Reviewing the reviewers: how people made sense of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil
On 26 February 1920, the 276-page Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil – written by renowned sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois – appeared in bound print. Published at the zenith of Jim Crow, the book contained autobiography, cultural criticism, poetry and sociology. These were marshalled, in Du Bois’s words, to 'strike here and there a half-tone . . . up from the heart of my problem and the problems of my people' (1999 :ix).
People took notice. The reading public drank deeply from Darkwater: the first run of 5,000 copies soon sold out, followed by a second run selling out and a third run of 5,000 produced and sold by July 1921.
Critics too, waded into Darkwater, resulting in many a published response. In reviewing Darkwater, the 29 April 1920 edition of the Daily News called Du Bois a 'raving madman' and his book a 'hymn of hate' before cautioning that 'it should be read by those whites who are able to restrain their tempers under an attack, not merely venomous, but lacking the faintest regard for either justice or truth' (4). In a decidedly dissimilar tone, the 28 July 1920 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed a review describing Du Bois’s text as '. . . an appealing and touching work, marked both by pathos and by power' (Rose 1920:8).
Darkwater arrived to no shortage of opinion. While these two above examples bookend the extremes, what was the full scale of the response?
While the famed Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker covered many of the reviews of Darkwater in The Literary Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois (1989) and David Levering Lewis, the premier biographer of Du Bois, also examined reviews in W. E. B. Du Bois, The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (2000), these account for only 31 reviews in total.
In my Identities article, 'Debating Du Bois’s Darkwater: from hymn of hate to pathos and power', I dug through historical newspapers, journals and magazines to find over 110 published accounts of Darkwater, from distinct advertisements (n=4); publishing announcements (n=19); book club declarations (n=5); mentions in passing (n=10); poems (n=2) and of course, reviews (n=73). I qualitatively catalogued the tone and content of the reviews in order to ascertain how Darkwater was received in the early 1920s as well as quantitatively listed, whether reviewers’ coverage was positive (n=45; 39.8%), negative (n=11; 9.7%), mixed (n=27; 23.9%) or not applicable (n=30; 26.5%).
I cover an array of responses, some lovingly crafted with adoration for what Du Bois imparted, while some were vicious and racist ad hominin attacks. Perhaps most important to our current times, I show how, despite sociology’s supposed moment of Du Boisian renaissance, the field has yet to truly reckon with Du Bois and Darkwater. As of March 2020, the British Journal of Sociology, Canadian Journal of Sociology and Sociology have never cited Darkwater. The main sociological outlet of Du Bois’s day, the American Journal of Sociology (AJS), once published Du Bois’s paper 'Prospect of a world without race conflict' in 1944, and Charles S. Johnson reviewed Du Bois’s Black Folk - Then and Now in AJS in 1940. Yet, AJS refused to review the 1920 publication of Darkwater or the 1969 Schocken Books reprint. It appears Du Bois was most acceptable when his focus was on either blackness or post-racial peace, not on the intersection of whiteness, war and wages – the central focus of many of Darkwater’s chapters, especially the 'The souls of white folk'.
Will these trends continue? One wonders what role sociology will play in an increasingly fractured world marked by the admixture of simultaneous claims of post-racialism, colour-blindness, white supremacy and racial fatigue. To put it in Du Boisian terms, will a problem of the colour-line in the twenty-first century be the problem of sociology?
Aptheker, H. 1989. The Literary Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. White Plains, NY: Kraus-Thomson.
Daily News. 1920. (29 April):4.
Lewis, DL. 2000. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Rose, WR. 1920. On book shop shelves. Cleveland Plain Dealer (28 July):8.
Blog post by Matthew W. Hughey, University of Connecticut, USA
Read the full article: Hughey, Matthew W. Debating Du Bois’s Darkwater: from hymn of hate to pathos and power. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1742480