After the Renaissance
Cautious of overstepping the bounds of the historically permissible, the distinguished professor has crafted a straightforward chronicle. Far too often, characters are molded not organically from suggestive situation but by accretion of meticulous archival detail--endless lists of academic pedigree heaped, all at once, in static inventories of naturalistic description--then left to atrophy in the reader's mind. A compelling narrative begins where the dossier leaves off. And a good biographer is a historian, but a good historian isn't necessarily a biographer. The progression from one to the other is no more formally inevitable than that from short-story writer to novelist. But don't get me wrong. The aesthetic quibble is really by way of illustrating how close this life might have come to greatness, to the artistry of all that Lytton Strachey left out in tending toward that "becoming brevity...which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," and which, "surely, is the first duty of the biographer."
Du Bois's influence on African-American literature, as both writer and editor, is hard to exaggerate. Between Phyllis Wheatley, the publication of Souls, the silence of Charles Chestnutt and the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar from drunken disillusionment in 1906, dozens of poets, authors and pamphleteers emerged, boycotting the happy-blacky-nappy, banjo-strumming, watermelon-eating, darky dialect of previous eras. Of this work, says James Weldon Johnson in the classic history Black Manhattan, "Some was good, most was mediocre, much was bad, and practically all of it unknown to the general public." As late as 1914, with the exception of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there wasn't much in the way of African-American literature, and Du Bois thought things looked bleak. By 1920, New York was America's greatest city, and Harlem--a two-square-mile city within the city where a quarter-million African-Americans boasted more poets, journalists, musicians, composers, actors, dramatists and nightclubs than any other spot on earth--became the world-famous capital of black America. It seemed to Du Bois that a renaissance of American Negro literature was now due.
His lover/literary editor Jessie Fauset, to put the arts on equal footing with social policy, urged an editorial shift in the pages of The Crisis. In short order, she published Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 and prose poetry by Jean Toomer, later collected in Cane (1923). For the first time in history--just when Du Bois feared he'd have no worthy successors--a literature of African-Americans, by African-Americans and for African-Americans and anyone else who cared to listen was not only a possibility but a reality. The Harlem Renaissance was under way.
One prodigy Du Bois particularly delighted in was pinky-ringed young poet Countee Cullen. Companionable, uncombative, anxious for the kind of credibility a tidy résumé and Harvard degree could confer, Cullen idolized Du Bois to a degree perhaps predictable in a cautious orphan risen from impoverished obscurity to international fame by the age of 22 yet lacking, in the final analysis, the kind of intellectual and artistic daring that could sustain it. Du Bois, for his part, perhaps projected onto Cullen some of the paternal pride and ambition long buried with the infant son he'd loved and lost. And so he married off his only daughter. Langston Hughes rented a tuxedo, an organist played Tannhäuser and sixteen bridesmaids wore white. The only problem--aside from the fact that Countee Cullen was gay--was that the girl admired but didn't love him. It was a match made in Hell, a dramatic example of how "spectacularly wrongheaded" Du Bois could be.
For a decade or more, the Harlem Renaissance promised 10 million African-Americans "taken for granted by one political party and despised by the other, poor and overwhelmingly rural, frightened and disunited," the illusion of an era of freedom, justice and equality undreamed of since Reconstruction. To his immense credit, Du Bois was not lulled into submission, mistrusting the impulse toward "salon exotica" and a smattering of prizes for prodigies. Then as now, the means of production--the Hollywood studios, the recording studios, the theaters--were for the most part white-owned. As early as 1926, he warned about "the politics of patronage," challenging that African-Americans would get the art that they deserved--or were willing to pay for: "If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has to get a white publisher and a white newspaper to say it's great; and then [black people] say so." (Ain't a damn thang changed.) By 1934 it had become embarrassingly clear that civil rights would not follow logically from "forceful prose" and a demonstration of artistic excellence on the part of a few Ivy League Negroes. The movement was dead, "scuttled," as chief publicist Alain Locke put it, as much from within as from without, by faddish market swings and stock speculations of Zora Neale Hurston Niggerati, on the one hand, and the liberal Negrotarians on the other.
For Du Bois, as for most African-Americans, the Depression hit harder and faster and lasted longer than for the country at large. The royal wedding had wiped out his savings, and his Crisis salary hadn't been paid for months. He was broke.