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Chaneysville Incident

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In David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1981), the protagonist John Washington, professor of history in Philadelphia, when called to the deathbed of Jack Crawley, his father's closest friend, finds himself involuntarily plunged into confronting his family and group history. Nearby Chaneysville, a station of the pre-emancipation Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves in western Pennsylvania, becomes the symbolic stage. John's personal ambivalence and distrust toward white America have increasingly led to emotional paralysis and sardonic detachment, affecting both his scholarship and his love for Judith, a white psychologist. Jack Crawley's stories rekindle John's interest in the life, death, and legacy of his father Moses (especially the library spiked with clues for reconstructing black history). John learns about his father's covert control of local white politicians (via a “moonshine” dossier), and about a concrete Chaneysville incident where Moses (with Jack's help) prevented the lynching of their friend Josh White and afterward eliminated the gangleaders. John uncovers a subversive black counterhistory in the plan of his fore bear C. K. Washington to undermine the South's economy by leading as many slaves as possible to freedom. According to local legend, C. K. and thirteen slaves committed collective suicide at Chaneysville. (Bradley's mother discovered their unmarked graves in 1969.)

John's efforts to understand this first Chaneysville incident (ritually emulated by his father's suicide at the slaves’ gravesite) remain abortive despite intensive research and an impressive card catalog. When Judith (descendant of Virginia slaveholders) joins John and questions his motives, the factual gaps of the Chaneysville riddle can be imaginatively bridged to restore a suppressed and fragmented history. The slaves, C. K., and his wife chose death to avoid being recaptured, and a white miller respectfully buried them. John and Judith repeat the act of mutual empathy, and by ritually burning the card catalog at the end reopen the emotional and cultural space for their relationship.

History and storytelling (or fictionalization) are seen as converging or germane enterprises in Bradley's novel (recalling new historiographic theory as initiated by Hayden White). His text dramatizes an impressive array of documented and invented history, of vernacular and formal dis-course (bridging oral and literary conventions). It combines modes of white mainstream narrative (the self-reflexive Jamesian narrator John, Faulknerian rhetoric and ritualizations of landscape and hunting, essayistic digressions) with specifically African American forms of narrative: the dialogical use of voices; African cultural concepts (death as a continuum of the living and their ancestors, embodied in the voices in the wind heard by John, and in suicide as going home); the creative resumption and reinvention of the earlier slave narrative; and novels by Ishmael Reed, Charles R. Johnson, and Toni Morrison. Without slurring over the antagonistic nature in America of unjust white power versus black marginalization and resistance, the novel proffers a utopian outlook for a possible convergence of black and white self-concepts via a therapeutic acceptance of the other's past and perspective. Bradley's novel is an eloquent example in a growing number of narrative texts by African American authors engaged in an intensive reassessment and reappropriation of their historical past.


Subjects: Literature

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