W.E.B. Du Bois and Virginia Woolf each wrote as proponents for equality of their respective groups, black men and women. Despite this similarity, their approaches differed immensely. W.E.B. Du Bois’ literary works were written in a manner meant to appeal to the entirety of his audience, which included both intellectuals (mostly white) and common people (mostly black). As a graduate of Fisk University, as well as Harvard University, Du Bois was versed in Western literature and was thus able to effectively appeal to intellectuals. However, in one of his most influential works The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois combines his traditional Western prose with stanzas from traditional black spirituals. This convergence of the intellectual white with the oppressed black echoed Du Bois’ political goals of educating the recently freed black men, evident in the following passage.
“The foundation of knowledge in this race, as in others, must be sunk deep in the college and university is we would build a solid, permanent structure…We shall hardly induce black men to believe that if their stomachs be full, it matters little about their brains” (Du Bois 89).
Du Bois fought for the equality of black men and white men in this manner because black men were thought of as intellectually-inferior to white men in early 20th century and the centuries prior to then. Therefore, by writing well as a black man in a traditional Western style, Du Bois was combating the assumption that black men were incapable of being intellectuals to advocate for their equality. Virginia Woolf used a very different approach because her cause warranted it; Women and black men were seen very differently at the dawn of the 20th century.
Virginia Woolf utilized a new style of prose which arose during the Modernist period known as “stream of consciousness”. Whereas Du Bois adhered to the traditional Western style of prose, Woolf purposefully ignored tradition. Woolf writes informally, using “we” and “I” frequently. This directly goes against the formality of other, more traditional, writers of the time. Through this more informal writing style, Woolf is able to get to the point more directly.
Woolf utilized stream of consciousness writing to echo the changing of the times; women were beginning to escape from the sphere of domesticity and the traditional values no longer fit society. Woolf was also able to emphasize the complexity of women in her works through this writing style and her revolutionary ideas. The potential of women is brought up in many of Woolf’s works and in the following quote, Woolf underscores how strong women are because they live in a patriarchal society where men are awarded confidence with their gender and women have to fight for it.
“Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself” (Woolf 34).
Both Woolf and Du Bois are advocates for equality, but their methods differed. Du Bois utilized traditionally Western-style prose to argue for the equality of black men, while Woolf promoted for women’s rights through a distinctly Modernist style that rejected tradition.