W. E. B. Du Bois, Volume I

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Describing his eight years of researching and writing this biography of a monumental figure in African American history, Lewis remarks that the voyage has been “long, challenging, and fascinating.” Readers of W. E. B. DU BOIS will have similar feelings as they voyage through its nearly six hundred pages of narrative (and more than one hundred pages of notes), beginning with Du Bois’s upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and closing with his campaign against racial discrimination during World War I. All nineteen chapters that comprise the book are interesting and informative, especially those dealing with Du Bois’s well-known feud with Booker T. Washington, and his activities as an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and as editor of its magazine, THE CRISIS. Lewis synthesizes the most important information available in previous studies of Du Bois, and adds much new data from Du Bois’s diaries and other unpublished sources.

In a famous passage from his book THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK (1903), Du Bois remarked that African Americans feel a “double consciousness”—that of being an African and an American. Du Bois’s struggle to reconcile his opposing selves preoccupies Lewis and serves as the unifying theme of his study.

Throughout the book, Lewis carefully reconstructs the historical context in which Du Bois’s actions and writings occurred; thus large portions of the book are detailed accounts of episodes in African Americans’ long quest for racial justice. In this respect, Lewis’ biography of Du Bois is indeed, as the subtitle suggests, also a “biography of a race.”

It is clear that Lewis greatly admires Du Bois, but he avoids idolizing his subject. He does not ignore or gloss over Du Bois’s character flaws: his elitism and arrogance; his sexual affairs; and his failures as a husband and father. Still, if Lewis’ discussions of Du Bois’s shortcomings remind us that he was, after all, a fallible human being, the book overall strengthens Du Bois’s reputation as one of American history’s most brilliant, courageous, and dedicated civil rights activists.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, August, 1993, p.2010.

Boston Globe. November 7, 1993, p.15.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 6, 1993, p.15.

Commonweal. CXX, December 3, 1993, p.24.

The Nation. CCLVII, November 15, 1993, p.574.

The New Republic. CCX, April 4, 1994, p.28.

Newsweek. CXXII, November 29, 1993, p.75.

USA Today. November 19, 1993, p. D4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 24, 1993, p.1.