Lewis, David Levering 1936–
David Levering Lewis 1936–
Educator and writer
Noted educator David Levering Lewis won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his 735-page work W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919. Published to much critical acclaim, the book was the culmination of nearly a decade of research, travel, and writing, performed while the author also taught college history courses. “Lewis would have his sights only on modern French history if he had been confined to the field of his doctorate study,” wrote Mary Ann French in the Washington Post. “He’s hopped around the globe enough, however, to easily fit the bill he prefers—that of the comparative historian who contrasts topics across cultures.”
For Lewis, a career as a scholar and writer seemed a natural choice. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and raised by parents who were both college graduates. His father was a school principal who testified for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its attempts to scuttle the “separate but equal” school system in the South. When Lewis was six, his father was punished for this activism by losing his job. The family traveled north to Ohio, where the elder Lewis became dean of theology at Wilberforce University. Marie Arana-Ward commented in the Washington Post that the Lewis family “was so much a part of the black American aristocracy that, at the age of 12, Lewis met his future subject, Du Bois, at the other end of his father’s dinner table.”
Indeed, in 1948 W. E. B. Du Bois visited Wilberforce and was entertained by the faculty, including Lewis’s father. The author recalled the occasion in the Washington Post: “All the smart kids of the faculty would do their number. Du Bois walked across the grounds and said to my father, whom he knew, ‘What’s he going to do?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to recite Patrick Henry’s address,’ very smartly. And he said, ‘Well, let’s hear it.’ And I recited the first stanza. Of course, I was ready to do two and three, but he said, ‘Oh, that’s very good,’ or something like that.” Then Du Bois asked a question that struck young Lewis speechless: “What are you going to do with your life?”
Influenced by Du Bois’s radical opinions—and encouraged by his highly educated parents—Lewis chose to pursue a doctorate degree. He published his first scholarly paper as an undergraduate; it was entitled “History of the Negro Upper Class in Atlanta, Georgia, 1890–1958.” Lewis studied history at Fisk University, earning a Bachelor’s in 1956, before continuing his studies at Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His Ph.D. was
Born May 25,1936, in Little Rock, AK; son of John H. (an educator) and Urnestine (Bell) Lewis; married Sharon Siskind, 1966 (divorced); married Ruth Ann (a policy analyst for the Library of Congress) Stewart, 1994; children: (first marriage) Eric Levering, Allison Lillian, Jason Bradwell. Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1956; Columbia University, M.A., 1958; London School of Economics and Political Science, Ph.D., 1962.
Author and college professor, 1963—; taught history at University of Ghana, Howard University, University of Notre Dame, Morgan State College, Federal City College, University of the District of Columbia, University of California—San Diego, and Rutgers University.
Selected awards: Grants from American Philosophical Society, 1967, Social Science Research Council, 1971, and National Endowment for the Humanities, 1975; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars fellow, 1977–78; Pulitzer prize for biography, 1994, for W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919.
Addresses: Office —Department of History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
awarded in 1962, for work on modern French history.
College professors often travel extensively in order to conduct research that pertains to their field of study, and Lewis was no exception to that rule. His early years in academia found him teaching French history at the University of Ghana, Howard University, Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, and Morgan State College in Baltimore. He spent much of his spare time in France, accompanied by his first wife, Sharon Siskind, and their three children.
Perhaps inevitably, Lewis began to gravitate toward the field of African American history. He was approached in the late 1960s about writing a scholarly biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis was perplexed by the task at first—he was afraid that the work would quickly lose its accuracy as King continued his much-publicized career. “How could you write a biography of a 39-year-old activist?” Lewis said in the Washington Post. “By the time I finished, King would have gone on, his life would have changed, he would have done something.” King was assassinated while Lewis was working on the book. The finished work, Martin Luther King: A Critical Biography, was published in 1971.
The King biography established Lewis as a popular author as well as a teacher. His second book, about the origins of modern anti-Semitism, was entitled Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair and appeared in 1973. At the same time, Lewis accepted a teaching position at Federal City College in Washington, DC, and began to settle into that city as a home base. In 1974 he moved to the University of the District of Columbia as a full professor of history.
In the late 1970s Lewis embarked on a new writing project—a study of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The scholar was disenchanted with the way African American history was being taught, starting as it usually did with slavery and poverty and proceeding to accomplishment and relative affluence. Instead, Lewis proposed changing the paradigm, in effect studying the wealthy, intellectual, and elite blacks and their contributions to social change and artistic accomplishment. In 1981 Lewis published When Harlem Was in Vogue: The Politics of the Arts in the Twenties and Thirties. The work received praise from the critics, but it eventually led to charges that the professor was more interested in American society’s upper crust than in its masses.
“People used to say, ‘Well, Lewis is a snob. … Look who’s talking, he’s an elitist.’ And I always resented those charges, because they were too simplistic, and they didn’t speak to the motive,” Lewis told the Washington Post. “One of the optics of the field [of African American history] was, and still is, that it’s a bottom up kind of history. … When you’re looking at slavery, you’re looking at people who are really struggling up. Okay, well, we certainly are. But to lose sight of the class structure of a community, I always felt was stupid, because then you would understand it less. So I always focused, when bottom up was big, I focused on top down, and I’m happy to say that my looking at things has become better appreciated.”
In some respects, the late W. E. B. Du Bois was a perfect model for the “top down” sort of history that Lewis liked to write. Although of modest origins, Du Bois became an outstanding scholar, speaker, and writer whose forceful works on the plight of black Americans helped to galvanize support for civil rights in the twentieth century. Lewis told the Washington Post that when he began his research for the biography, he had certain preconceptions of his distinguished subject. “I expected him to be elitist, highly principled, dazzlingly brilliant, capable of manipulation of the English language like few writers have been, paradoxical and infuriating and supremely admirable and a little hypocritical,” the author said. “And I think all those things have panned out.”
Eight years in the making, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919 required an enormous amount of research on Lewis’s part. He visited 28 archives and libraries containing more than 20,000 letters and other pieces of ephemera concerning Du Bois. In addition, the author had to familiarize himself with Du Bois’s voluminous published writings, which include 21 books, 15 edited works, and numerous essays and articles, as well as the detailed life histories of such Du Bois contemporaries as Booker T. Washington. The resulting biography only covers the first 51 years of Du Bois’s life and is therefore the first volume of a projected two-volume work.
The Du Bois biography was released in 1993, and was accorded a warm welcome from the critics. Christian Science Monitor contributor Gloria Waite called W. E. B. Du Bois “a significant addition to the celebrations of Du Bois’s life, work, and writing. . . . Lewis skillfully uses . . . new material to extend, clarify, and correct preexisting knowledge of Du Bois the person, intellectual, and activist.” In the Washington Post, historian Nell Irvin Painter called the work an “engrossing masterpiece,” adding: “Lewis provides balanced analyses of both deficiencies and vision. His Du Bois is scholar and poet, scientist and novelist, universalist and Afrocentrist. … W.E.B. Du Bois represents a dazzling feat of scholarship performed with Lewis’s customary grace of style.”
In 1994, W. E. B. Du Bois garnered two of the most important award nominations in the field of modern literature. The work was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It won the Pulitzer. Justin Kaplan, chairman of the nonfiction committee for the National Book Award, told the Washington Post: “W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919 came so close, really” to winning. “But after all, it’s volume one of a two-volume book. We thought, all things being equal, we could wait. It’s a book we admired extremely.”
Even before publishing his award-winning biography, Lewis had taken the Martin Luther King chair in history at Rutgers University, commuting by train to his home on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. French described him in the Washington Post: “David Levering Lewis’s skin is nearly colorless—neither brown nor, thanks to a telltale sallow tint, white. His lineage is old Atlanta and early Ivy League. A modern day Afro-Saxon of sorts, he’s intent on achieving the best of at least two worlds.”
Some years ago, Lewis told Contemporary Authors: “Writing well is a ceaseless process of discipline in search of inspiration. Being read widely is a felicity of luck and timing. In a sense, each writer carries his own private [gambling center] Las Vegas within him. For myself, the art and luck of my internal Vegas is more exciting and addicting than the real place could ever be.”
Martin Luther King: A Critical Biography, Praeger, 1971, 2nd edition, University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair, Morrow, 1973.
District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History, Norton, 1977.
When Harlem Was in Vogue: The Politics of the Arts in the Twenties and Thirties, Knopf, 1981.
(Editor, with Laurence Goldstein) The Automobile & American Culture, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
The Race to Fashoda, Holt, 1988.
W. E. B. Du Bois: The Biography of a Race 1868-1919, Holt, 1993.
Also contributor to scholarly journals and newspapers, including the Washington Post.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 2, Gale, 1981, pp. 420–21.
Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1993, p. 15.
Jet, May 2, 1994, p. 9.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), November 21, 1993, p. 43.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 10, 1993, p. 7.
Washington Post, December 13, 1993, p. B1.
Washington Post Book World, October 24, 1993, p. 1; July 3, 1994, p. 10.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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