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  • Figurations of Passage through “Of the Coming of John”
  • Christopher Powers (bio)

W. E. B. Du Bois, Of the Coming of John, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Wagner, Lohengrin, Theodor Adorno, A Romance of the Ganges, Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, spirituals, prosopopoeia, rivers, sea

Whoever is able to wrest such gold from the riotous swell of the Wagnerian orchestra may encounter in its altered strain the solace that it obstinately denies, for all of its rapture and phantasmagoria. By lending voice to the angst of the helpless, it could signify succor for them, however frail and distorted, and promise again what the primordial outcry of music promised: Life Without Fear.

—Theodor Adorno, Versuch über Wagner1

Among the complex of questions for thought opened by the work “Of the Coming of John” is that of openings and closings, of beginnings and endings. Where does the work of “Of the Coming of John” open and close, what beginnings and endings does it stage? Where does the work of The Souls of Black Folk open and close, and what beginnings and endings does it stage? What is the status of the fictional work of “Of the Coming of John,” the one work [End Page 59] of imaginative mimesis in The Souls of Black Folk, within the philosophical, historiographical, and sociological work of the 13 other chapters? To focus the question, How does this text within a text (which was to have been the final chapter of the book)2 open or close itself to the rest of The Souls of Black Folk and to its own intertexts? How does it work, in other words, as a work within a work? And to complicate the complex, What do the workings of “Of the Coming of John” (the first published work of fiction by W. E. B. Du Bois) within The Souls of Black Folk imply for the workings of the latter in the Du Boisian oeuvre as a whole? A reading attentive to the difference of the time that “Of the Coming of John” opens in the readings of The Souls of Black Folk promises to pose for thought the question of a Du Boisian theory of the language of fiction and of the work of art sedimented within his practice of art making and that of the workings of this theory within the general Du Boisian project of thought and action. Implicated in this proposed desedimentation of a Du Boisian aesthetics from “Of the Coming of John” is attention to its styles and postures, its writerly positionings, and its lyrical and musical voicings. The present intervention will begin to deliberate the question of a Du Boisian poetics as it analyzes specific textual moments in “Of the Coming of John”: it will linger on the openings and closings of the story, particularly its epigraphs and its culmination by the Sea, while wandering down detours that inevitably surge and wind, like the meanderings and branchings of the Ganges and the Altamaha, or like the Deep River of the spirituals.

Figures of “Of the Coming of John

“Of the Coming of John” has received sustained critical attention since the seventies and continued engagement in more recent scholarship. Earlier commentary on the work, pressured by political and theoretical allegiances, presented readings that debated the status of the education of the protagonist John Jones and his identifications with European high art, above all the music of Wagner. For Houston A. Baker, for example, in his chapter on Du Bois in his widely read Long Black Song, the character of John from “Of the Coming of John” was aligned with Baker’s reading of Du Bois as the African American Arnoldian aesthete, partaking of the posture of late nineteenth-century decadence. [End Page 60] John’s ultimate demise was read as that of the “tragic black man of culture who is not accepted by whites and who is too elevated to communicate with his own people” (Baker 1972, 102), while K. E. Byerman noted that “John’s thorough training in Western Civilization (he goes to his death humming Wagner’s ‘Song of the Bride’) requires the erasure of black culture from...


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pp. 59-82
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