When David Levering Lewis initially decided to write a biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, he planned on producing a medium-length, one-volume work, a task that he expected to take about five years. As he became increasingly fascinated by Du Bois’s eventful, ninety-five-year-long life, however, the project itself became longer and longer, until it was finally published in two large volumes totaling 1,449 pages, with 232 pages devoted to documentation.
Growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts, Du Bois experienced some racism, but Lewis observes that the location was an “incomparably kinder place” than the lynch-law South, where most African Americans lived at the time. After Du Bois graduated from Harvard University in 1890, he studied at Berlin University for two years, and while there he learned about socialism and Marxism. He then returned to Harvard for graduate study, and in 1895 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. His dissertation, devoted to the end of the African slave trade to the United States, was published as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.
A prolific writer, Du Bois published hundreds of articles and twenty-two books, including five novels, and he helped establish four journals. His first book, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), which was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, was a sociological study of African American neighborhoods, including family structures, crime, and economic conditions. Lewis observes that this was among the first of the sociological accounts to reject the idea of deterministic laws and to emphasize the roles of “human choice, wish, whim, and prejudice.”...
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