site map site map

Primary Source
"Postscript" to The Ordeal of Mansart (1957)
W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1957. The Ordeal of Mansart.
NY: Mainstream Publishers. Postscript: pp.315-316.

Online Source:
At the Hathi Trust Digital Library one can access the entire book as separate page images: citation page.

Robert W. Williams' Notes:
1. The Ordeal of Mansart is the first volume of DuBois's fictional trilogy called The Black Flame.

2. The "Postscript" is significant because it sets forth Du Bois's views on the relationship between social research and (fictional) literature, especially in the ways that both might promote, intentionally and objectively, racial and social justice.
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio] 

The basis of this book is documented and verifiable fact, but the book is not history. On the contrary, I have used fiction to interpret those historical facts which otherwise would not be clear. Beyond this I have in some cases resorted to pure imagination in order to make unknown and unknowable history relate an ordered tale to the reader. In a few cases I have made slight and unimportant changes in the exact sequence of historical events and in names and places. In no case have these changes altered, to my mind, the main historical background.
It may well be asked, and as one who has done some historical research I join in the asking, why should one tamper with history at all in order to write truth? The answer of course is Never, if exact truth can otherwise be ascertained. But every historian is painfully aware how little the scientist today can know accurately of the past; how dependence on documents and memory leaves us all with the tale of the past half told or less. The temptation then comes to pretend we know far more than we do and to set down as accurate history that which is not demonstrably true. To me it seems wiser and fairer to interpret historical truth by the use of creative imagination, provided the method is acknowledged and clear.
When in this world we seek the truth about what men have thought and felt and done, we face insuperable difficulties. We seldom can see enough of human action at first hand to interpret it properly. We can never know current personal thought and emotion with sufficient understanding rightly to weigh its cause and effect. After action and feeling and reflection are long past, then from writing and memory we may secure some picture of the total truth, but it will be sorely imperfect, with much omitted, much forgotten, much distorted.
This is the eternal paradox of history. There is but one way to meet this clouding of facts and that is by the use of imagination where documented material and personal experience are lacking.
In the great tragedy of Negro slavery in the United States and its aftermath, much of documented history is lacking because of the deep feeling involved and the fierce desire of men to defend their fathers and themselves. This I have sought to correct in my study of the slave trade and of Reconstruction. If I had had time and money, I would have continued this pure historical research. But this opportunity failed and Time is running out. Yet I would rescue from my long experience something of what I have learned and conjectured and thus I am trying by the method of historical fiction to complete the cycle of history which has for a half century engaged my thought, research and action.
I have personally lived through much of the history of the American Negro from 1876 to 1956. Yet wide as my experience has been, by travel, seeing, hearing and knowing, I of course actually knew but an infinitesimal fraction of all that happened. The gaps of knowledge I can in part supply by the memory of others, by reading published and unpublished matter. Yet with all this I am far from being able to set down an accurate historical account of those fatal eighty years.
Therefore I have assayed first to gather such verifiable facts as I can. This body of knowledge I have compared with the reports of others. But even with all this, much, indeed most, is missing: just what men thought, the actual words they used, the feelings and motives which impelled them--those I do not know and most of them none will ever know. These facts are gone forever. But it is possible for the creative artist to imagine something of such unknown truth. If he is lucky or inspired, he may write a story which may set down a fair version of the truth of an era, or a group of facts about human history.
This I have attempted to do: adhering as closely as I can to historic fact so far as I can ascertain. I have added the fiction of interpretation so as to make a reasonable story. I may have blundered in places; I may have widely misinterpreted what seemed truth to me. But I have tried and I believe the effort was worth while.
Here lies, then, I hope, more history than fiction, more fact than assumption, much truth and no falsehood.

[End of DuBois' original text.]  

It is interesting to compare the last paragraph of the "Postscript" with the "Note" that preceded the text to Du Bois's first Novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911):
He who would tell a tale must look toward three ideals: to tell it well, to tell it beautifully, and to tell the truth.
The first is the Gift of God, the second is the Vision of Genius, but the third is the Reward of Honesty.
In The Quest of the Silver Fleece there is little, I ween, divine or ingenious; but, at least, I have been honest. In no fact or picture have I consciously set down aught the counterpart of which I have not seen or known; and whatever the finished picture may lack of completeness, this lack is due now to the story-teller, now to the artist, but never to the herald of the Truth.

There is a page of resources on this site dedicated to The Quest of the Silver Fleece.

Please consider a contribution to the upkeep of <>.
PayPal offers a secure way for you to help me with my goal to find and present more works by and about W.E.B. Du Bois. Thank you.
Robert Williams