cover image W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois

David Levering Lewis. Henry Holt & Company, $35 (735pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-2621-4

This rich, masterful biography covers the first half of the complex life and abundant career of scholar/activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), whose work both redefined the history of race relations and spurred the 20th-century civil rights movement. Drawing on a wealth of sources, including critical readings of Du Bois's memoirs, which he ``retouched . . . to produce the desired image of impregnable racial pride,'' Lewis advances the narrative with grace and energy. He traces the growth of Du Bois's racial identity in his Massachusetts hometown, Great Barrington, his ``safe harbor'' at black Fisk University and studies at Harvard under philosophers like William James and George Santayana. Lewis finds the roots of Du Bois's idea that the ``Talented Tenth'' should lead blacks in a commencement sermon by a black priest at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where Du Bois had his first faculty job. Lewis ( When Harlem Was in Vogue ) thoroughly explains Du Bois's major ideas, such as his view that black Americans faced a ``double consciousness'' and his analysis of the black community's class structure in The Philadelphia Negro. Even more compelling is the author's description of how Du Bois, the man of ``incorrigible candor'' who founded the NAACP, clashed for years with Booker T. Washington, the 19th century's ``Great Accommodator,'' whom he succeeded as the preeminent voice of black Americans. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.)