This engaging short work by a great American velist addresses the then-controversial topic of interracial marriage. 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 vel traces the struggles of Rhoda, her aunt, and Edward Olney, the aunt's physician and Rhoda's eventual suitor, to come to terms with the implications of Rhoda's ethnic heritage. Howells employs this stock situation to explore newly urgent questions of identity, morality, and social policy raised by 'miscegenation' in the new, post-Reconstruction situation to which he writes. The vel imagines interracial marriage sympathetically at a time when racist sentiment was on the rise, and does this is one of Howells' most aesthetically ecomical performances in the short vel form. The vel's appeal is increased by the primary source documents on nineteenth-century scientific race theory, contemporary attitudes toward race and miscegenation, and contemporary responses to the vel included in the appendices to this edition.
W.D. Howells (1837-1920) was an American novelist and critic whose fiction and criticism were important to the literary realist movement. Paul R. Petrie is Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.