Nicholas T Rinehart deposited Vernacular Soliloquy, Theatrical Gesture, and Embodied Consciousness in The Marrow of Tradition in the group GS Prose Fiction on MLA Commons 5 years ago
Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition (1901) is overwhelmingly understood as an historical novel. Critics have again and again focused on its journalistic historicity; its ambivalent racial politics; its attitudes towards assimilation, separatism, vengeance, and resistance; and Chesnutt’s alleged biographical identification with various characters. This generalized preoccupation with the explicitly political or historical contours of the novel frequently precludes closer scrutiny of Chesnutt’s formal literary strategies. This paper shirks that tendency by considering The Marrow of Tradition not just as an historical novel, but also as a novel of consciousness. Viewing the novel from the perspective of its representation of consciousness both reframes its historiographical bearing and opens up new ways to understand Chesnutt’s fiction and nineteenth-century African American literature. It argues that the location of black consciousness in the novel is the soliloquy, and demonstrates that the soliloquy should be understood as a form of “embodied consciousness”: a narrative mode endowed with the expressivity of theatrical gesture. It further examines these performative gestures in relation to additional patterns in the novel: first, the destructive circulation of written, material texts; and second, recurring images of corporeality and physical breakdown wherein one’s capacity for speech is endangered. As they are invulnerable to such formal compromise and breakdown, Chesnutt’s soliloquies together produce a counter-archive of vernacular memory and reveal how dramatic form functions in the novel more broadly.