The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War
- By Chad L. Williams
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 544 pp.
- Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer
- July 3, 2023
An outstanding account of the eminent intellectual’s literary Waterloo.
This is a book about a book and the man who tried to write it. The would-be author was W.E.B. Du Bois, the New England-born, Harvard-educated, prominent Black activist and intellectual whose provocative essays and tempestuous life spanned nearly a century. Founder of the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP, and often pitted as the radical protagonist against the more conservative Booker T. Washington, Du Bois would find his boldest ambition and, ultimately, his Waterloo, in writing a complete history of Black American soldiers in the Great War.
The title of Chad L. Williams’ deeply researched dive into that years-long effort, The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War, is drawn directly from the name Du Bois himself affixed to his monumental unfinished work. Williams, the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University, is well suited to the task, having previously written Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.
In undertaking the challenge of writing his near-history of the war, Du Bois first had to live down an editorial he wrote in The Crisis, the NAACP magazine he edited. As the war began in Europe in 1914, he first viewed it as a conflict among colonial powers over who would control their African colonies. Sweeping aside the petty feuds of monarchs mostly blamed for igniting the murderous war, Du Bois presented another, less popular view.
But then, when the United States entered the war in April 1917, he got swept up in patriotic fervor and wrote in The Crisis that Black Americans should postpone their demands for full equality at home to fight for democracy abroad. “Close ranks,” he urged readers. “If this is OUR country, then this is OUR war…first your Country, then your Rights!” But what followed this naïve optimism was a period of disillusionment as he learned of the rampant prejudice and discrimination against Black U.S. troops, most notably and shamefully by their white superiors.
Black soldiers were in segregated units largely consigned to support roles rather than combat. In one exception, in the fierce Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918, they allegedly did not cover themselves with glory and, retreating without artillery support, were accused of cowardice. Black soldiers received much better treatment from the French, despite white American propaganda that portrayed them as rogue rapists among their foreign hosts.
Du Bois’ early essay urging Black Americans to “close ranks” would haunt him for years as he struggled to research and write the definitive history of Black soldiers in “the war to end all wars.” In later Crisis columns, he would repeatedly have to revise and backtrack, to reconcile his later views with his earlier ones. He would eventually return to his prewar analysis of the conflict as a fight among European colonial powers over Black Africa.
He was especially offended by the treatment accorded to Charles Young, the third Black graduate from West Point and a high-ranking Army officer who was “medically retired” from the military, preventing him from leading Black troops during WWI. After the State Department sent Young to Liberia as a military attaché, he became gravely ill on a trip to Nigeria, where he died in 1922. His remains were not returned to the United States for a year.
Du Bois would preview his nascent book in The Crisis, especially its introduction, “The Black Man and the Wounded World.” This enticing essay elicited many promised subscriptions from readers eager to see the entire comprehensive volume. But there were numerous obstacles to the book’s publication, as Williams — who portrays Du Bois in full, neither eliding his faults nor passing judgment — documents in great detail. The NAACP had paid for Du Bois’ early postwar trip to France, where he conducted interviews and gathered a mass of material. But it balked over giving him a blank check to cover all his expenses, and he was forced to devote much of his time to fundraising, barnstorming across the country to paid speaking engagements.
He was also facing competition from others who had from time to time agreed to be his collaborators but then pursued their own similar book projects. While they pushed ahead, Du Bois wrangled with the NAACP over his expenses and the scope of his work. He also devoted time and energy to organizing a Pan-African Congress — another distraction from his main task — which he pursued with as much if not more enthusiasm.
Du Bois was a complicated figure, ego-driven, cunning, tendentious, proprietary, and self-serving, but also brilliant and determined to dominate the discussion over who owned Black history. Among his competitors and sometime collaborators was historian Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916 and launched Negro History Week (now Black History Month) in 1926. Ultimately, Du Bois was simply overwhelmed by the amount of material he had collected, which included photographs and documents loaned to him which he continued to hold onto even as their owners asked, first politely, then more directly, for their return.
Having not yet completed his WWI book, he began work on Black Reconstruction in America, another distraction. Yet mainstream publishers seemed more open to the latter’s publication. Du Bois said it would logically precede his World War I opus. As the years went by, his promised great book fell by the wayside. Partly, he had simply amassed too much information and seemed to lack the drive to finish the job. This quandary will be familiar to any nonfiction authors who’ve deeply overreported their subjects and then must somehow paste it all together into a cogent, engaging narrative.
This is, I fear, a fair criticism of what has befallen Williams’ otherwise very worthy book about the book. Despite its tripartite organization attempting to create a chronology from start to finish, The Wounded World sometimes jumps back and forth in time, making the narrative difficult to follow. In addition to Du Bois, Williams weaves many other figures throughout the story, yet there’s no listed cast of characters to help the reader sort it all out. Further, some subordinate players are included without much context; they emerge simply as names rather than as important figures in the Du Bois saga.
Williams’ book is divided into three parts: “Hope,” “Disillusion,” and “Despair,” tracing the ups and finally the downs of Du Bois’ unfinished magnum opus. It’s a reasonable structure upon which to frame the narrative, but the book includes 400-plus pages of dense text, plus 77 pages of notes. It might have benefited from some judicious editing to trim it to a more digestible length. Still, it is a monumental achievement of scholarship.
In his later years, Du Bois became an antiwar activist opposed to nuclear weapons. During the McCarthy era, he was accused of being an agent for a foreign government, a charge dismissed after Albert Einstein offered to testify as a character witness. Long a socialist, Du Bois joined the Communist Party at 93, reaffirming his critique of capitalist society.
Embarked on another ambitious book project, The Encyclopedia Africana, Du Bois, with his wife, moved to Ghana, where he died at the age of 95 in 1963. His Wounded World was still incomplete. “But Du Bois did not lose Faith,” Williams writes. “He embraced life, believed in the possibility of democracy, and trusted in the certainty of human progress. And it is this legacy, even more so than the book he did not publish, that Du Bois leaves us with.”
Eugene L. Meyer, a member of the board of the Independent, is a journalist and author of, among other books, Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army and Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature. Meyer has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.