Du Bois's Reconstruction of Language (C19 2022)

deadline for submissions: 
September 10, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Thomas W. Howard
contact email: 

Writing about the reception of his essay collection The Souls of Black Folk (1904), W. E. B. Du Bois describes the text as a simultaneous mixture of clear messages and irreconcilable ambiguity. “A clear central message it has conveyed to most readers,” he claims, “but around this center there has lain a penumbra of vagueness and half-veiled allusion.” The difficulty, Du Bois suggests, comes from Souls’s attempt to reconstruct affect into language: “to translate the finer feelings of men into words.” Scholars frequently identify these fragments of affect and vagueness as part of Du Bois’s poetic style. Cornel West (1989) argues that Du Bois wields an “Emersonian poetics” where he creates a new vocabulary to describe a reconstructed vision of the United States. Paul Gilroy (1993) similarly notes how Du Bois uses a new language to handle the “antinomies of modernity” in all its complexity. More recently, Shamoon Zamir (2008) claims that Du Bois extends the process of reconstruction to the reader, where his “fragmentation and integration . . . invited a reading in which meaning was actively produced rather than passively received.” By reconstructing fragments of affect and vagueness into his text, Du Bois simultaneously demands his reader carry on the process of reconstruction through interpretation and implementation.

This proposed panel will examine the role and method of reconstruction in Du Bois’s writing through the long nineteenth century, including his own renewal of language and the role of the audience in reconstructing meaning. Preference will be given to papers that discuss Souls, but any papers that relate to Du Bois’s writing through 1917 will be considered. Papers may consider Du Bois’s reconstruction of the Black experience, American literature and culture, or the politics and sociology behind Reconstruction. Papers are especially encouraged that examine the relation of Du Bois’s writing to other Black activists and scholars in the late 19th century (e.g., Booker T. Washington or James Wendell Johnson), his integration into 19th-century American philosophy (e.g., pragmatism), and his transatlantic experience with education and culture (e.g., his time in Berlin).

Please send a 250-word abstract and brief CV to Thomas W. Howard (thomas.howard@wustl.edu) by Friday, September 10, 2021.