Critical Reaction to The Souls of Black Folk

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

In his introduction to the 1989 edition of The Souls of Black Folk, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserts that the book ‘‘has served as a veritable touchstone of African-American culture for every successive generation of black scholars since 1903.’’ He goes on to say that ‘‘Du Bois’ contemporaries, and subsequent scholars, generally have agreed that two of the uncanny effects of The Souls are that it is poetic in its attention to detail, and that it succeeds, somehow, in ‘narrating’ the nation of Negro Americans at the turn of the century, articulating for the inarticulate insider and for the curious outsider … the cultural particularity of African Americans.’’ Although at the time of publication some white critics were skeptical about the work, black critics were overwhelmingly enthusiastic for what Wendell Phillips Dabney, in the Ohio Enterprise, calls ‘‘a masterpiece.’’

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The New York Times review from 1903 calls The Souls of Black Folk ‘‘sentimental, poetical, picturesque’’ and asserts ‘‘the acquired logic and the evident attempt to be critically fair-minded is strangely tangled with these racial characteristics and racial rhetoric.’’ The reviewer concedes that the book ‘‘throws much light upon the complexities of the Negro problem.’’ He is convinced that as a Northerner, Du Bois ‘‘probably does not understand his own people in their natural state’’ in the South. Not all of Du Bois’ opponents were as even-handed in their criticism; Gates quotes the Louisville Courier-Journal, which took the book to be ‘‘crudely written’’ and ‘‘characterized by incoherent statements and disconnected arguments.’’ Ten years later, however, in The African Abroad, William H. Ferris calls Du Bois’ work ‘‘the most brilliant and suggestive book ever written by a Negro’’ and the ‘‘political bible of the Negro race.’’ Gates echoes Ferris when he ventures to say ‘‘no other text, save possibly the King James Bible, has had a more fundamental impact on the shaping of the Afro-American literary tradition.’’ These assessments reflect the consensus by African-American writers in the years since the book's publication; as Gates illustrates, from Langston Hughes to Ralph Ellison The Souls of Black Folk has been a timeless influence and inspiration.

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