After the Renaissance
Around 1909, certain Niagara Movement radicals and Jewish abolitionist holdovers formed a coalition that became the NAACP. Du Bois moved to New York, where, as editor of The Crisis for the next twenty-five years, his word was gospel.
Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey addressed a Harlem crowd of 2,000 in 1917, preaching black economic independence and resettlement. He even offered, to the resurgent Klan's delight, to transport them back to Africa. Now, the masses might be fooled by the plumed and gold-braided pretensions and Napoleonic pageantry of
the Emperor Marcus Mosiah Garvey--self-proclaimed High Potentate and Provisional President-General of all Africa, Commander in Chief of the Black Star Line, an entire fleet of three dubiously seaworthy vessels--with his back-to-the-motherland schemes, his dukes and duchesses of Uganda and Niger, his knight commanders of the Distinguished Order of Ethiopia and the Nile. But Du Bois, who had just returned from Firestone's Liberia as diplomatic envoy, knew better. (Besides, everybody who was anybody knew that what Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association really stood for was "Ugliest Negroes in America.") As far as Du Bois was concerned, Garvey was either a lunatic or a traitor. Whereas, it seemed to Garvey--who saw Du Bois's NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People--that the lunacy was for blacks to expect equality in America. In the end, his daring, energy and charisma were surpassed only by his ignorance of finance. Du Bois sounded the rallying cry: "Garvey Must Go." The FBI agreed. And if deportation on the grounds of being an undesirable alien wouldn't hold up in court, mail fraud would do nicely. Arrested in 1922, tried and convicted in 1923, Garvey took up residence at Atlanta Federal two years before Malcolm X was born.
Remember, back before they were Jim Crowed into academic ghettos, when history was literature and vice versa? When nonspecialists read Macaulay, Michelet? Poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist as well as historian, Du Bois was by no means master of all the genres he assayed. But he electrified African-American literature as writer during the twentieth century's first decade. Then, as editor, he paved the way for younger writers during subsequent decades. Biography, however, is a late development in the tradition. What advances have eminent African-Americans like David Levering Lewis made in that "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing"? And do his tomes amount to a "masterpiece of the biographer's craft"?
With their cast of legendary characters, colorful set locations, gripping storylines and virtuoso draftsmanship, they certainly aspire to it. For analytical rigor, judicious gossip and subtle insight into the social, political and economic "roots and ramifications" of "racial, religious, and ethnic confrontation, and assimilation in America" between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Lewis is fully equal to the task of his formidable subject. And his lucid, downright old-fashioned good writing, so full of fine flourishes and phrases, is mostly innocent of academic jargon. So much so that for years--visiting the same archives, examining the same documents and cross-examining the same witnesses while working my way carefully through these volumes, underlining passages in mechanical pencil, leaving yellow flags on every other page--I kept trying to figure out my misgivings.
And then it hit me. The problem here is not one of length--Boswell's massive Life of Samuel Johnson still startles, 200 years later--but scale, of Turgenev's "right relation" among a dozen or so vivifying narrative elements beyond character and what used to be called "plot." All of these together in a constant juggle of transitions--abstract to concrete, poetic to prosaic, description to dialogue, sentence length and rhythm--can create compelling momentum. Any one of these, overrelied upon in a fact-filled narrative of 1,500 pages, can be lethal. "With the 20th century," said Virginia Woolf,
a change came over biography, as it came over fiction and poetry.... the author's relation to his subject is different. He is no longer the serious and sympathetic companion, toiling slavishly in the footsteps of his hero.... Moreover, he does not think himself constrained to follow every step of the way.... he sees his subject spread about him. He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.