An Imperative Duty
  • Publication Date: March 22, 2010
  • ISBN: 9781551119144 / 1551119145
  • 200 pages; 5½" x 8½"

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An Imperative Duty

  • Publication Date: March 22, 2010
  • ISBN: 9781551119144 / 1551119145
  • 200 pages; 5½" x 8½"

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An Imperative Duty tells the story of Rhoda Aldgate, a young woman on the verge of marriage who has been raised by her aunt to assume that she is white, but who is in fact the descendant of an African-American grandmother. The novel traces the struggles of Rhoda, her family, and her suitor to come to terms with the implications of Rhoda’s heritage. Howells employs this stock situation to explore the newly urgent questions of identity, morality, and social policy raised by “miscegenation” in the post-Reconstruction United States. The novel imagines interracial marriage sympathetically at a time when racist sentiment was on the rise, and does this in one of Howells’s most aesthetically economical performances in the short novel form.

Appendices to this Broadview Edition include material on the “tragic mulatta” in literature, interracial marriage, the “science” of race in the nineteenth century, and Howells’s literary realism.


“Far from fussing over chipped china, the novella goes to the heart of the great American problem of race... This is a provocative subject, and the publisher has provided much useful material for help in understanding it: an introduction (by Paul R. Petrie), footnotes and a sheaf of appendices, including one that links ‘An Imperative Duty’ to a subgenre of 19th-century fiction: ‘The Tragic Mulatta.’ There is a big difference between other ‘Tragic Mulatta’ novels and this one, however: The other writers played the central situation for shock value, whereas Howells made it into art.” — Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

“This is a splendid classroom edition of a historically important yet underappreciated ‘passing’ novel as powerful as Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Published in 1891–92 at the nadir of race relations in the U.S., W. D. Howells’s An Imperative Duty framed the debate over racial justice in ways that were remarkably progressive. Paul R. Petrie’s introduction, supplemental readings, and critical apparata admirably contextualize the novel for modern readers.” — Gary F. Scharnhorst, University of New Mexico

“This sympathetic and carefully edited revival of An Imperative Duty should welcome a new generation of readers to Howells’s impressive work. With its splendid introduction and meticulously chosen secondary materials, this book will delight general readers and prove a helpful resource to both teachers and scholars.” — Susan Goodman, University of Delaware

W.D. Howells: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text

An Imperative Duty

  • First Installment: Chapters I–V: July 1891
    Second Installment: Chapters VI–VII: August 1891
    Third Installment: Chapters VIII–X: September 1891
    Fourth Installment: Chapters XI–XIII: September 1891

Appendix A: Contemporary Reviews and Responses

  1. Laurence Hutton, “Literary Notes,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (November 1891)
  2. “The Color Line,” New York Times (30 November 1891)
  3. The Critic (16 January 1892)
  4. “Novels of the Week,” The Athenaeum (13 February 1892)
  5. The Nation (25 February 1892)
  6. From Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (1892)
  7. From W.E.B. Du Bois, “As a Friend of the Colored Man,” Boston Evening Transcript (24 February

Appendix B: The “Tragic Mulatta” in Literature

  1. From Grace King, “The Little Convent Girl” (1893)
  2. From Matt Crim, “Was It an Exceptional Case?” (1891)
  3. W.D. Howells, “The Pilot’s Story” (1860)

Appendix C: Interracial Marriage and the “Science” of Race

  1. From Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853–55)
  2. From J.C. Nott, Types of Mankind (1854)
  3. From Frederick L. Hoffman, The Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896)
  4. Pace v. State of Alabama (1883)
  5. From Henry W. Grady, “In Plain Black and White” (1885)
  6. From Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Future American” (1900)
  7. From W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races” (1897)

Appendix D: Appendix D:W.D. Howells’s Theory of Realism—The “Editor’s Study” Columns

  1. May 1886 [Realism and Romance]
  2. November 1886 [Aesthetics and Ethics]
  3. April 1887 [Art,Truth, and Morality]
  4. September 1887 [Realism and Democracy]
  5. December 1887 [The Real and the Ideal Grasshopper]
  6. March 1888 [Can Fiction Help the People It Depicts?]
  7. December 1888 [Christmas Literature]

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Paul R. Petrie is Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.