Du Bois the Novelist: White Influence, Black Spirit, and The Quest of the Silver Fleece

by Maurice Lee
Du Bois the Novelist: White Influence, Black Spirit, and The Quest of the Silver Fleece
Maurice Lee
African American Review
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DuBois the Novelist: White Influence, Black Spirit,

and The Quest of the Silver Fleece

W hen writing about a canonical figure, one hopes for a measure of interest. And when writing about a novel bv


a canonical figure, one might almost assume a willing audience. Even further still, when the novel at hand engages with subtlety the issue of race, it would be a surprise not to encounter an abun- dance of critical work about that text. But though the presence of DuBois in literary journals no longer requires justification, and though valuable scholarship has recently treated the question of Du Bois and other minds, we pay his novels scant attention, despite our current occupation with racial politics, intellectual influence, and popular narrative form. Perhaps Du Bois the novel- ist must wait his turn behind Du Bois the philosopher, historian, and editor. Perhaps The Souls of Black Folk (1903) demands the spot allotted to DuBois on syllabi. But what if the truth is alto- gether less decorous: What if his novels are not very good? Or, in this time of uncertain aesthetics, what if his novels do not speak to our concerns?

DuBois's first novelistic effort, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is largely regarded as a failure. The novel, we are told, "suffers" generic confusion (Rampersad 127). Its "contradictory" musings are intellectually lax (Kostelanetz 175). Its politics are finally "problematic," though Du Bois's progressive intentions are clear (Byerman 128). This article will argue the contrary: that DuBois's mediation of romance and realism is skillful and strate- gic; that The Quest of the Silver Fleece engages and challenges major American texts; that, with careful, even subversive, atten- tion to issues of language and form, DuBois appropriates novelis- tic discourse for his own artistic and political ends. In short, The Silver Fleece is immensely interesting, not only because it sug- gests new ways to read Du Bois's work, but also because it reveals a very literary figure critics have yet to acknowledge-a serious novelist with ambitious designs for the United States and its liter- atures.

Summarizing The Quest of the Silver Fleece is no insignificant task. Set in Tooms County, Alabama, but with visits to Washington, D.C., and New York, the narrative traces the love and labor of Bles Alwyn and Zora, the "child of the swamp" (44). Quickly, however, subplots emerge. A double-marriage between pairs of siblings ties the Southern, aristocratic Cresswells to the Northern, industrialist Taylors. Bles travels north and becomes embroiled in political elections and appointments. Back in Tooms,

Maurice Lee is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is com- pleting a dissertation on slav- ery, moral philosophy, and antebellum literature. Mr. Lee wishes to thank Martha Banta for her generous help with this article.

Cresswells and Taylors jointly run an exploitative cotton mill. Through it all, Zora seeks "The Way" to romantic love, spiritual rebirth, and the redemp- tion of her people. Time and again, we return to "The Fleeceu-a cotton crop of symbolic import that Zora raises in the swamp. Scholars generally agree that this wide-ranging plot yanks the story between romance and realism, yet no one has detailed how Du Bois plays with genre-how he uses con- temporary literary conventions to oppose conventional views of race.

Du Bois wrote a draft of The Silver Fleece between 1904 and 1906, not long after The Souls of Black FolKs remark- able experiment in form. Such experi- mentation continues in The Quest of the Silver Fleece: Whether we call it signifyin' or a deformation of mastery, Du Bois subverts novelistic tradition and its politics at the turn of the centu- ry. That is, by resisting the very tropes Du Bois ostensibly adopts, he escapes the bounds of romance and realism to wage battles on grounds of his own.

Most critics no longer agree with Richard Chase, but some still believe in genre. And though Hawthorne, James, and Thomas Dixon all wrote what they called "romances," we still insist on their obvious differences, even while admitting that Dreiser and Norris share a somewhat similar "romantic" urge.l As I see it, this puzzle is not one to be solved. Texts are unstable; termi- nology slides; and authors violate criti- cal taxonomies, just as critics are quick to embarrass authors who shirk pro- fessed formal dicta. The game of genre remains open-ended. But by defining realism-and subsuming naturalism-in the context of late-industrial capitalism, recent work invokes the social forces of class insta- bility, ethnic anxiety, changing notions of value, unfamiliar urban s the centralization of power. Pace, and

Nonetheless, these distinctions blur and cross in sectional, racialized narratives, or as James wrote in 1907 in his preface to trace the dividing-line between the real and the romantic as to plant a mile- stone between north and south" (13). If there is, as Eric Sundquist argues, a "country of American romance" ("Country" 3), and if the city is the place for realism, then what do we make of a story set in New York, Washington, and Tooms? Indeed, what do we make of the many novels in which Northern city folk and unrecon- structed Southerners come together to talk about race? And can generic defin- itions based on cultural experience apply equally to disparate groups? Other scholars voice similar concerns (see Ammons, Kaplan, and Jameson), and while admitting the explanatory power of genre, I still maintain this sense: Whether in Howells's time, Chase's day, or our own postmodern instance, the romance versus realism debate seems most fruitful for the "old canonu-an opinion Du Bois himself suggests by confounding such distinc- tions.

As Arnold Rampersad best shows, The Silver Fleece has elements of real- ism. Du Bois once called it "an econom- ic study" (Dusk 751); Norris's unfin- ished Epic of the Wheat may have been influential (Rampersad 117); politics and Wall Street, mills and monopolies, exploitation and graft-all reflect fears of late-industrial capitalism and the incorporation of life. Bles says, "'Death and pain pay for all good things' " (127). Zora despairs, " 'God! it was money, money, always money' " (359). By rejecting Bles's "Quixotic ideas" (315), Caroline Wynn tragically choos- es salary over romance, whereupon Tom Teerswell calls her " 'Carrie!' " (322), recalling another materialistic Carrie, who wins riches but not love. We should also anticipate The Financier (1912) in Du Bois's chapter "The Cotton Comer," for just as Dreiser represents fate as a "horrific spider spinning his trap" (501), DuBois imagines that "away to the north a great spider sat weaving his web" (193). Moreover, in Norris's Octopus


(1901), a town is "sucked white" by a railroad system that Norris describes as "a giant parasite fattening upon [its] life-blood" (289). In Tooms, the Taylor cotton mill seems to "devour" employ- ees with "its black maw open, drawing in the pale white mites, sucking their blood and spewing them out paler and ever paler" (391).

Like Norris and (for the most part) Dreiser, Du Bois bemoans the relentless materialism his novel sets in play; but unlike them, he does not depict a world of grim determinism. Bles and Zora are joyfully engaged; Smith's school is saved by a happy inheritance; the "free community" Zora founds sur- vives its white attackers (362). For all the text's economic savvy, capitalism does not conquer love. For all the forces that buffet Bles, he remains "A Master of Fate" (312). This ultimately makes political sense, for as a reformer who, like Zora, exhorts his people to "'free yourselves!' " (370), Du Bois rejects the ruthless law propounded by Norris and Dreiser. In the wrong hands (and there were many), social Darwinism led to political quiescence and theories of black inferiority (Degler). Norris's racism is painfully obvious; Dreiser's fatalism is so pro- found he describes Herbert Spencer as "liberal" (Sister 87). Though DuBois, at times, speaks highly of Spencer-Zora even has one of his books on her shelf-he clearly rejects the racist claims often construed from Spencer's thought. Thus Harry Cresswell callous- ly notes that life is "'a case of crush or get crushed' " (116), while the foolish sociologist Temple Bocombe flatly states, "'Race is undoubtedly dying out' "after glancing at some black chil- dren's heads (179).

"The Way" for Zora and Du Bois is not this implacable path, and yet the author of The Silver Fleece is also no romancer. Bocombe is engrossed by a novel he calls " 'clever, but not true to life' " (174). Cresswell prefers a light romance to Jane Addams's Newer Ideals of Peace (1906). Even the pairing of Bles and Zora, the romantic core of the book, resists convention when Bles rejects the "innocent," "sweet and good" Emma (418). Except for her race, Emma could star in any number of white romances; as a sexually pure, light-skinned black, she might pass for Harper's Iola Leroy or Hopkins's Dianthe Lusk. The younger Bles is surely influenced by such sentimental models: After learning of Zora's notori- ous past, he thunders, "'You should have died!' " (170). But Zora endures, Bles learns better, and the fallen woman wins her man. In fact, by redeeming Zora's purity, Du Bois envi- sions a happy ending few romancers would dare.

Such resistance to romance is espe- cially evident in the double-marriage plot, for Du Bois denies this central device of reconciliation romances. As Nina Silber has thoroughly shown, North-South marriages came to stand for national reunion, while nuptial vows between pairs of siblings avoided the awkward gendering of sections. Too often, however, such tropes ignored the failure of Reconstruction, and so DuBois depicts his cross-sec- tional marriages as flawed, oppressive unions. Harry is a "'nasty brute!' "

(354) and Taylor a "scrawny iron man" (197). While Helen Cresswell lies lan- guidly bored, Mary Taylor loses a child, martyrs herself to the randy Harry, and finally wishes in her domestic misery for the "reality and prose of life" (287). All is foreshad- owed in the wedding ceremony where "either bridegroom looked gladly at the flow of his sister's garments and almost darkly at his bride's" (231), sug- gesting that incestuous, sectional inter- est enforces their conjugal bonds. Harry aptly proves this fact, and when his courting becomes a seduction, Du Bois debunks the cavalier hero of so many Southern romances. Harry's "'aristocratic pose and pretensions' " charm the innocent Mary (180), but "gentlemanly as he was by rule of his clan. . . underneath raged unappeased fires" (196). Clan is hardly a neutral word, especially in the context of


"unappeased fires," and the message rings clear when Harry admits he had acted "too cavalierly" (311). We are thus not surprised by Harry's debauch- es or Colonel Cresswell's relation to Emma. In fact, the patrician Cresswell line may have a drop of black blood.3

Keith Byerman also suggests Du Bois's critique of albeit unsuccessfully, to make class a political base. DuBois, in his novel, as in his life, is unsure about working-class whites. Thus he defends black political power by pitting Cresswell's Southern Democrats against Taylor's Northern Republicans, for minority interests in a two-party

system gain leverage from

Southern romance, but the We should party strife. Or, as the pow-
author's irony takes political force when coupled with his censure of Booker T. not mismeasure erful Mr. Easterly explains, " 'In a close election the Negroes.. . choose the
Washington and the Southern pursuit of Northern capital, particularly in Tooms, where D" text aaainst" President' " (266).4 In this way, DuBois's departure from romance is
be see a hellish picture of New Slaverv in the New South. ~a~lo; explains how inappropriatestandards. neither a mistake nor coin- cidence. Bv refusing to privilege light skinvand

he will use his monopoly to " 'club European manufacturers into submission' " (64). With a twist of Washington's famous speech from the Atlanta Exposition, he describes his Northern cotton trust as " 'the whip-hand of the industrial world' " (111). Moreover, the Cresswells learn from Taylor that " 'the code of the Southern gentleman won't work in Wall Street' " (192), while at the same time workers, some of them children, suffer the hardships of the mill. A white woman declares, " 'Durned if I don't think these white slaves and black slaves had ought ter git together' " (395)-not only emphasiz- ing Du Bois's point that Northern industry had mastered the South, but challenging a popular political strategy Taylor explicitly names: " 'We'll . . . use whites to keep niggers in their place, and the fear of nieeers to kee~ the


poorer whites in theirs' " (39f). By set- ting Southern agrarian interests against the industry of the New South, Du Bois lays bare the ideological rifts in a politi- cally regressive alliance that combined Southern racism with Northern exploitation-an alliance that Washington hoped to join with the promise of Southern black labor. Du Bois also hints (though with serious misgivings) at fusing poor whites with blacks-a powerful coalition in the hey-day of Populism that attempted,

passivity, he argues instead for black unity and activism. By speak- ing against a national double-marriage, he fights reconciliation at the expense of black rights. Finally, by setting cava- liers against captains of industry, he exposes the self-interest of sectional politics and advances a progressive agenda: support of child labor reform (the Keating-Owen Act, passed in 1916), support of antitrust legislation (the Clayton Act, passed in 1914), leverage from the threat of blacks vot- ing Democratic (as many, including Du Bois himself, did in 1912), and a refutation of his nemesis Washington and the logic of accommodationism. To quote again from James's preface:

~~~ necessity we swing, to a rope of remarkable length.. . . the moment


that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated. . . . The art of the romancer is, "for the fun of it," insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detect- ing him. (10-11)

DuBois, however, does not cut his cable in The Quest of the Silver Fleece: "One thing alone lay in [Zora's] wild fancy like a great and wonderful fact dragging the dream to earth and anchoring it there. That was the Silver Fleece" (215). Despite a tendency for wild fancy, DuBois is no romancer. He does not drift away from solid reality;


he is seldom unrelated; swinging from a rope is no extravagant metaphor for African Americans at the turn of the century.

Thus Du Bois is anchored by "won- derful fact," an apt description for his use of genre in The Quest of the Silver Fleece. On the one hand, he invokes the wonderful-the power of love and human freedom. On the other, he is con- cerned with fact-with the Realpolitik of power and difference that affected African Americans. Neither mode alone is sufficient, and so Du Bois deploys a type of twoness. With a real- ist's eye for social critique, he con- demns Northern industry and Southern mythology. With a romancer's faith in possibility, he rejects social Darwinism's fatal uni- verse and theories of scientific racism. Critics may regret this generic confu- sion, but we should not mismeasure Du Bois's text against inappropriate standards. As he once wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, regarding a larger confusion: "The black man's turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weak- ness. And yet it is not weakness,-it is the contradiction of double aims" (365).

Du Bois and William James.
Du Bois and Hegel. Du Bois and
Adams, Crummell, Marx, Santayana,
and ~merson.~

We have only begun to plumb the depths of Du Bois's intellec- tual influences. But of all the thinkers listed here, none is regarded as a nov- elist. They are not, of course, irrelevant to The Quest of the Silver Fleece. Du Bois's conflation of doing and being recalls William James's pragmatism. Zora's search for "the mighty ideal" (296)echoes Emerson's "Experience" (1844), so much that her dreamy state resembles that of Emerson-even so much that we might compare "won- derful fact" with "true romance" (492).


Be that as it may, it would be a surprise if so studious and self-conscious an author did not engage a novelist, for although Du Bois manages genre with a trenchant literary sense, we may yet find harder satisfactions to the ques- tion of novelistic influence.

There is, however, another literary history implicated by Du Bois-a history that warrants a few disclaimers, for reading The Silver Fleece in light of the Puritans may prove a dubious busi- ness. Dubious because transmission points will remain, for skeptics, specu- lative, though no more speculative than the cultural contexts we assume by fiat of "discourse." We may also risk critical colonization by introducing the New England Mind, though as Shamoon Zamir has written, "to deny a black writer a catholicity of procedures and resources is, in effect, a kind of racism" (17). With these caveats noted-and with the reminder that DuBois was as voracious an intellect as the United States has witnessed-there is ample evidence, both biographical and textual, to invoke the Puritans (and one latter-day novelist).

Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and attend-


ed the First Congregational Church. David Lewis describes his earlv beliefs


as "anchored in the rigorous Calvinism of New England Congregationalism" (48). According to Rampersad, he was "directly exposed to the fundamental doctrines of New England Puritanism" and "the iron of Puritan ethics" (5). Both scholars describe an initial faith giving way to philosophical uncertain- ty: Du Bois was neither the first nor the last to doubt his God at college. Still, his autobiographical works aver an early Calvinism, and for a yankee who tended to keep a watchful eye on influ- ence, the weighty Puritan legacy may have caused him some anxiety, at least enough to justify a few words in his first novel.

" 'John is nothing but cotton' " (84), Mary says of her brother-a coincidental pun, perhaps, except for other clues: more pairings of "John" and "cotton," allusions to John Cotton's work, and Du Bois's rewriting of a famous dispute between Cotton and Roger Williams. In 1635, after much discussion, Cotton and the Magistrates exiled Williams into "the swamp" of Rhode Island on the grounds that he had sinned, not against law, but rather against his con- science. Williams later surfaced in England with The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution (1643-44), a tract that denied Cotton's charges and argued that ordinance, not conscience, was the proper standard for sin. Cotton answered in two well-known works:

The Bloudy Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb (1647) and his classic account of New England Congregationalism, The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (1648).~Du Bois may have had this later title in mind when Zora dis- covers a communal "Way" that, like Cotton's, negotiates between sepa- ratism and non-separatism. Even fur- ther, Zora's "Way [is] opened" by a preacher's cry from a Northern church,

"'Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world' "-a cry repeated one page later in a powerful Jeremiac sermon (294-96). Thus Du Bois refers to both Cotton texts at this cru- cia1 moment in his narrative, and he holds with Cotton that sin violates con- science and that ignorance mitigates sin.

When Zora reflects on her impure past, she asks, "'He's a fair God, ain't He?' " And Bles replies, "'Yes-He's fair, He would n't take advantage of a little girl that did wrong, when she did n't know it was wrong' " (95). Young Bles, like Cotton, factors knowledge into his definition of sin, but after learning the truth about Zora, he can- not (until later) support her:

"You-you told me-you were-pure.. . . " "But, Bles-you said-wiUinglyyou said-if-if she knew-" He thundered back in livid anger: "Knew! All women know!" (169-70)

Bles is no John Cotton figure, anymore than is John Taylor. But Du Bois reen- acts a simplified version of the Cotton/Williams debate, and he sides-after citing the appropriate texts-with Cotton's version of sin. Indeed, just as Williams accused his opponent of eliding human depravity, Du Bois argues that no person (or peo- ple) is inherently irredeemable-an answer to the (not wholly unrelated) fatalism of Calvin and Dreiser, as well as a rebuttal of Bible-based racism that survived the Civil War in only slightly altered form.

Cotton proves useful to Du Bois in this sense, but his politics are not always exemplary. Behind Cotton's lengthy debate with Williams, and lurking in both The Bloudy Tenet Washed and The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, is the legacy of the Antinomian IControversy and Cotton's infamous pupil Anne Hutchinson. By privileging individual conscience, Cotton subordi- nated the authority of law to the ecsta- sy of the spirit. But when Hutchinson Iclaimed an "immediate revelation" and began to preach herself (Antinomian 337), she offered a grace unbounded by law-a grace outside church and state hierarchy that Cotton could not (or did


not) support. Du Bois does not enter this complex debate through a seven- teenth-century text, but he offers another view of Hutchinson with a specific book-indeed, a novel-in mind.

Fifteen miles from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a house called "The Scarlet Letter," named by Hawthorne after his first major novel, and the site where he wrote The House of the Seven Gables (1851). DuBois's proximity to Hawthorne's home, his extensive reading and intellectual breadth, Hawthorne's prominence in American letters at the turn of the nine- teenth century-all suggest that The Scarlet Letter (1850) may be a pre-text for The Silver Fleece, a claim strength- ened by Du Bois's allusions to Cotton, because Hawthorne created Hester Prynne with Anne Hutchinson as a model7 Zora, in turn, follows Hester's footsteps, and though (like most) Du Bois may lack Hawthorne's allegor- ical zeal, he does refashion the Antinomian Controversy and the poli- tics of The Scarlet Letter. Du Bois first conflates Hester and Pearl in his own fallen protagonist. Zora is an "elf-girl" (15), Pearl an "elfish child" (88). Zora's "birdlike laughter" (45) echoes Pearl's "bird-like voice" (83). Both girls are mystical daughters of sin; both are pagan, passionate children. Both repre- sent untutored goodness and befuddle their betters with innocent questions. They do, that is, until Zora grows up and turns into Hester Prynne. When Zora first enters Sarah Smith's school, she stands on the "threshold" in a "scarlet gown" (53) made in "the mills in New England" (50). Compare this scene to our first view of Hester on the "threshold" of the prison-door (48). Hester is "haughty" (49), just as Zora stares "defiantly" (53). Both women are dark and beautiful. Both stand before reproachful eyes in blazing scarlet cloth. Moreover, when Zora embroi- ders the Fleece, she "wilfully. . . sewed into the cloth something of the beauty in her heart" (227). Hester, too, is a wil- ful artist, and there is "'not a stitch in [her] embroidered letter, but she had felt it in her heart' " (50). Most impor- tantly, perhaps, Hester is allowed to "work out another purity than that which she had lost" (73), just as Zora re-makes herself "'more than pure' " by laboring in the swamp (433).

These parallels are striking in lan- guage and theme, but Du Bois, at times, leaves Hester behind to refer to Anne Hutchinson directly. Zora's schooling is "a revelation of grace" (124); she preaches a visionary sermon; she founds a community of spirited exiles outside the pale of society. This Hutchinson-figure is more radical, less repentant, and (in some ways) more accurate than Hawthorne's. The "real" Anne Hutchinson was a powerful leader who took followers with her into banishment-a female who dared give religious instruction based on her own revelations of grace.8 Hutchinson never returned to Massachusetts and came to a (reportedly) tragic end, but she did transgress traditional bound- aries of geography, ideology, and gen- der. Du Bois's heroine does the same and is not, like Hester, safely relegated to the margins of dominant culture. When Zora goes into the swamp to establish her community, Smith's "shrewd New England reason asked: 'What can a half-taught black girl do in the wilderness?' " (335). A similar question lay behind the Puritan mis- sion in America, famously articulated in Samuel Danforth's "Errand into the Wilderness" (1670). But when Smith directs the question to Zora, Du Bois suggests that the New England project is now carried forward by black dis- senters-by a new oppressed people seeking spiritual freedom (and not prospering in the trade of slaves and rum). Hester nearly convinces Dimmesdale to run "into the wilder- ness"-to escape beyond "the white man's tread" where they can be "free!" (174). Zora does not linger for Bles's approval. She goes to the swamp; he finally follows; and together they join a "free community" quite unlike the pri-


vate departure Hester urges on her minister.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois denies the primacy of the Puritans: "Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed, we were here" (545). In The Silver Fleece, he does the same by reworking the novel James had called "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country" (Hawthorne 111). Hawthorne's achievement rests, in part, on his own revision of the Puritans, and yet The Scarlet Letter remains politically inert-mainly moral, deconstructive, marked by self-canceling allegory. In a profoundly ambitious and revolutionary gesture, Du Bois departs from this foremost novel. He refashions Hester as a politi- cal activist; he does not retreat from the wilderness; he appropriates a Puritan ideology of nation-making potential. "Shall I be Walt Whitman?" Du Bois wrote in 1889 (Zamir 57). His novel is not Song of Myself (l855), but it does share Whitman's epic aspirations; for to wake a nation, The Silver Fleece repossesses a powerful tradition of dis- sent by advocating a new national errand-this time with blacks as the chosen people, this time not as a city on a hill, but on land redeemed from the swamp.

We have thus far viewed Du Bois the novelist as an expert subverter of genre and text. But when influence recedes to the back- ground of the book, and Zora and Bles stand alone in the swamp-when sponsors are gone, marauders defeat- ed, and texts revised to good use-Bles asks, "'The battle's over, is n't it?" To which Zora responds, "'It's just begun' " (430). In this final section, let us examine how Du Bois's novel escapes the boundaries of prevailing (and largely white) influence to explore a space of alternative expression that is relatively and ambiguously free. This quest for artistic and political autono- my ultimately leads to the swamp, and on the way it touches needful topics: Du Bois's use of mysticism, his rela- tionship with the novel, and his treat- ment of African American experience in terms of literary convention. First, however, this implicit claim: Du Bois is wary of influence. He rejects the con- straints of romance and realism and finds fault with Hawthorne and the Puritans. He also called early for a black aesthetic he himself tried to exemplify (see Turner, Moses, and Sundquist, Wake). The Silver Fleece has no musical notation, but Du Bois does register his formal concerns. He mocks those who "know beauty by convention only" (124), and when Bles presses Zora about her literacy, she nai'vely asks with devastating irony, "'Don't white folks make books?' " (46). Du Bois knows that literature is no neutral system; he knows the limits of white patronage. With these concerns he ruminates over how one might tell a free story.

In 1911, according to Wilson J. Moses, Du Bois knew less about African cultures and more about a myth tradition Moses calls Ethiopianism. More recent criticism links such spiritualist leanings to racialist theory (Appiah), nationhood (Sundquist, Wake), and the psychical research of William James (Schrager)-all of which cohere with my present contention that Du Bois in The Quest of the Silver Fleece uses mysticism to create a space for African American voices. In the swamp, the "'voodoo woman' " (371) Elspeth pro- vides the "'wonder seed, sowed wid the three spells of Obi in the old land ten tousand moons ago' " (75). In the swamp are "strange power" (14), "huge bronze earth-spirits" (375), and "thick memories of some forgotten past" (209). Scholars have interpreted this mysterious realm as everything from "loving" (Elder 358) to "evil" (Rampersad 120), but just as Elspeth sows the "holy" Fleece while threaten- ing Zora's purity (215), the swamp


resists easy reduction to univocal sym- bolic structures. It harbors pure love and immoral revels, African roots and a future black community. Its "virgin and black" soil is cleared and furnished with Tennyson, Balzac, and Plato (78). It is an emblem of twoness where voodoo meets Christianity-where the spirit of Elspeth is dispelled by Old Pappy, "'a preacher, and some folks say a conjure man, too' " (37). Among all these things, the swamp is also a place for potentially free expression, for its boundless, shifting, liminal nature cannot be contained by tradi- tional forms. When Bles casts his eyes on Washington, D.C., "somehow it looked like the swamp" (318). Zora says of New York, "'I knew the city was like the swamp, always restless and changing' ";"'it is moving- always moving' " (245-46). Caroline Wynn advises Bles that "'the line between virtue and foolishness is dim and wavering, and I should hate to see you lost in that marshy borderland' " (277). Indeed, the swamp is like the novel-a moving, mixed, wavering borderland neither real nor romantic, neither North nor South. Mystical and, as Du Bois writes, "formless" (371), the swamp holds a sanctity he defends with a veil.

When Mary enters "the deep shad- ow of the swamp," there is a "certain brooding terror." The earth is "black and burned," but she continues on "with the hush of death about her, and the silence which is one great Voice" (202). Here a white New Englander meets slavery's legacy: the impenetra- ble shadow of the Negro, the earth black and burned like a lynching vic- tim, the brooding terror of the Great Dismal Swamp where Nat Turner and other maroons sought refuge. Most powerfully, the silence which is one great Voice describes the lost link to an African past and the voices lost in slav- ery-untold stories we hear whispered again in Elspeth's cabin, "too far for words" (203), and in Bles's painful "unspoken story that lay too deep for words" (262). Du Bois may not reclaim these narratives, but he does suggest their power. Moreover, he protects their hard-bought freedom from the prying eyes of white influence, for when Mary eventually comes upon Zora, the black's face is "mask-like, regular and comely; clothed in a mighty calm, yet subtly, masterfully veiling behind itself depths of unfath- omed misery and wild revolt. All this lay in its darkness" (203-04).

Cynthia Schrager has recently argued that Du Bois's mysticism tends to mystify scholars, in part because he sets it against the discourse of scientific reason. This point is well-taken in The Silver Fleece, for although the swamp is deconstructive and (to some extent) free, a necessary, troubling question remains: If Du Bois is uneasy with liter- ary form, why write a novel at all? We can begin with any number of critics-Henry James, Ian Watt, Georg Luktics, Mikhail Bakhtin-and still conclude (albeit hastily) that the form of the novel is grounded in things insofar as it is materialistic, temporal, and socially grounded. As such, the novel is quite amenable to Du Bois's political goals, though he also, here and throughout his career, possesses a counter-impulse. Call it mysticism, spiritualism, or his search for "the mighty ideal," Du Bois, like Zora, is often most interested, not in things, but in the "'worlds on worlds of things' " (49). He was, of course, exceedingly versed in idealist philosophy; and in 1892, he sketched the plot of a novel he would never complete-a project titled "Shattered Ideals," though he later drew a line through "Shattered" (Against Racism 25). Perhaps this novel was never finished because Du Bois knew what I am hoping to suggest: that the temporal, material form of the novel tends to resist idealism. Or per- haps Du Bois's outline, with its heroine "Z," was actually written as The Silver Fleece in an attempt to reconstruct shattered ideals in the form of an ideal- ist novel. If so, The Quest of the Silver Fleece is a narrative of double aims, for


Du Bois confronts the political world fashions two powerful, popular genres while also resisting its worldliness. for specific ideological ends. Such

In "The Transcendentalist" (1842), work values artistic creation and the

Emerson writes that "mankind [has] art of the possible. It maintains won-

ever divided into two sects, derful, fanciful hopes in the face of

Materialists and Idealists" (193).Later, dominant facts. That is, without deny-

these paradigms collide in the mind, ing the force of culture, the book does

and Emerson calls it "double con- what "real" work it can; for Du Bois

sciousness" (205). In this sense, Du Bois explores an autonomous space, not to and The Silver Fleece display a power- transcend the American present, but to ful twoness. As a reformer with politi-

deploy an alternative, liminal voice.

cal burdens, Du Bois does not disre- Which is to say that The Quest of the gard the material world of the novel.

Silver Fleece makes a strong political But he also imagines a higher calling, and literary case, for it is cognizant of, for as Zora says of whites, " 'They just but not co-opted by, over-determined got things. . . .We black folks is got the structures of language. To accomplish spirit " (46). This is, as I take it, the this, Du Bois grapples with a number fundamental tension in The Quest of of literary influences. And insofar as the Silver Fleece, manifested in its turn- his learning spans centuries, disci- ing between romance and realism and plines, genres, and a wealth of associat- in the borderland twoness of the ed texts, so much greater are the chal- swamp, manifested in Du Bois's simul- lenges and rewards of reading his first taneous urge to shun and adopt novel- novel with sufficient attention.

istic convention. Moreover, this form of What if, as Ross Posnock recently double consciousness extends the suggests, DuBois's project to join p~li-

dialectic of The Souls of Black Folk into

tics and idealism is profitably viewed the forum of genre, and, just as with as a pragmatic one? When Richard that remarkable text, it shows that con- Rorty writes that at the turn of the cen- tradiction need not be weakness-that tury "the opposite of realism was still political imperatives will sometimes idealism" (2), might we not guess that engender formal, allusive, ideological Du Bois's novel has both literarv and striving.

philosophical interests-providing Finally, and by way of a tentative (against some literary opinions) that

conclusion, Du Bois may find symbolic resolution to his problem of influence Rorty's "realism" is related to and form, for when Zora's quest for the Howells's? There seems to me much

mighty ideal ends in the mystical more to say about The Quest of the swamp, Du Bois conjoins spirit and Silver Fleece. Here, I have focused on idealism to balance the world of things. DuBois's ability to write within and By forming a nation in the swamp, he against prevailing novelistic tradition. envisions a political, material body Among his many literary achieve- founded on higher principles. By writ- ments, this seems a compelling con- ing a novel that demonstrates extreme cern, even if-as Zora suggests in the sensitivity to difference and justice, he swamp-the work has only begun.

Notes 1. Kaplan notes the romantic aspects of Sister Carrie (140-60), as does Livingston (132-57). Chase calls Norris a romancer (20).

2. Of the many relevant works on realism, I find the following particularly helpful: Kaplan; Sundquist, "Country"; Trachtenberg 182-207; Livingston 132-57; Pizer, "Introduction"; Ammons; and Budd. Regarding my own terminology, Ifollow Kaplan and Sundquist by including naturalism under the broader term realism. In doing so, I emphasize (along with Budd) the continuities between what some scholars consider two distinct traditions.


3. No one, to my knowledge, discusses this possibility. The major clue is when Mary overhears
that her child was born " 'Worse than dead!' " and the doctor remarks that "'the sins of the fathers
are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation' " (337-38). Rampersad (1 18) and
Byerman (123) attribute this to syphilis, but the chance of syphilis spanning three generations may be
less likely than Harry's having African blood, especially considering that Du Bois discusses passing in
the novel and describes "the crooked line of the Cresswell blue blood" (1 87). Of course, these theo-
ries are not mutually exclusive.
4. For historical accounts of the New South, including fusion and Populism, see Ayers and
Woodward. Du Bois's conflicted views on class and race are perhaps most apparent in his relation-
ship with socialism. He looked favorably upon it as early as 1904, and he briefly joined the Party in
191 1 (a year after submitting The Quest of the Silver Fleece for publication). But the Socialist Party
did not engage the question of race with sufficient urgency, and according to Lewis, he only dabbled
in a "maverick socialism" at this time (447). Most Silver Fleece critics view the novel as ambivalent
toward socialism (see especially Rampersad 121-22). For a later, but telling, example of Du Bois's
relationship with white labor, see "The Black Man and the Unions" (1 91 8) in his Writings (1 173-75).
5. Du Bois's intellectual influences are broadly discussed by Posnock, Zamir, Lewis 56-149, and
Rampersad 1-67. See also Gilroy 11 1-45; Bruce; Moses, "Conservation"; and West 138-50.
6. For the CottonhVilliams debate see Cotton, Ziff, and Miller.
7. For Hawthorne's nineteenth-century reputation, see Cady. The HutchinsonIHester connection is
widely acknowledged, perhaps most notably by Colacurcio (177-227). It should be admitted from the
outset that treating The Scarlet Letter as a stable text to be confidently signified upon is severely to
underestimate the text's ambiguity and resistance. At the same time, to attempt to locate the novel's
politics would be to pursue another project. I therefore rely on what seem to me likely or, at the very
least, plausible interpretations.
8. Hawthorne's departures from the history of Hutchinson also have their own thematic significance
(Colacurcio 177-227). 1 write of a "real" Anne Hutchinson, because her history is muddied by differing
accounts and agendas (Antinomian, Lang).
Ammons, Elizabeth. "Expanding the Canon of American Realism." Pizer, Cambridge 95-1 14. Works
Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on W. E. 5. Du Bois. Boston: Hall, 1985. Cited
Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Ed. David D. Hall. Durham: Duke UP,  
Appiah, Anthony. "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race." "Race," Writing,  
and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 21 -37.  
Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life Affer Reconstruction. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.  
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans.  
Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.  
Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. "W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness." American Literature  
64 (1 992): 299-309.  
Budd, Louis J. "The American Background." Pizer, Cambridge 21 -46.  
Byerman, Keith. Seizing the Word: History, Aft, and Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Athens: U of  
Georgia P, 1994.  
Cady, Edwin H. "'The Wizard Hand': Hawthorne, 1864-1900." Hawthorne Centenary Essays. Ed.  
Roy Harvey Pearce. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1964. 317-34.  
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. 1957. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.  
Colacurcio, Michael J. Doctrine and Difference: Essays in the Literature of New England. New York:  
Routledge, 1997.  
Cotton, John. "A Sermon at Salem." 1636. John Cotton on the Churches of New England. Ed. Larzer  
Ziff. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1968. 41-68.  
Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Danvinism in American  
Social Thought. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.  
Dreiser, Theodore. The Financier. 191 2. New York: World, 1947.  
-. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Penguin, 1981.  
Du Bois, W. E. B. Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887-1961. Ed. Herbert  
Aptheker. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.  
-. The Quest of the Silver Fleece. 191 1. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989.  
-. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Du Bois, Writings 357-547.  
-. W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1986.  

Elder, Arlene A. "Swamp Versus Plantation: Symbolic Structure in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Quest of the Silver Fleece." Phylon 34 (1 973): 358-67. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Experience." 1844. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983. 469-92. -. "The Transcendentalist." 1842. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lect~res.~New

York: Library of America, 1983. 191 -209.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Griggs, Sutton E. Pointing the Way. Nashville: Orion, 1908.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: Library of America, 1990.

James, Henry. The American. 1877. New York: Norton, 1978.

-. Hawthorne. 1879. New York: Macmillan, 1887.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Kostelanetz, Richard. "Fictions for a Negro Politics: The Neglected Novels of W. E B. Du Bois."

Andrews 173-94.

Lang, Amy S. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1987. Lewis, David L. W. E. 5. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.New York: Holt, 1993. Livingston, James. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940.Chapel

Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin P, 1962.

Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. Moses, Wilson J. "The Poetics of Ethiopianism: W. E. B. Du Bois and Literary Black Nationalism." American Literature 47 (1 975): 41 1 -26. -. "W. E. B. Du Bois's 'The Conservation of Races' and Its Context: Idealism, Conservatism, and

Hero Worship." Massachusetts Review 34 (1993): 275-94. Norris, Frank. The Octopus: A Story of California. 1901. New York: Penguin, 1986. Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to

London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. -. "Introduction: The Problem of Definition." Pizer, Cambridge 1-18. Posnock, Ross. Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual.

Cambridge: Haward UP, 1998. Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge: Haward UP, 1976. Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers: Volume I. Cambridge:

Cambridge UP, 1991. Schrager, Cynthia D. "Both Sides of the Veil: Race, Science, and Mysticism in W. E. B. Du Bois." American Quarterly 48 (1 996): 551 -86. Silber, Nina. The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900.Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993. Sundquist, Eric. "The Country of the Blue." American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Sundquist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 3-24. -. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1993. Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Turner, Darwin T. "W. E. B. Du Bois and the Theory of a Black Aesthetic." Andrews 73-92.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1957.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913.Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1971.

Zamir, Shamoon. Dark Voices: W. E. 5. DuBois and American Thought, 1883-1903.Chicago: U of

Chicago P, 1995. Ziff, Larzer. The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962.


Rampersad writes with some dis- appointment that, despite Du Bois's extensive knowledge of African American literature, "there is no evi- dence that Du Bois learned much from his predecessors in the field of the black novel" (116). Sutton Griggs's Pointing the Way (1908) is an exception that proves this rule. The title antici- pates DuBois's "Way"; the authors may have met at a 1908 convention (Lewis 376); Griggs's novel speaks of the "color-line" (223) and adopts the trope of "the veil" (233). But though Zora's commune might resemble that of Imperium in Imperio (1889), and though both books have chapters titled, "The Parting of Ways," there seems little commerce between Griggs and Du Bois in The Quest of the Silver Fleece, especially when compared with The Souls of Black Folk's lively engage- ment of Washington.

African American Review, Volume 33, Number 3 0 1999 Maurice Lee

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