Last week, I shared a syllabus I have been thinking about constructing over the past couple of weeks entitled “Charles W. Chesnutt and The Race Question at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” With that in mind, I want to expand, somewhat, on that post by exploring Chesnutt’s last novel, The Quarry (1928), and the ways that it highlights what Chesnutt originally presented in “The Future American” (1900). Ultimately, Chesnutt’s essay and the novel argue that the solution to the “race question” resides in intermarriage between the races which will result, eventually, in the Future American.
In the three articles from 1900 that originally appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript
, Chesnutt points out that “popular theory” notes that “a combination of all the best characteristics of the different European races, and the elimination, by some strange alchemy, of all their undesirable traits-for even a good American will admit that European races, now and then, have some undesirable traits when they first come over” (96).
However, this theory eliminates certain elements, namely the relationships with African Americans and Native Americans. Chesnutt expands upon the “popular theory” and argues that the future American “will be formed of a mingling, in a yet to be ascertained proportion, of the various racial varieties which make up the present population of the United States,” including European Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and others (97). Chesnutt limits the Native American influence due to population numbers, but speaking about the interracial relationships between African Americans and whites, he argues that “in three generations the pure whites would be entirely eliminated, and there would be no perceptible trace of the blacks left” (99).
Chesnutt’s proposal is pretty straightforward, and while I do not want to take the time here to discuss some of its shortcomings by exploring the nuances, some like SallyAnn Ferguson and Dean McWilliams write about “The Future American” in greater detail. For today, I just want to explore, briefly, how Chesnutt presents these ideas in The Quarry
, a novel that contains striking similarities to Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1921)
. Most notably, the main characters in both novels, Donald Glover and Paul Marchand respectively, grow up as African Americans only to discover near the end of the novels that they are white. Both, as well, choose to identify as African American after these revelations, thus pointing out that identity is a choice based on the environment where the individual comes of age or resides. Unlike Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson
(1891), Donald and Paul both have the agency to choose which community they want to exist within.
In The Quarry, Donald is an orphan. A white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Seaton, adopt him, but when they discover his “true” parentage, they decide that they cannot raise him because the records show that his mother was white and his father African American. As a result, the Seaton’s seek the help of Senator Brown (an African American doctor) and decide to allow the Glovers, and African American family, to adopt Donald. Mrs. Glover raises Donald to be a representative of his race and a leader, and he becomes just that through his education and actions. Eventually, the true records of Donald’s parentage emerge, and it turns out his parents were both white. When presented with this information, Donald chooses to remain classified as an African American, thus choosing his own identity.
Early in the novel, when everyone believes that Donald is of mixed parentage, the first reference to Chesnutt’s “The Future American” appears. Mr. Seaton recevies a picture of Donald from the Glovers, and he compares that image with his own sons. In the picture, Donald appears as a “tall, upstanding, clear-eyed, curly-haired lad” while Mr. Seaton pictures his own sons a “rather scrawny, [and] sickly looking” (84). Here, the “pure” white Seatons appear inferior to the mixed-race Donald. Even when we discover Donald’s true parentage, the image still holds up because Donald’s existence occurs within th African American community, not necessarily mixing blood but mixing culture.
Near the end of the novel, when Mr. Seaton tells Senator Brown about Donald’s true identity, the Senator espouses almost verbatim Chesnutt’s proposal from “The Future American.”
I see no ultimate future for the Negro in the Western world except in his gradual absorption by the white race. . . . It is already far advanced. . . . There is obviously much white blood among the so-called Negroes, and among the white people much black blood that is not obvious. We’ll not live to see the day, but as sure as the sun rises and sets the time will come when the American people will be a homogeneous race. (266)
Here, Senator Brown argues that the mixing of the races has begun, and that eventually “a homogeneous race” will appear in America. The end of The Quarry, unlike the end of Paul Marchand, F.M.C., highlights this. Rather than exist as a white man, Donald maintains his place within the African American community and marries an African American woman, Bertha. Through this act, much like Paul remaining married to Julie in Paul Marchand, F.M.C., Donald and his family serve as an example of the “homogeneous race” that will ultimately appear as the future American. The family lives in New York, and rather than leaving for Paris as Paul and Julie do, they exist within the nation to help ameliorate the problems caused by the color line.
This discussion is by no means exhaustive in regards to Chesnutt’s essay or the novel; however, I hope it provides a starting point to think about Chesnutt’s ideas in his texts and to think about him in relation to other authors such as Twain. What are your thoughts on this subject? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Chesnutt, Charles. “The Future American.” 1900; MELUS 15.3 (1988): 95-107.
—. The Quarry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.