The Marrow of Tradition is considered to be one of the most important works of African American realist fiction. It is a novel based upon a historical account of the Wilmington, North Carolina race riots of 1898. The riots were, actually, a coup d’état. White Southern Democrats were able to wrest control of the city from the Republican leadership elected and supported largely by the African American community and by United States government patronage.
Chesnutt researched and documented the riot on a trip through the South in the first years of the twentieth century. Being originally from North Carolina, Chesnutt had several relatives that lived through the riot and their memories and testimony to the event became the base material for the novel. According to Chesnutt, the riot was a spectacle of violence that undermined the value of democracy and justice in the United States. Chesnutt became determined to write about the incident in order to create a public outcry over the practice of lynching and racial violence.
The novel characterizes a US South that had increasingly become lawless and oppressive since the end of Reconstruction and a culture of public hysteria that fostered violence against the African American community. After Reconstruction, and specifically in the 1890's in North Carolina, the Republican Party had been able to gain political control because of the large numbers of black constituents in Southern states. This created an atmosphere of Southern white male hysteria. Southern white males felt that their economic and social dominance was ending and that an era of "negro dominance" was replacing it. The violence of the riots was a reflection of this anxiety.
This public hysteria was not just a Southern problem, however, and Chesnutt notes this in the novel. In the "age of crowds" in which print technology was able to affect large groups of people, black persons were often depicted as lawless and "brutes" in mainstream Northern newspapers and press outlets. These stories were often based on exaggeration, mischaracterization, and lies, and Chesnutt's writing is meant to be an indictment on such practices as well as a call to white Northern citizens to take a more active role in opposing racial violence and prejudice.
The catalyst for the riot in Wilmington was an editorial written by Alexander Manly, a black newspaper editor, in 1898. The editorial spoke out against lynching as a practice meant to subject blacks to white domination more than as a means of justice. The editorial argued that lynching was often carried out for imagined crimes against persons that did no wrong. The editorial incensed the white community in Wilmington and led to a public outcry that helped mobilize the mob for the Wilmington riot. Chesnutt depicts this event in the novel and uses the owner and editor of the white Democratic newspaper as a main character in the novel.
Chesnutt's novel was originally considered by critics to be inflammatory to race relations. Critics such as W.E.B. Du Bois worried that Chesnutt's novel would incite the same kinds of violence as Manly's editorial. Later generations, however, have criticized the novel for its too moderate treatment of racial violence. Chesnutt's novel, however, is considered a striking and deep analysis of racial conflict as it stood at the end of the nineteenth century.