“History is a pretty good trade,” says David Levering Lewis. “It’s indoor work and you can go to interesting places.” Of course, this blithe summary hardly does justice to the rigorous work of a scholar whose books are regularly lauded in the academic and popular presses as “scrupulously researched,” “exquisitely detailed,” and, in the case of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, “definitive.”
Lewis showed a bent for history early in life, but he wasn’t always sure that he would become a professional historian. In fact, after completing an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy at Fisk University, he thought he would try what he calls “the usual ‘law school after college’ path.” It took him exactly one semester at Michigan Law to realize that he had made a mistake. History, not the law, was his calling. “So I hopped a bus and went to Columbia,” he says, making the life-changing decision sound almost insouciant, “and was very fortunate in being able to talk my way into a graduate program. I have not looked back.” He laughs and adds, “I’ve been stuck in history ever since.”
An M.A. in U.S. history from Columbia was soon followed by a Ph.D. in modern European history from the London School of Economics. After that, Lewis held a series of teaching positions at some of the best-regarded universities in the nation, including Howard, Notre Dame, Harvard, Rutgers, and NYU, where he is currently the Julius Silver Professor and professor of history.
Throughout his career Lewis has brought his dogged research ethic and considerable intellectual gifts to bear on subjects from Martin Luther King Jr. to the colonization of Africa to the early history of Islamic-Christian relations in Europe. He says that each of his projects “follows psychologically, if not logically, from the previous enterprise.” But if anything unites these disparate subjects, it is the consistent originality of Lewis’s perspectives on them. A case in point is his 1979 study of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue. Writing the book, Lewis eschewed what had been the prevailing tack of other historians—which celebrated the visual, literary, and performing arts of the movement primarily as a florescence of African-American cultural expression—and turned his attention to the correspondences carried on between the artists and intellectuals involved. There he found evidence that prompted him to recast Harlem’s Golden Age as a concerted effort to “move a group of people out of a box by using the arts for civil rights purposes.” Other studies by Lewis, such as Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair and The Race to Fashoda, present equally innovative approaches to their subjects.
The work for which Lewis is best known is his two-volume life of W.E.B. Du Bois. Widely considered a masterpiece of biography, it is also an important piece of historical scholarship, refracting the conditions, issues, and events of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America through the lens of Du Bois’s life. “Writing about Du Bois,” says Lewis, “is writing about the history of a time.” The two volumes portray, as he puts it, “Du Bois the feminist, Du Bois the elitist, Du Bois the Marxist, Du Bois the paladin of civil rights, and, finally, Du Bois the tragic figure, absent just when he was most needed.” In Du Bois, Lewis says he found “the whole ball of wax—everything significant about becoming an American, and about failing in the highest and best aspects of Americanness.”
Capturing Du Bois’s protean life in ink involved Lewis in a marathon of scholarship: sixteen years of research, thinking, and writing that culminated first in 1993 with the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919, and again in 2000 with W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963. The long, hard work and its results have not gone unrecognized: Among other accolades, Lewis has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes (one for each volume of his Du Bois biography), a Bancroft Prize, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
For all the careful study he invests in each of his projects, Lewis manages to wear his learning with extraordinary grace. Through his able pen, the years of research are rendered accessible, engrossing, lively. “I am unabashedly willing to verge on purple prose,” he says. Verge on, perhaps, but never indulge in. Whether Lewis sets himself to profiling the empire-hungry King Léopold II of Belgium, sketching the topography at the Battle of Poitiers, or evoking the poignant scene of Du Bois’s funeral in Ghana, the results invariably strike a balance between poetic vividness and scholarly objectivity.
Asked what keeps him motivated after so many years of being “stuck in history,” Lewis says, “the next project,” and hastens to describe his upcoming role in what he excitedly calls “one of the most venturesome moves in American higher education today”: NYU’s expansion to the Persian Gulf with a campus in Abu Dhabi. This fall, Lewis and his wife, Ruth Ann Stewart, will temporarily relocate to the island capital of the United Arab Emirates, where he will lead an NYU seminar called “When there Were Two Europes: Islam and Christendom.”
By James Williford
James Williford is editorial assistant for HUMANITIES and a graduate student at Georgetown University.