Set in Alabama and Washington, D.C., in the early part of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois's first novel weaves the themes of racial equality and understanding through the stark reality of prejudice and bias. Originally published in 1911 and conceived immediately after The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois turned to fiction to carry his message to a popular audience who were unfamiliar with his nonfiction works. Du Bois addresses the fact that, despite the legal emancipation of African Americans, the instruments of oppression, in both the economy and government, remained in good working order. At the time he was writing, powerful white industrialists controlled the cotton industry, the "silver fleece" that depended, as it did during slavery, on the physical labor of African Americans. White Americans also controlled local and national government.
In the novel, Blessed "Bles" Alwyn, a young man seeking formal education to improve himself, is captivated by Zora, a vivacious, independent woman who lives outside society in a mysterious swamp. Faced with shocking events in Zora's past and ambivalence about how a black man should integrate into American society, Bles pursues his goals and ends up in Washington to assist on a senator's campaign. While in the city, he meets successful African Americans—and falls in love—but he ultimately recoils from the hypocrisies they must endure in order to be accepted in society. Instead, he is compelled to return to Alabama and Zora, where he must face his greatest challenges and fears.
With its frank and clear language, The Quest of the Silver Fleece is a remarkable portrait of racial prejudice at the turn of the twentieth century. Through the characters, Du Bois demonstrates the efficacy of self-sufficiency for those who face discrimination while championing the benefits of strength in diversity to American society as a whole.
"Dramatic, original, and convincing."—Literary Digest
"The author has put into the story all his wealth of justice and passion."—Independent