Contending Forces' Intellectual History: Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Contending Forces' Intellectual History:
Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century

The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded.

Emerson, "Emancipation in the British West Indies," 1844 Pauline Hopkins, epigraph, Contending Forces, 1900

When Pauline Hopkins began her 1900 novel, Contending Forces, with an epigraph taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's address on "Emancipation in the British West Indies," she was not merely selecting a convenient expression of antiracist sentiment from a figure well known to audiences white and black. Rather, Emerson's presence at the moment one opens the book persists throughout the novel, not only in a later epigraph, but also as an unattributed source for many quotations within characters' speeches and conversations. Emerson is even more deeply embedded in one of the novel's major speeches, which borrows heavily from his address on emancipation in the West Indies without acknowledging the address as a source or even marking the use of Emerson's words as quotation. The degree to which Emerson's presence is woven into Contending Forces demands that we reconsider Emerson's role in the novel and, more fundamentally, the work the novel performs.

Mapping out the traces of Emerson in the novel's speeches, conversations, quotations, and epigraphs calls attention to the ways Contending Forces is highlighting, consolidating, and ultimately revising a [End Page 77] comprehensive intellectual tradition that, in the world of the novel, stretches from New England's patriots and founding fathers to Boston's abolitionist community, embraces Emerson and the broader intellectual circle he heads up, and then culminates with the leading African American voices of the day—W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Emerson's presence serves as a linchpin of sorts in this act of synthesis and mediation; it brings together the broader (white) New England intellectual tradition and the voice of Du Bois. In addition to locating Du Bois at the endpoint of a unified intellectual tradition, the novel, and Emerson's phantom presence, also consolidates that endpoint and, therefore, the future of the African American intellectual tradition by bringing together Washington and Du Bois.

Contending Forces traces the history and fortunes of the Smiths, a middle-class African American family in late nineteenth-century Boston. The novel centers on the romance between Will Smith and Sappho Clark, a stenographer staying at Smith's mother's boarding house. But in addition to the conventional marriage plot, Contending Forces addresses issues of miscegenation, lynching, racial uplift and political progress, and depicts an engaged, active African American community that takes part in a wide variety of intellectual, social, and political events. As part of this community, the novel introduces two fictional stand-ins for contemporary race leaders: W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Will Smith, the book's version of Du Bois, is the novel's hero, and his marriage to Sappho Clark is the resolution of the primary dramatic tension of the novel's ending. Though less central to the plot, Dr. Arthur Lewis, the Washington stand-in, plays an important role in the resolution of the conventional marriage-plot by marrying Smith's sister.

In addition to his role as male romantic lead, Smith figures in almost all of the novel's scenes of public political action, generally arguing the more progressive, radical position on matters of race. His devotion to Sappho and refusal to condemn her for having been raped by her white uncle mark him as one of the primary moral voices in the novel, especially when set in contrast to the villainous John Langley, who uses the knowledge of Sappho's past to try to blackmail her into becoming his mistress. Smith delivers several rousing speeches during the course of the book, most notably a speech to the white Canterbury Club in which he argues the case against lynching before Boston's prominent [End Page 78] intellectuals. It is in this speech that Smith's words are most heavily borrowed from Emerson, without attribution or any textual indication that those words are not Smith's own. By incorporating Emerson's words into Will Smith's argument about...