The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25


Chapter 21

At ten o’clock the next morning, Major Carteret, Captain McBane, and General Belmont all gather in the Morning Chronicle’s office to discuss the options presented to them by this atrocious crime. A reporter comes into the office and tells them that a suspect has been apprehended, Sandy Campbell, and that it was Jerry, the Chronicle’s office boy, that turned him in. Carteret remembers that Sandy had served him at his son’s christening and that old Mr. Delamere had vociferously insisted upon Sandy’s dignity. This incident confirms Carteret’s belief that the “whole race...was morally undeveloped, and only held within the bounds by the restraining influence of the white people.”

All three men agree that justice must be meted out. Captain McBane insists repeatedly that they should “burn the nigger” and that “it would justify the white people in burning any nigger. The example would be all the more powerful if we got the wrong one.” Carteret is more tempered and tells them that he wants nothing to do with the violence. He does see the opportunity, however, to turn public opinion violently against the black community, thereby influencing the coming elections. Jerry is called in, and General Belmont gives him two dollars for drinks. He tells him to keep all the change as a reward for turning in Sandy and Jerry fells proud that he has done his part to “stan’ by dem dat stan’s by me.”

Chapter 22

Dr. Miller is woken by Mr. Watson, the town’s black lawyer, who tells him that Sandy has been arrested on charges of murder and that he will be lynched. There is a knock at the door and Josh Green enters. Josh tells them that he knows Sandy is innocent because he was with him the night before. Miller believes that Josh’s testimony will be an alibi, but Watson tells him that their pleas for justice will do no good. Josh would not be considered a reliable witness and the white community’s “blood is up.” Josh suggests, “Dere’s two niggers ter one white man in dis town, an’ I’m sho’ I kin fin’ fifty of ‘em w’at’ll fight, ef dey kin fin’ anybody ter lead ‘em.” Watson and Miller both discourage Josh from leading such violence, but Josh fumes over the incident and insists that it is an injustice for the white people to seek blood in this way.

The men try to list anything they might do to stop the lynching. They consider calling the Governor or the President to send the militia, but they conclude that such appeals would do no good. Miller and Watson leave to plead their case to any sympathetic white person they know, but each denies them any help. Judge Everton tells them, “If a negro wants the protection of the law, let him obey the law.” Watson calls him “a second Daniel come to judgment!” Even Dr. Price will lend no aid in the matter and personally believes that Sandy is guilty. Miller knows that their white friendships are “a slender stream at the best” which “dries up entirely when it strikes their prejudices.” They determine that their only hope is to find old Mr. Delamere and to find out who really committed such an atrocious crime.

Chapter 23

Miller hurries out to Belleview, the Delamere country estate that had been in the family for over two hundred years. He is in such a hurry that he does not have time to enjoy the beauty of the place or the grandness of the house. He enters and explains quickly the situation. Mr. Delamere is shocked that Sandy should be accused of such a crime. “No negro raised by a Delamere would ever commit such a crime. I really believe...that Sandy has the family honor of the Delameres quite as much at heart as I have.” Miller explains the urgency of the situation and that Sandy will be lynched this evening unless something is done. Delamere decides to go back to Wellington himself and see about the matter. He is sure that “there’ll be no trouble after I get there...they are good people and when I have spoken, and they have an opportunity for the sober second thought, they will do nothing rashly, but will wait for the operation of the law, which will, of course, clear Sandy.” They travel back to Wellington where Mr. Delamere enters the jail to talk directly with Sandy.

Chapter 24

In the jail, Mr. Delamere questions Sandy. Sandy pleads his innocence and Mr. Delamere believes him without question. Delamere tells Sandy that it has been his love for his grandson and Sandy’s care that has kept him alive. Sandy then tells him the whole tale of the evening, how he was with Josh Green, and how he went straight home. He tells him that the biggest mystery is that he found his clothes -- his old fashioned jacket and pants -- on the floor as if someone else had worn them. Sandy suspects that it is either witchcraft or the devil that is responsible. Sandy also tells him about the ghost that he saw that evening and Delamere agrees that it all quite a mystery but that he is certain Sandy will be vindicated.

Mr. Delamere then asks where Sandy got the gold and the purse. Sandy hesitates. He then begins to remind Delamere of all the good that he has done in his life. He reminds him how he bought his father and set him free after ten years and how he sheltered him during the war as his servant. Delamere acknowledges this and reminds Sandy that he has done some great services to the Delamere family as well. Sandy insists that, no matter what happens, Mr. Delamere will not get excited and that he will know that “I wuz raise’ by a Delamere, suh, an’ all de ole Delameres wuz gent’emen...I kin die, suh, like a gent’eman!” Sandy respectfully declines to tell old Delamere where he got the coins. As he leaves, Mr. Delamere tells the sheriff not to let anything happen to Sandy since “The officer who is intimidated by threats, or by his own fears, is recreant to his duty, and no better than the mob which threatens him.”

Chapter 25

Old Mr. Delamere goes to the Morning Chronicle offices to question Major Carteret. He exclaims that Sandy “has too much respect for the family to do anything that would reflect disgrace upon it” and demands that the Morning Chronicle print the news that new evidence has come forward, the word of Mr. Delamere himself. When Carteret refuses to accept Delamere’s word, the old man becomes furious. Delamere tells Carteret that his paper is doing nothing more than making “white men, the most favored of races, the heirs of civilization, the conservators of liberty, howl like red Indians around a human being slowly roasting at the stake.”

Carteret sadly tells Delamere that he has allowed himself to be deceived by a “worthless scoundrel who has forfeited his right to live.” He then tells Delamere that his grandson, Tom, had been caught the evening before cheating at cards. He is being dismissed from the club on the condition that he pay back his considerable debts. The news devastates Delamere. He is certain, however, that though his grandson might be a scoundrel his servant is not a murderer. Carteret tells him that the only way to prevent a lynching that evening is to find a credible white person that will testify to Sandy’s innocence. If this happens, there might be a chance for a trial and for Sandy to defend himself. Delamere leaves the offices with only a few hours before dark.


The placement of Sandy’s attempted lynching in the novel is important to note. This sub-plot develops throughout the novel, but occurs in the novel’s middle chapters. It is therefore not only meant to provide an intriguing sub-plot or an exciting diversion from the novel’s larger narrative arc, but it is meant to be crucial to the novel’s structural development. The causes of the riot which occurs on a community scale are all present in the attempted lynching -- economic and social anxiety, prejudice, unjust accusations, and the beliefs in a privileged race.

It’s placement at the novel’s center is meant to transition the reader from the novel’s first half, which dealt largely with psychological violence, to the novel’s second half which deals with physical violence. In the first half of the book, the psychological violence is demonstrated through such scenes as Miller’s humiliating ride on the Jim Crow car of a train. They physical violence of the riot is anticipated, but not fulfilled, in the attempted lynching. Though the lynching is avoided, justice is not accomplished. Polly Ochiltree’s murderer is never identified, and Tom Delamere is never punished for a crime that several people know he committed.

Chesnutt means to present this sub-plot as a demonstration of the supposed essence of the white Southern ideal of antebellum cultural dominance. This ideal is predicated on a tradition of white domination of blacks. The essence, or the marrow, of this tradition is the nature of white male masculinity and female sexuality. The attempted lynching of Sandy, and the race riots in the later chapters, are the violent projections of this tradition onto the black community.

Chesnutt saves a special kind of sarcasm and disgust for Jerry. Jerry has a keen innate intelligence for survival -- on several occasions he schemes and plots against his white superiors in order to keep some change or to escape some kind of harshness. This quest for survival is similar to his Aunt’s, Mammy Jane. Chesnutt suggests that Jane’s instincts, however, are based out of slavery and so she cannot be held responsible for them. Jerry was not born a slave but, instead, refuses to wear the responsibilities of his freedom. He is therefore a despicable character and a traitor to his race. This fact becomes palpable after he turns in Sandy for a crime he did not commit.

The chapters that deal with Sandy’s acquittal through the lying of Mr. Delamere represent the taint of racism that finally brings down a prominent family of integrity. The Delameres are considered the novel’s most upright family, but Chesnutt shows that even such dignity and honesty cannot be saved in an environment of racism and prejudice. Though Tom’s faults brought shame to the Delamere family, it is the prejudiced beliefs of white society that are at fault for destroying the Delamere family.