WITH A MIND AS SHARP AS A STILETTO and a will as unyielding as a tank, Bois was clearly meant for stardom. Still, for a black man of his era (with "a strain of French" and "a bit of Dutch," as he loved to point out), his accomplishments were miraculous.
Born to a family of modest means in Great Barrington, Mass., in 1868, in an America still reeling from the Civil War, Du Bois molded himself into a cultured man of the world. He graduated with honors from Fisk and Harvard universities and became the first African-American to earn a Harvard Ph.D. He authored countless articles and more than 20 books but is best known as a civil-rights crusader--cofounder of the NAACP and nemesis of another world-class "race man," Booker I Washington, who Dubois felt was too accommodating. Du Bois eventually turned to communism and away from the United States, dying in Ghana in 1963.
In the first volume (two are projected) of his grandiloquently titled W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (735 pages. Holt. $35), Rutgers University professor David Levering Lewis endeavors to set the record straight. Lewis makes clear that Du Bois, who wrote prodigiously about his own life, is less than a reliable diarist. Among other things, Du Bois elevated the character of his rakish and generally absent father while neglecting his illegitimate half brother. Even Du Bois's account of his own racial awakening in Great Barrington (in a town of about 4,000, fewer than 30 were black) is suspect. A white female classmate's refusal to accept his friendship card made him realize, wrote Du Bois, "that I was different from the others." Lewis indicates that the truth was probably much more complicated.
Lewis's Du Bois is a sensitive, ambitious and meticulous young man who had a special talent for winning the support of influential whites. Yet, even as he won whites' approval, Du Bois realized that their ambitions for him were more limited than his own. Four Congregational churches helped underwrite his education at Fisk but had no enthusiasm for sending him to Harvard. That he got there anyway was a tribute to both his talent and his gall--attributes that enabled Dubois to become one of the most important Americans of all time.
This book is longer than it needs to be and occasionally becomes portentous, but it is a solid and perceptive addition to the scholarship of a fife too-little explored.