Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

HENRY B. WONHAM


Howells, Du Bois, and the Effect of "Common-Sense": Race, Realism, and Nervousness in An Imperative Duty and The Souls of Black Folk

In the composite picture which William Dean Howells, as his life work, has painted of America he has not hesitated to be truthful and to include the most significant thing in the land--the black man. With lies and twistings most Americans seek to ignore the mighty and portentous shadow of ten growing millions, or, if it insists on darkening the landscape, to label it as joke or as crime. But Howells, in his "Imperative Duty," faced our national foolishness and shuffling and evasion.

-- W.E.B. Du Bois, 191211

Du Bois's enthusiasm for "the composite picture which William Dean Howells . . . has painted of America" requires some explanation. Except for an occasional busboy, waiter, or doorman, Howells's composite picture of American life in fact almost completely neglects what Du Bois calls "the most significant thing in the land--the black man."2 Moreover, the novel Du Bois cites as an example of Howells's attempt to "face" our national evasion isn't about black life at all, but describes a beautiful young white girl's discovery, and subsequent concealment, of her remote black ancestry. In fact, Howells's only novel about race in America, An Imperative Duty ( 1891), has more often been considered an exercise in "foolishness and shuffling and evasion" than a progressive challenge to conventional representations of African-American life and character. Rhoda Aldgate's marriage at the end of the novel to Dr. Olney, a white nerve specialist who shares her secret, is itself a complicated act of evasion, carried out in the couple's mutual confidence that, as he puts it, "sooner or later our race must absorb the colored race; and I believe that it will obliterate not only its color but its qualities."3 Instead of facing "the mighty and portentous shadow of ten growing millions," as Du Bois would have it, Howells more often practices an anxious neglect of African-American culture, preferring even here, in his only extended fictional meditation on American race and miscegenation, to bury black personalities in stereotype and caricature.

Du Bois's praise for An Imperative Duty is all the more puzzling when measured against contemporary opinion. The outspoken Anna Julia Cooper described the reaction of many black and white readers in 1892 when she objected to Howells's

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