Set in Alabama and Washington, D.C., in the early 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois’s first novel weaves the themes of racial equality and understanding through a stark narrative of prejudice and bias.
Originally published in 1911, the novel was conceived immediately after “The Souls of Black Folk.” Du Bois—a sociologist, author and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—turned to fiction to carry his message to a popular audience unfamiliar with his nonfiction works. In the novel, Du Bois addresses the fact that, despite the legal emancipation of African Americans, the instruments of oppression—in both the economy and government— remained in good working order. At the time he was writing, powerful white industrialists controlled the cotton— or “silver fleece”—industry that depended, as it had during slavery, on the physical labor of African Americans. White Americans also controlled local and national government.
In the novel, Blessed “Bles” Alwyn, a young man seeking formal education to improve himself, is captivated by Zora, a vivacious, independent woman who lives outside society in a mysterious swamp. Faced with shocking events in Zora’s past, Bles pursues his goals and ends up in Washington to assist on a senator’s campaign. While in the city, he meets successful African Americans—and falls in love—but he ultimately recoils from the hypocrisies they must endure in order to be accepted in society. Instead, he is compelled to return to Alabama and Zora, where he must face his greatest challenges and fears. With its frank and clear language, “The Quest of the Silver Fleece” is a remarkable portrait of racial prejudice. Library Digest has called the novel “;dramatic, original and convincing.”
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on November 4, 2004