Chapter five is, so far, the most contemporary essay in Du Bois’s book. In it, he considers the city of Atlanta and what it says about the future of both African Americans and the South more broadly considered. He begins by noting how appropriate “Atlanta” is as a name for the great city of the south.

Perhaps Atlanta was not christened for the winged maiden of dull Boeotia; you know the tale,—how swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who out-raced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way. She fled like a shadow, paused, startled over the first apple, but even as he stretched his hand, fled again; hovered over the second, then, slipping from his hot grasp, flew over river, vale, and hill; but as she lingered over the third, his arms fell round her, and looking on each other, the blazing passion of their love profaned the sanctuary of Love, and they were cursed. If Atlanta be not named for Atalanta, she ought to have been.

Atalanta is not the first or the last maiden whom greed of gold has led to defile the temple of Love; and not maids alone, but men in the race of life, sink from the high and generous ideals of youth to the gambler’s code of the Bourse; and in all our Nation’s striving is not the Gospel of Work befouled by the Gospel of Pay? So common is this that one-half think it normal; so unquestioned, that we almost fear to question if the end of racing is not gold, if the aim of man is not rightly to be rich. And if this is the fault of America, how dire a danger lies before a new land and a new city, lest Atlanta, stooping for mere gold, shall find that gold accursed!

Briefly, Du Bois’s concern is that what he calls “mammonism,” would become the dominant shaping vision for southern life as well as African American life. By mammonism, Du Bois means a way of thinking about work and society that resolves all disputes by an appeal to what is most fiscally rewarding. Put another way: You resolve disputes by invoking large piles of money.

The concern for Du Bois is two-fold: First, he worries that such a system will cause people to lose sight of the good, true, and beautiful. Second, he worries that such a system will inevitably desecrate places, causing them to be cultivated and conditioned so that they work toward the single goal of generating wealth in a narrowly understood way.

With the benefit of another 100 years of perspective, it’s hard to dispute any of what Du Bois has to say in this chapter. So I’m not going to.

What I do want to consider briefly is Du Bois’s proposed solution to the problem: universities. Here is his argument:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization. Such an institution the South of to-day sorely needs. She has religion, earnest, bigoted:—religion that on both sides the Veil often omits the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments, but substitutes a dozen supplementary ones. She has, as Atlanta shows, growing thrift and love of toil; but she lacks that broad knowledge of what the world knows and knew of human living and doing, which she may apply to the thousand problems of real life to-day confronting her. The need of the South is knowledge and culture,—not in dainty limited quantity, as before the war, but in broad busy abundance in the world of work; and until she has this, not all the Apples of Hesperides, be they golden and bejewelled, can save her from the curse of the Boeotian lovers.

The Wings of Atalanta are the coming universities of the South. They alone can bear the maiden past the temptation of golden fruit. They will not guide her flying feet away from the cotton and gold; for—ah, thoughtful Hippomenes!—do not the apples lie in the very Way of Life? But they will guide her over and beyond them, and leave her kneeling in the Sanctuary of Truth and Freedom and broad Humanity, virgin and undefiled. Sadly did the Old South err in human education, despising the education of the masses, and niggardly in the support of colleges. Her ancient university foundations dwindled and withered under the foul breath of slavery; and even since the war they have fought a failing fight for life in the tainted air of social unrest and commercial selfishness, stunted by the death of criticism, and starving for lack of broadly cultured men. And if this is the white South’s need and danger, how much heavier the danger and need of the freedmen’s sons! how pressing here the need of broad ideals and true culture, the conservation of soul from sordid aims and petty passions! Let us build the Southern university—William and Mary, Trinity, Georgia, Texas, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and the others—fit to live; let us build, too, the Negro universities:—Fisk, whose foundation was ever broad; Howard, at the heart of the Nation; Atlanta at Atlanta, whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers. Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plant deeply and for all time centres of learning and living, colleges that yearly would send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men of broad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands to other hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace?

(By now I hope it is clear what a fantastic writer Du Bois is and what a delight it is to read him.)

The argument Du Bois is making is reminiscent of the one made by John Williams in Stoner:

First, from Williams:

“The three of us were together,” says Stoner, “and he [Dave Masters] said—something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as … The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

This excerpt comes from the pivotal section of the novel when two professors, one the department chair, are debating whether or not to pass a PhD student who is manifestly unqualified but who has become a favorite of the chair. Stoner, the other professor, reminds the chair that if they do not protect the university, it will become a place as inhumane, status driven, and captive to mammonism as the rest of the world.

Jason Peters explains further:

At stake here, at this signal moment in the novel, is the soul of the university. Will it be handed over to those whose hands are withered and useless, or will it be given to those with the intellectual and moral dexterity to govern it?

Noting who knows what is tricky business, and there is great danger in supposing that everyone must know what you know. But Williams’s novel makes one thing clear. Bluster–intellectual sloth and dishonesty–won’t cut it.

And if there’s one thing we have in higher education today it’s a superfluity of bluster, a veritable surfeit of bullshit.

The temptation is to say that this applies more to the humanities than to the sciences. And maybe there is some truth in that. But then I found myself in the uncomfortable position once of having to explain to a pretty competent scientist that Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different men who lived in different centuries—and who, indeed, inhabited different worlds.

On the one hand, this is a melancholic note to end on: Mammonism has won the day and turned even what may well be the last bastion of hope against it into perhaps its most capable and aggressive purveyor. Yet I think there is also hope here: A radical African American activist who would end up making a fairly radical, fairly secular critique of the ascendant culture in post Civil War America ends up saying many of the same things that a crankish Catholic professor would say 100 years later in a popular localist magazine—and joining the two critiques is a book published in the 1960s by an English professor at a midwestern landgrant university.

The hope, then, is that Mammonism’s foes are many. Attacks against it come not only from one small subsection of the population, but from a much wider range of critics who recognize the ways that greed, usury, and the commodification of all of life can become a powerful set of manacles that limit the possibilities of human society and create alienation that is both destructive and unnecessary.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.