MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Monday, April 22, 2013

April 22, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part One

[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On the one Du Bois book that all Americans should read.
I never quite got around to making my own nomination for the National Big Read, perhaps because I have so many books that I’d really love to ask all Americans to read: such as The Marrow of Tradition, Ceremony, and The Namesake, to name only three of the chief contenders. I’d gladly make the case for any and all of those novels, but it’s also possible to argue that for such a shared book it might make more sense to go with non-fiction: with a compelling personal narrative of significant American experiences, or a convincing sociological engagement with complex communal issues, or an inspiring philosophical call for national unity and progress. And it just so happens that W.E.B. Du Bois, at the youthful (I hope!) age of 35, published a book that was all those things and a great deal more: The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
In two of the three posts cited in my intro blurb above I referenced “Of the Training of Black Men,” and certainly that individual chapter represents the whole of Souls, and its ability to move between those different genres and styles (along with other historical and cultural ones), very effectively. It also illustrates two of the other striking formal elements to Du Bois’s work in the book—his use of epigraphs and allusions from the full (available) range of world history, literature, philosophy, mythology, and religion, to put his voice and book in conversation with everyone and everything else (and demonstrate just why Shakespeare does not wince when Du Bois sits with him); and his inclusion of a bit of musical notation at the start of each chapter, notes and melodies drawn from the “sorrow songs” (the African American and slave spirituals) about which he writes eloquently in the book’s concluding chapter. These two intertextual elements exemplify the book’s unique combination of breadth and depth, its coupling of a world-wide reach with an incredibly nuanced depiction of its titular American community.
In many ways, I’d say that it’s precisely that combination of depth and breadth that defines Du Bois’s greatness. On the one hand, he spent much of his near-century of life writing, thinking, and working unceasingly in response to one specific (if also sweeping and vital) issue: “the problem of the color-line,” as he put it at the outset of Souls. Yet on the other hand, to read Du Bois is to find serious and significant engagement with, it seems, every meaningful historical, cultural, and human question of his era, and many of ours as well. And Souls achieves that balance remarkably well: the book is sophisticated enough in its specific analyses to be considered one of the earliest works of American sociology; yet it’s sweeping enough in its philosophical, personal, literary, and artistic elements and achievements that I’d nominate it for a National Big Read text with no hesitation. What if the Great American Novel isn’t a novel at all, but a genre-busting book by one of our most inspiring icons?
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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