The Recovery of History as a Dialogic Process: The Role of Judith in David Bradley’s "The Chaneysville Incident"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The dilemma of John Washington
2.1 The shadow of racism
2.2 Paternal and historical influences and their late consequences
2.3 The merit of imagination

3 John and Judith - the potential of interracial love
3.1 Judith, the therapist and lover
3.2 Approaching the truth
3.3 Approaching a mutual understanding
3.3.1 The theme of drinking together
3.3.2 Narrative parallelisms

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

As the winner of the 1982 PEN-Faulkner Prize1 and being “acclaimed by fiction writers and by popular and scholarly writers alike”2 David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident could establish itself as an important piece of contemporary literature. Therefore a considerable number of entries and textual analyses exists meanwhile, whereas the theme peculiarly central within the studies is the novel’s exemplary relevance for African-American “historiographic metafiction” (this term was introduced by Linda Hutcheon in her book A Poetics of Postmodernism).3 The basic subject of the novel concerns the protagonist’s, John Washington’s reconstruction of his past, and thus the process of his change in dealing with (African-American) history.

However, within this work this perspective has to be broadened in the sense that Judith Powell, John’s white lover should shift much more into focus. It is to be proved that Judith’s role in the novel is extraordinarily necessary to enable the process John is undergoing for her interaction as a persistent and sensitive lover is the key to a mutual understanding.

Prerequisites for a profound scrutiny of this claim are required; we need to know what exactly is the way John approaches history, and if that is changing, but also what is he able of at which stage of the novel? Which role do racial and other individual aspects play in John’s past and how do they influence the present?

Relating to potential answers we will go on by having a close look on the relationship of John and Judith, especially on the kind of their dialogic interaction. Furthermore, Judith’s part in this process has to be emphasised to work out her key function by finding out how she interferes, how she succeeds and why it is especially Judith who is qualified to do so.

Finally, the meaning and the technical representation of

understanding within the novel’s context should be analysed.

2 The dilemma of John Washington

The anachronistic narrative structure of The Chaneysville Incident offers a productive frame story - chiefly consisting of John’s return home and the dialogues with his mother, Jack and Judge Scott, but mostly (and most effectively) with Judith - for the stories which are told by Jack and by John to reconstruct the past - or in Jane Campbell’s words: “essays which Bradley smuggles into the narrative with varying degrees of success”4. So, David Bradley is able to create events preceding (in the sense that they must have chronologically occurred before) the story of John and Judith’s relationship to underline its problematic background - at the same time it is possible to maintain the analytical character of the novel. Despite the rather documentary historical reconstruction of the past - as, in general, the novel tries to take up parts of African-American slave history and resulting from this to express the fundamental need of coping with (collective) traumatic experiences realised by a certain individual - the reader of the Chaneysville Incident is faced with the individual fate of John Washington which partially represents collective experiences.

Such experiences or events concern racial problems in the past, John’s view of manhood and in this context the explanations for the way John became influenced by certain role models. In the centre of these considerations we find John’s constant dilemma which is being torn between his cultural heritage and his present living situation5. It is not only “the antagonistic tension of their [John and Judith’s] relationship”6 which is problematic, it is rather “grounded in a clear idea of the antagonistic nature of black and white”7.

In this way the novel clearly points out this antagonism, but also clashing polarities resulting from this main polarity - which is obviously “black versus white”, but we can also find a contradiction in apparently conflicting approaches to history which can be stated as the use of imagination versus the use of academic knowledge which is altogether caused by “kulturell unterschiedlich kodierten und verwurzeltem Wissen[ ] und Verstehen[ ], das nicht ohne weiteres erlernt werden kann”8. The following subchapters will give more detailed analyses, also in order to explain the overall coherence according to our main topic.

2.1 The shadow of racism

Since The Chaneysville Incident complements contemporary African- American literature in a highly reflective style concerning matters of American slave history and in this connection questions of interracial coexistence nowadays, we can regard the novel’s major concern as a search for an African-American identity realised by the reconstruction of the past which is “presented as a continuing process of questioning himself [John] and others and history”9.

“’[…] I was thinking all the time there was something wrong with you. But it’s me, isn’t it? I’ve got this horrible skin disease. I’m white.[…] That’s it, isn’t it?’”10, by saying this Judith urges John to reply: “’Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s it exactly. Only you don’t understand what it means.’” (73). We recognise an obvious conflict in their present relationship; however, to understand we have to examine the past.

The Chaneysville Incident provides different kinds of racist experiences; the most forceful and violent one is the incident when Josh and Jack nearly got killed by the Ku-Klux-Klan because of Josh’s affection for a white woman (cf. 90-112). By inserting this story Bradley outlines a direct connection to present times where - though society has changed during the last centuries (“’…things have changed a little— ‘” [64]) - the experiences derived from African-American slave history still burden the collective memory of the African-American community, according to John and Judith we see the existing strain on their relationship.)11 And consequently, hinting at that problem - in a discussion between John and Judith about having a baby or not - we hear John argue: “…there won’t be any help from the old folks at home if their daughter turned up with a half- breed baby and a bastard to boot….” (240).

Additionally, there are various experiences of racial discrimination in John’s childhood which are crucial for his later inner conflict. We get to know about several forms of segregation, e.g. at swimming pools, coffee shops and at the barbers (cf. 67f.) and even at cemeteries segregation takes place: “’[…] in my home town, white people and black people aren’t buried together. […] we have our place and they have their places. And our place is a little shabby.’” (75) Almost at the beginning of the novel we learn about John being pursued, threatened and abused by white boys in his childhood (cf. 15f), later about racist jokes John remembers (cf. 283), as well as about the tragic end of a real friendship when John is not allowed to meet his white friend Robert anymore because Robert does not have permission from his mother to play with black children. )12

And likewise, the reader of The Chaneysville Incident finds out about the low living conditions of the black characters by a typically depicted black ghetto, called “the Hill” where the houses are built rather sporadically and where those are mostly in bad states (cf. 15). He also hears John talking about the … of taxis at the Hill: “’[…] But before everybody had a car, he used to drive the white ladies right up the Hill. But he’d let the colored people walk. […]’” (276)

To round off this picture we get a clear introduction to the topic of blacks as a minority in the United States which are discriminated on grounds of their race at a very early stage of the novel, namely when John lets the reader know about his conclusion that “America is a classed society […].” (6) by analysing “the nature of its sanitary facilities” (6).

2.2 Paternal and historical influences and their late consequences

Intentionally Bradley points out the individual historical background of John and Judith’s relationship as one that is determined by racism and by the experience of cultural difference, if not cultural opposition.

By bringing in the idea of the “’natural,’ independent man”13

Lawrence Hogue extends the thesis of the antagonistic tendency of the text. He argues that John is heir of Moses Washington’s “particular definition of manhood”14 which says that a (black) man has to be instinctive, independent - like Moses who is “totally disregarding the laws and mores of society”15 - , and able to survive in nature. By Jack Crawley, who is like a father to John after Moses’ suicide, this notion is passed on to John. “A man has to have say.” (41), he is told by Jack. Jack does not only an exaggerated image of manhood, but also a rather misogynist attitude16: “They [men] find a woman an’ they start in to changin’. […] Makes changin’ his ways seem…sensible. That’s the dangerous kind. […] It ain’t no sickness. But it does make a man weak.” (68f.).

Nevertheless, John - besides being influenced by this rather chauvinist role models - also inherited rationality as well as his fascination for books from his father. Here John’s dilemma becomes explicit; on the one hand he is strongly influenced by the ways of life of his paternal role models Moses and Jack which are “natural” and antisocial at least towards Western society, on the other hand John’s present situation is absolutely determined by American values especially according to education, science and middle-class standards. Hogue calls it “the American success story” which John was very ambitious to realise, and he managed to as he became a university lecturer of history. )17


1 Cf. Valerie Smith, “David Bradley,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: The Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Ed. Thadious Davis, and Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale, 1984) 30.

2 Ibid. 32.

3 Cf. Ulrich Halfmann, “’You don’t understand’: Zum Dilemma interkultureller Liebe in David Bradleys The Chaneysville Incident (Mit einer Forschungsbibliographie zum Roman),” Cultural Encounters in the New World. Literatur- und kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zu kulturellen Begegnungen in der Neuen Welt., Ed. Harald Zapf, and Klaus Lösch (Tübingen: Narr, 2003) 326.

4 Jane Campbell, “Ancestral Quests in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident,” Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987) 138.

5 Cf. Lawrence Hogue, “Problematizing History: David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident,” College Language Association Journal 38.4 (1995): 443.

6 Klaus Ensslen, “Fictionalizing History: David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident,” Callaloo 11 (1998): 283.

7 Ibid. 291.

8 Halfmann 339.

9 Ensslen 284.

10 David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident (New York: Harper & Row [Perennial Library], 1990) 73. All page references within the text refer to this edition.

11 Cf. Halfmann 330.

12 Cf. Hogue 446f..

13 Ibid. 445.

14 Ibid. 445.

15 Ibid. 444.

16 Cf. Halfmann 332.

17 Cf. Hogue 444-446.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Recovery of History as a Dialogic Process: The Role of Judith in David Bradley’s "The Chaneysville Incident"
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Contemporary African-American Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
556 KB
Recovery, History, Dialogic, Process, Role, Judith, David, Bradley’s, Chaneysville, Incident, Contemporary, African-American, Fiction
Quote paper
M.A. Theresa Schmidt (Author), 2006, The Recovery of History as a Dialogic Process: The Role of Judith in David Bradley’s "The Chaneysville Incident", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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