W. E. B. Du Bois by David Levering Lewis Essay - Critical Essays


Lewis writes in a dispassionate and objective tone, even though his perspective is usually favorable toward Du Bois and his ideas. When discussing Du Bois’s conflicts with Booker T. Washington, Lewis is particularly harsh toward the latter’s policies. Despite his admiration for Du Bois, however, Lewis does not hesitate to point out his shortcomings, particularly in his interpersonal relationships. Always a difficult personality, Du Bois had trouble working with anyone over a period of time, and he did not appreciate the necessity for compromise. Despite his love for humanity in the abstract, he was sometimes cruel and selfish when making sexual conquests, and he required his wife Nina to live in a “rigidly patriarchal household.”

In spite of his agreement with many of Du Bois’s criticisms of American capitalism, Lewis acknowledges that Du Bois’s defense of Soviet communism now “rings so oddly as to cause doubt as to his standing” as a great intellectual. Du Bois, of course, could claim ignorance when he wrote his 1953 essay, “On Stalin,” which unequivocally praised the brutal dictator, but Lewis points out that even Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s atrocities left Du Bois unmoved, and he viewed these atrocities as less horrendous than the combination of the Atlantic slave trade, the scramble for Africa, and the history of white racism.

Lewis’s biography is not targeted at general readers. The two large volumes are filled with so many complex details that it is sometimes difficult to see the forest for the individual trees, making the work better suited to readers who are already somewhat familiar with Du Bois’s life and work. Although Lewis’s style of writing is accessible, his tendency to use lengthy paragraphs containing numerous ideas does not help readers distill his major ideas.