On the entirely unknown and far from perfect novel that fills a significant American gap.
Somehow, in the midst of all the other duties and successes of his incredibly busy and productive life, W.E.B. Du Bois found time to write a handful of novels. My guest poster is planning to address two of the more interesting and significant ones, Dark Princess (1928; generally considered his fictional masterpiece) and Worlds of Color (1961; the last book published in Du Bois’s lifetime), and I’ll leave them for her. Since both were written by a mature and prominent Du Bois—Dark was published when he was 60, Worlds when he was 93 (!)—they’ve received a substantial amount of attention, both in their own moment and in subsequent scholarship. Far less famous, however, is Du Bois’s first published novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911).
Quest, which tells the story of multiple generations of African Americans in a turn of the century Southern community, has been neglected in part for understandable reasons: its style, while straightforward and engaging, lacks any of the technical skill that differentiates great from merely effective novels; it also had the misfortune of being a work of regional realism in the decade when authors such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein were introducing new, modernist forms for fiction. Yet much the same could be said for other, currently far more well-known African American novels of Reconstruction and its aftermath—such as Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood (1903)—and to my mind Du Bois’s novel certainly deserves a place among that group.
Moreover, Du Bois’s sociological training and perspective differentiates Quest from any other novel of the period—and most other American novels period—in at least one crucial regard. Although many of the novel’s chapters focus on individual characters, it builds toward a far more overarching and analytical subject: the way in which the cotton industry links communities as seemingly disparate as elite Northern industrialists and provincial Southern white supremacists, cynical Washington politicians and young students at a local African American school. Such connections, of course, extended back in history into the antebellum world of slavery, yet were also evolving in complex and crucial ways in the postbellum period, particularly for free African Americans struggling to achieve their own quests for self-sufficiency and success; Du Bois’s novel likewise engages with these different historical and cultural sides to a shared and enduring American issue. In those ways, his novel can also be seen as embodying—perhaps solely, and certainly significantly—an African American naturalism.
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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