74: David Levering Lewis’ Biography of a Race

David Levering Lewis’ W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, is a massive popular biography of Du Bois and one of two planned volumes on his life and work.  Lewis takes “biography” in two different directions: as a writer who focused on recovering African American voices and reconstructing their agentive participation in their own history, Du Bois was a biographer of a race; as a person who was born right after the Civil War and who died during the Civil Rights movement, his life can also be used to trace the trajectory of an oppressed group from slavery to freedom (and, for Du Bois, on to Africa.)  Therefore, the book is both a deeply contextualized biography of Du Bois’ life, career, and work, and an attempt to recreate the massive political, social, and economic changes impacting the lives of black Americans during his lifetime.

Biography of a Race belies a huge amount of research, and Lewis spends a great deal of time reconstructing Du Bois’ rather “prickly” personality and his tendency toward separatism as he got older. Working from Du Bois’ personal papers, he works to humanize him, so that we see his troubled childhood, his difficult relationships with his wives, and his philandering tendencies in plain relief.  And he includes a full 8 chapters on Du Bois and the NAACP, including his frustration with Booker T. Washington and the “accomodationist” Tuskegee Institute.  He also traces the shift in Du Bois’ thought around the turn of the century from a “naive” faith in science’s ability to solve racial inequality to the more political route of the NAACP.  And he ends – rather precipitously – during the “Red Summer” of 1919.

While this book really helps humanize Du Bois, Lewis’ strategy seems to be to keep in every detail, no matter how small, and he often includes several versions of the same story rather than working to figure out which pieces seem the most well-supported.  Further, his chatty speculations and asides sometimes detract from his larger point, as when he offhandedly suggests that a white woman living with him and his wife might have been a boarder – or perhaps the three were involved in a menage a trois.  He also apparently went to a psychoanalyst in the guise of Du Bois by way of interrogating his psyche.  I appreciate the humanization of the subject, but I do wish Lewis or his editor had been a little more careful.

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