[On April 10th, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Gatsby and other contenders for the elusive Great American Novel crown, leading up to a special weekend post on some recent contenders!]
On a character whose presence and absence both reflect a novel’s greatness.
I’ve written a great deal in this space about my favorite American novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901). I mean it, a great deal. Like, a ton. Seriously. All of those posts help make the case for Marrow’s greatness, so I’ll cut this paragraph short in honor of all the reading I’m already asking you to do here!
Welcome back! Today I want to highlight another layer to Marrow’s greatness: the minor character Lee Ellis. A young white journalist who works for the Morning Chronicle (the white supremacist newspaper edited by the novel’s white protagonist, Major Philip Carteret), and one leg of the novel’s love triangle plot, Ellis reflects the truly multi-faceted complexity and humanity that Chesnutt brings to every character in his fictional town of Wellington, North Carolina. In only a handful of moments and chapters, we learn about Ellis’s Quaker background in a small Southern town, and what that means for his perspective on issues such as race, segregation, and lynching; about his code of personal and civic ethics and how it informs his actions in both romantic and homosocial settings; and about the limits to this character’s inspiring and even idealized perspective and identity, especially when faced with the horrors of the novel’s climactic, historical violence. All of those layers and complexities could make Ellis a compelling protagonist for many historical novels, but Chesnutt dispenses with them in a handful of perfectly-wrought scenes.
And that relative absence, even more than his compelling presence, is what makes Ellis emblematic of Marrow’s greatness. First of all, it reflects Chesnutt’s willingness to take the character most likely to elicit a progressive white reader’s sympathies and generally sideline him, especially in a climactic section that quite simply refuses to give audiences any easy answers. And second of all, Ellis’s relative absence reflects the novel’s central focus (in the sections focused on white characters, at least) on Philip Carteret and his wife Olivia, both of whom are far less sympathetic, far more linked to overt white supremacy (in Philip’s case) or blatant bigotry and prejudice (in Olivia’s), and yet imbued with the same multi-layered humanity that Chesnutt brings to all his characters. American historical fiction is full of characters like Lee Ellis, embodying as he does Georg Lukács’s concept of the “middle-of-the-road hero” in historical novels; I know of few historical novels, or novels at all, that create and focus on protagonists like the Carterets. One more argument for Marrow’s unique greatness.
Next novel tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nominees for the GAN?
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