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Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856, 1858 or 1859. His autobiography, Up From Slavery chronicles his life from his birth to the turn of the century. Many critics believe Up From Slavery is his most important work, as it tells a full story of Washington’s life and clearly elaborates his theory and practice for the social and political advancement of African-Americans. Published in 1901, nearly a half-century after the emancipation of slaves, Up From Slavery told the story of gifted Black man in a country that still had a race problem. Up From Slavery differed from Washington’s previous autobiography, The Story of My Life and Work, in its clear articulation of Washington’s program for racial uplift alongside his astonishing personal success story. Following the publication of the book, Washington received many letters from prominent people, including the President, writers, and professors. Some scholars and writers, including W.E.B. Dubois, critiqued Washington’s accomodationism and pointed to contradictions in his program. Washington’s reception beyond his historical moment has likewise been mixed.
Despite being one of American history’s most incredible success stories, Booker T. Washington remains a controversial figure in African-American studies. Many historians suggest that Washington’s closely cultivated image as a straightforward, common man with an industrious work-ethic concealed a more cunningly ambitious character. In his autobiography, Washington portrayed himself as a simple, honest hard-working man, but his private letters sometimes showcase a shrewder, more opportunistic side of him. The historical inscrutability of Washington’s character echoes a broader confusion over the final effects of Washington’s theories and practices of racial uplift, which promoted education in an industry or trade and demurred against political agitation. Today, historians and other scholars continue to debate the advantages and disadvantages of Washington’s theories of racial uplift. Likewise, this debate also reflects a broader, ongoing conversation about the proper approach to race relations in America.
Up From Slavery was first published serially from November 3, 1900 to February 23, 1901 in The Outlook, a Christian newspapter in New York. It was his second autobiography, following The Story of My Life and Work, which many criticized for being poorly written. Though he edited the manuscripts. Washington employed ghostwriters to write both of his autobiographies, and his experience with the The Story of My Life and Work made him much more hands-on in the writing process of Up From Slavery. In order to prepare the manuscript for Up From Slavery, Washington hired a Boston journalist named Max Bennett Thrasher. On many of his long travels, Washington dictated to Thrasher and then wrote his own prose from Thrasher’s notes. Thrasher next edited this material to produce the final product. Washington also received input from an editor at Outlook magazine who he had worked with before, Lyman Abbott. Washington thought serialization perfectly suited to his autobiography because he did not want to be trapped by the usual conventions of the genre. James Cox famously referred to the prose in Up From Slavery as inertial, referring to the flat nature of the writing.
Literary scholars consider the book a complex work. Though modern criticism understands the book as one of self-congratulation, many scholars have also tried to complicate both Washington as a figure and Up From Slavery as a text. James Cox, for example, argues that Washington was simply a man of his time, and manipulated his story and views as needed to achieve his aims. The control that Washington wielded in life is apparent in his absolute control of his text, he argues. Leading African-American scholar, Houston Baker, develops this argument to suggest that Washington is signifying, a black form of irony, on the tradition of minstrelsy. Baker believes that Washington not only manipulated masks, but that he drew from a specific tradition that he knew would resonate with Southern whites: the minstrel tradition. Today, literary scholars understand the work as drawing from many literary traditions and styles, including slave narratives, intellectual autobiographies, and bildungsroman.