Carteret is able to gain General Beaumont and Captain McBane’s attention after the birth of his son, because, as Beaumont remarks, “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” (63). During the Reconstruction Era, a child was a symbol of biological wealth: one’s ability to “go forth and multiply.” A childless man was left without an heir to his fortune or his family heritage, leaving him in a weakened state compared to fellow businessmen with children to control their future assets. As Chesnutt’s narrator informs readers, “One cloud had marred the otherwise perfect serenity of [the Carteret’s] happiness. Olivia was childless. To have children to perpetuate the name of which he was so proud, to write it still higher on the roll of honor had been [Major Carteret’s] dearest hope” (44–45). To make matters worse in Major Carteret’s mind, the African American Miller family has already been blessed with a son and is thus more biologically wealthy than he; a man whom Carteret refuses to acknowledge as a social equal has a greater chance of being remembered and accumulating a fortune. Dodie’s birth assures Major Carteret that his name—the family’s legacy and position in Wellington society—will not be lost to history. Instead, Dodie will be the heir “to take a place in the world commensurate with the dignity of his ancestors” (62). Carteret is no longer threatened with social inequality amongst his peers. If his plan for white supremacy succeeds, his family will have as much of a chance to succeed as those of the other old “names” and their progeny.
While Dodie pits Major Carteret against Dr. Miller, he is also the answer to Olivia’s desires and the cure for her jealousy towards her half-sister, Janet Miller. As the Carteret family’s servant Mammy Jane points out “de wust of all, w’iles Mis’ ’Livy ain’ had no child’en befo’, dis yer sister er her’n is got a fine-lookin little yaller boy, w’at favors de fam’ly, so dat ef Mis’ ’Livy ’d see de chile anywhere, it ’d mos’ break her heart fer ter think ’bout her not havin’ no child’en herse’f” (49). Though she does not admit it verbally, Olivia is extremely jealous of Janet’s fertility. Since, in her mind, she is superior to Janet and more entitled to her family’s heritage–including its physical likeness—Olivia considers Janet’s baby to be a trump card: a wealth that Janet, as Olivia’s half-sister and the product of a socially taboo relationship, should not receive before Olivia. Aunt Polly poisons Olivia’s already poor view of Janet’s mother Julia by telling the story of Julia and Mr. Merkel’s secret marriage. Thus, Olivia fears that “her father had…preferred another to her” (202). Since she, like her husband, associates love and legacy with wealth she goes to desperate lengths to protect Dodie’s inheritance, the majority of her father’s estate. While the size of her family is now equal to Janet’s, the Merkel inheritance will ensure Olivia’s son’s social superiority to any of Janet’s children.
At first, Dodie’s life fuels his parents’ greed and prejudice as they struggle to remain superior to the Millers. In the novel’s conclusion, however, Dodie is made to be the olive branch of atonement—a reparation of injustice—and peace for both the families and their races. The atonement for the riot begins when Dodie falls ill with the croup and Carteret reluctantly runs to Miller, a man whose aid he previously refused on the basis of color, for help. Upon arriving, Carteret observes the angry doctor gesturing toward the body of his son, saying “‘dead, his little life snuffed out like a candle, because you and a handful of your friends thought you must override the laws and run this town at any cost…as you have sown so may you reap!” Miller finally speaks for his race and demands that Carteret atone for the deaths he caused by watching Dodie die. Recognizing in Miller the same pain he is feeling for Dodie, Carteret admits “Miller’s refusal to go with him was pure, elemental justice…In Dr. Miller’s place he would have done the same thing.” In fact, the connection is so powerful, that Carteret experiences an “involuntary admiration” for Dr. Miller, and, admitting he was wrong for having turned away Miller’s services, takes the blame for his child’s impending death (241). At this moment, Carteret is changed. By recognizing the pride and love both he and Miller have for their sons, he can no longer fully separate himself from African Americans or believe “The Negroes have themselves to blame…I wash my hands of them” (233). He recognizes his part in the riot, and in shouldering that burden, emphasizes W. E. B. DuBois’s claim that “the hands of none of us are clean” (The Souls of Black Folk 72).
When Olivia makes her appeal to the Millers to spare Dodie’s life, she also acknowledges the dirt on her hands while empowering her half-sister Janet. Chesnutt’s narrator acknowledges the way Dodie’s croup has, to paraphrase Polly Ochiltree, turned the world upside-down: “Death, the great leveler…wrought a marvelous transformation on the bearing of the two women. The sad-eyed Janet towered erect, with menacing aspect, like an avenging goddess. The other, whose pride had been her life, stood in the attitude of a trembling suppliant” (125, 244). Olivia, who avoided confronting her half-sister out of fear, pride, loathing, and greed, must finally confront the woman her family wronged in order to save Dodie. Olivia is even willing to reveal her deepest secret; Janet is her legal sister. While Janet thought that being considered a Merkel was what she had always desired, when she hears Olivia’s proclamation, she develops another of her own: “I throw back your father’s name…but that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who injured her, you may have your child’s life” (246). As if speaking for an entire race thought to be in want or desire of the life of a white citizen, Janet rejects name, estate, reputation, and relation, but, in doing so, affirms her equality with Olivia as a human being, mother, and citizen of Wellington. Furthermore, both Janet and her husband’s reactions to the Carterets’ pleas suggest that, in times of racial conflict, African Americans must be willing to take a stand, but they must also be willing to work with whites—rather than against them—to obtain equality
The Carterets level themselves with the Millers and, in doing so, take a step toward accepting racial equality, but their responsibility to society is far from over. In The Marrow of Tradition, Dodie Carteret and the Millers’ son represent Wellington’s future generations, but at the novel’s conclusion Dodie is suffering and his cousin is dead. Thus, the new generation is forcing the old one to reckon with its racial division. Like DuBois’s theory concerning racial equality, Dodie’s only chance at survival depends on the cooperation of both races, and, as his attending physician Dr. Evans emphasizes, “There’s time enough, but none to spare” (246). However, even if Dodie survives, the absence of his cousin forces him, previously the representative for the new white generation, to represent all races, and thus work towards a society of equals. Here, at the last page of the novel, Dodie ceases to be an ailing white child and becomes a symbol for America’s ailing society. Chesnutt wrote The Marrow of Tradition in order to bring attention to the societal consequences of race riots and oppression. Dr. Evans’ last remark is intended to spur readers into action as much as it hastens Dr. Miller. Once readers recognize Dodie’s importance to Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition as a symbol of Wellington, racial relations, and the future of American life, they can understand the urgency of “there’s time enough but none to spare” and rush to shoulder W. E. B. DuBois’ burden of the nation.
Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tradition. Bedford Cultural Edition. Ed. Nancy Bentley and Sandra Gunning. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
DuBois, W. E. B. “Of Booker T. Washington and Others.” The Souls of Black Folk. Ed. David Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams. New York: Bedford, 1997.