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Forms of Self-Representation in Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901) is one of the most famous American autobiographies, yet it is unfortunately also one of the least analyzed. Compared with the American autobiographies that we frequently study and teach, it seems meager and unchallenging. Unlike Whitman and Thoreau, Washington does not propose experiments in form, and he does not undertake a profound inner exploration as his text unfolds. He is not keenly conscious of his competitive relation to the autobiographical writings that have preceded his own and unlike Henry Adams and Henry James, he does not manifest a high degree of selfreflective awareness about the act of telling the story of his life. Nor does Washington's book display the sophisticated rendering of personal and public life that W. E. B. DuBois manages in Dusk of Dawn (1940), the subtle and disturbing account of black adolescence and early maturity that Richard Wright crafts in Black Boy (1945), the stylistic vigor and intelligence that James Baldwin demonstrates in Notes of a Native Son (1955), or the explosive energy that Malcolm X unleashes in his autobiography (1965).

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1. Historians have of course examined Up from Slavery for information about Washington's life and period, and they have noted its impact on black educational, political, and social thought. But literary critics have paid little attention to it. Even the specialized studies of black autobiography, with the exception of those by Houston Baker, Sidonie Smith, and Robert E. Stepto, omit sustained consideration of Washington's book. See Baker, Houston A. Jr., The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Smith, Sidonie, Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974)Google Scholar; and Stepto, Robert B., From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979)Google Scholar. Sayre, Robert F., in The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964)Google Scholar, Cooley, Thomas, in Educated Lives: The Rise of Modern Autobiography in America (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976)Google Scholar, and Biasing, Mutlu Konuk, in The Art of Life: Studies in American Autobiographical Literature (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1977)Google Scholar, do not mention Up From Slavery. In American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979)Google Scholar, Couser, G. Thomas refers once in passing to Washington's book. In his study of American autobiography since 1900, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)Google Scholar, Albert E. Stone treats a wide range of figures (Adams, DuBois, Black Elk, Merton, Sullivan, Wright, Berkman, Aiken, Mead, Nin, Shaw, Malcolm X, Mailer, Conroy, Hellman, and others), but mentions Washington only briefly.

I have profited from Cooke, Michael G., “Modern Black Autobiography in the Tradition,” in Thorburn, David and Hartman, Geoffrey, eds., Romanticism: Vistas, Instances, Continuities (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973), pp. 255–80Google Scholar; Rosenblatt, Roger, “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon,” Yale Review 65 (summer 1976): 515–27Google Scholar; Bigsby, C. W. E., The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1980)Google Scholar; Taylor, Gordon O., “Voices from the Veil: Black American Autobiography,” Georgia Review 35 (Summer 1981): 341–61Google Scholar; and Rampersad, Arnold, “Biography, Autobiography, and Afro-American Culture,” Yale Review 73 (Autumn 1983): 116Google Scholar. None of these essays, however, deals directly with Up from Slavery. Butterfield, Stephen's standard work, Black Autobiography in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974)Google Scholar, is also stimulating, but it too says little about Washington's book.

2. Up from Slavery (1901), in The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Harlan, Louis R. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), vol. 1, p. 345Google Scholar. Hereafter page numbers will be given in the text.

3. Cox, James M., “Autobiography and Washington,” Sewanee Review 85 (Spring 1977): 253Google Scholar. This is a very stimulating piece, by far the best on the style of Up from Slavery. Since completing my essay, I have read Conn, Peter's provocative study The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America, 1898–1917 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)Google Scholar. Conn's discussion of the ideology of Up from Slavery, particularly Washington's “reduction of the people around him to object lessons declaring his own significance” (p. 123), complements my own.

4. Harlan, Louis R., Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 253.Google Scholar

5. Harlan, , The Making of a Black Leader, p. 7Google Scholar. I have benefited from Harlan's excellent scholarship in this book and in Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar. The following studies are also helpful: Meier, August, Negro Thought in America, 1890–1915: Radical Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (1963; rpt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), pp. 100–18Google Scholar; Vann Woodward, C., Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951, pp. 350–68Google Scholar; Logan, Rayford W., The Betrayal of the Negro from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (New York: Collier Books, 1965), pp. 276312Google Scholar; Friedman, Lawrence J., “Life ‘In the Lion's Mouth’: Another Look at Booker T. Washington,” Journal of Negro History 59 (1974): 337–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Factor, Robert L., The Black Response to America: Men, Ideals, and Organization from Frederick Douglass to the NAACP (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1970)Google Scholar. For collections of historical and critical opinion about Washington, see Thornbrough, Emma Lou, ed., Booker T. Washington (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969)Google Scholar, and Hawkins, Hugh, ed., Booker T. Washington and His Critics: Black Leadership in Crisis, 2nd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1974).Google Scholar

6. Douglass, Frederick, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; rpt. New York: Dover Press, 1969), p. 256.Google Scholar

7. Harlan, preface to The Making of a Black Leader, n.p. As part of a different argument, I present an analysis of the “molasses” passage similar to the one given in this essay in The Crisis in Criticism: Theory, Literature, and Reform in English Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 270–73.Google Scholar

8. Douglass, Frederick, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Foner, Philip S. (New York: International Publishers, 1950), vol. 2, pp. 190, 192.Google Scholar

9. Mandel, Barrett J., “Full of Life Now,” in Olney, James, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 7172.Google Scholar

10. Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), pp. 57, 42.Google Scholar

11. Franklin, John Hope, Reconstruction after the Civil War (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 139Google Scholar. For more general discussion, see Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)Google Scholar, esp. chapter 4. Marx rightly stresses the tension at mid-century between technological progress and pastoral ideals, but by the 1880s this seems to have faded for the most part. Not all writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries view the railroad in wholly positive terms; here one thinks, for instance, of Frank Norris's 1901 novel The Octopus, where the railroad destroys lives and disfigures the landscape. But in general, as Stilgoe, John R. points out in Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)Google Scholar, “by 1880 the train, and particularly the fast express, struck few observers as a monstrous machine soiling a virginal garden. Instead it seemed a powerful, romantic creature inhabiting an environment created especially for it. What little romantic and Transcendental distaste endured lingered in an atmosphere of public approbation. Despite hideous wrecks, high freight tariffs, and political manipulations, the railroad industry enjoyed a favorable reputation” (pp. 3–4).

12. The author's self-effacement in Up from Slavery is further complicated by the fact that Washington employed a ghostwriter, Max Bennett Thrasher, to help produce and prepare the book. “Without the painstaking and generous assistance of Mr. Max Bennett Thrasher I could not have succeeded in any satisfactory degree,” says Washington in his preface (p. 207). This is his life-story, his autobiography, but it is not entirely clear who bears responsibility from page to page for the actual words. To make a point that is apt if perhaps oversubtle: In the sentence from the preface, there is no comma to mark off (and thereby pointedly differentiate) “Thrasher” and “I.” For a detailed discussion of the writing of Up from Slavery, see Harlan, 's introduction to The Booker T. Washington Papers, vol. 1, pp. xvxl.Google Scholar

13. In a slight but significant way, Washington's references to his wives are even more revealing of his self-annihilating strategy than I have suggested. Washington first mentions Olivia Davidson in Chapter 8, noting here that she “later became my wife” (p. 281). As the responses of readers (particularly readers coming to Up from Slavery for the first time) testify, this identification of Davidson as Washington's “wife” proves perplexing when we learn, at the end of Chapter 10, that he married Fannie Smith. Washington could have easily clarified the sequence of his marriages but chooses not to do so. To whom, he allows us to wonder, is Washington married? And the answer is that he is married less to a particular person than to a selfless self who blazons his cause. To put the point with cruel clarity: It seems not really to matter whether he is “married” to Smith or Davidson, for they blend into each other with admirable efficiency. For a general account of the relation between the black women's movement and Washington's doctrines, see Perkins, Linda Marie, “Black Feminism and ‘Race Uplift’, 1890–1900,” Radcliffe Institute Working Paper (Cambridge, 1981).Google Scholar

14. In “Booker T. Washington as Seen by His White Contemporaries,” Journal of Negro History 53 (1968): 161–82Google Scholar, Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that Washington “was a master story-teller, and the ‘darky’ stories which offended Negro intellectuals evoked side-splitting laughter and enthusiastic applause from white audiences…. All his later speeches were punctuated with stories about Uncle Jake and Aunt Mandy and other Negro stereotypes and were widely reported in the white press. In fact many people who knew nothing else about Washington knew these stories for they were often published by themselves in newspapers all over the country even when his lectures were not reported” (165). For examples of these stories in Up from Slavery, see pp. 247, 264.

15. Baldwin, James, Notes of a Native Son (1955; rpt. New York: Beacon, 1964), p. 36.Google Scholar

16. For an incisive recent analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin that compares interestingly to my account of Up from Slavery, see Tompkins, Jane, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” Glyph 8 (1981): 79102.Google Scholar

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