U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Zeitgeist prevailed over hearth"

David Levering Lewis writes in the first half of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois that the intellectual felt bound by a “covenant with his people to serve them and, if possible, save them from a future as blighted as their past had been sorrowful” and that this covenant distanced him from his wife and daughter. “Zeitgeist prevailed over hearth.” (346)

It is a supposition of mine that intellectuals and other people passionately devoted to their work don’t tend to make good parents (this was my justification for why there are almost no good parents in the Bible, which seemed odd to me given how much of contemporary Christian culture is precisely about how to be good parents).

I’m curious–do you pay attention to the kind of parents your intellectuals made? Am I wrong in my supposition? Do you have counter-examples of good parents who also had a passion in their lives?

Anti-feminists condemned Intellectual or career-driven women for leaving their children (indeed, the question over the effect of day care on children is still a pertinent one). Men were not judged in the same way. Is consideration of intellectual men as fathers a 21st century concern?

Two weeks ago, some of the commentators challenged my use of the word “tragic” to describe the relationship of Du Bois to his daughter. Lewis does a better job explaining what I was trying to get at (but, “shows” rather than “tells”–a mark of his excellent writing style);

“A theoretical feminist whose advocacy could erupt with the force of a volcano (as in “The Burden of Black Women’ in the November 1907 Horizon, or in “The Damnation of Women” in the 1921 collection of essays, Darkwater), Du Bois proved to be consistently patriarchal in his role as husband and father. The all-too-commonplace truth is that he increasingly acted as a well-intentioned tyrant at best and a bullying hypocrite at worst. Over the next two years, when he found time to pay some attention to Nina and Yolande he saw them as symbols—as Wife and Daughter, special enough to be sure, because they were his wife and daughter, and therefore the paradigmatic wife and daughter of the Talented Tenth. If his expectations of Nina were narrow, they remained exacting. She had the duty not to hinder his own private and public involvements and to follow his prescriptions for their daughter’s intellectual development. His expectations of Yolande were as exalted as they were unrealistic.
 “Daughter Yolande was to be sacrificed time and again to the cruelest of double standards. On the one hand her life, like her mother’s, was controlled by the head of the family–a man whose faith in his own wisdom was serene and always unequivocal; but, whereas other late-Victorian husbands and fathers were determined to shelter their womenfolk from overexposure to education and public life, Du Bois’s marching orders commanded Yolande to become superlatively educated and emancipated…. Yolande was to mature into a wise and moral Zora [a character from his novel The Quest] endowed with the cosmopolitanism of a Caroline Wynn. But there was surely something more–the sublimation of a father’s loss of a son through a daughter. What the golden-haired Burghardt could have done, spunky Yolande would do as well–and with less risk, because, although it was hard to be a black woman, it was not usually fatal to be an intelligent, enterprising one, as often was the case with black men. … Yolande would attain her goals and she would not cringe. He told her that repeatedly–in letters, at the dinner table, and during those increasingly rare bedtime sessions that she relished for the closeness between them.” (451)

I was avoiding reading Lewis until I had gone through the primary sources myself. Humph. It is a bit depressing that we come to the same conclusions and he says it so much more eloquently than I. The point of my Yolande chapter is not so much her relationship with her father (which, given the sources, is impossible to avoid) but her relationship to her international travel. I hope to offer something new with that latter piece. For better or worse, one place I differ from Lewis’ interpretation of Yolande is that I am more sympathetic to her. In part two of his biography of Du Bois, Lewis writes,

“Yolande was self-indulgent, under-achieving, uncertain, chronically overweight, and often ill. She appears to have craved her father’s approval in almost exactly the proportions she sensed that her inadequacies would preclude her winning it.” (30-31)

This perception of Yolande is very Du Bois-centric. I am trying to build a picture of Yolande that incorporates her own understanding of herself and perceptions by people outsider the family.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. My own entirely unscientific observation is that those who write the greatest number of books are either childless or don’t spend a lot of time with their kids. Probably not true, but I can think of at least one or two examples.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, last weekend I trekked from Murfreesboro up to Du Bois’s alma mater, Fisk University. It’s a great little historic campus, complete with a statue of its most famous son. Definitely worth checking out–just a mile or so west of the Tennessee state capitol.

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