Du Bois published his biography of well-known abolitionist John Brown in 1909, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown's execution. By this time Du Bois had already gained renown–and a degree of notoriety–after publishing The Philadelphia Negro in 1899 and The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches in 1903, among other works. He had originally intended to write a biography of Nat Turner, the African-American slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in the summer of 1831, but was persuaded by his publisher to write on Brown instead. The biography was part of a series called The American Crisis Biographies.
By 1909 a number of accounts of Brown's life were already in print. Du Bois acknowledged this fact in the preface to his book, explaining to readers that he intended his work to be a reevaluation of existing historical evidence from a novel perspective. In his words, the biography was to be a portrait of Brown from the viewpoint of “the little-known but vastly important inner development of the Negro American.” (1) Scholar Henry Louis Gates argues that John Brown marked Du Bois's transition “from professional academic to full-time activist.” (2) The book is not only strictly biographical; in writing the biography as an interpretive (not merely descriptive) account of Brown's life, Du Bois touches on broader issues of racism and colonialism in American history.
Du Bois's account of Brown is sympathetic. He paints Brown as familiar with, even close to, the African-Americans with whom he came in contact—-an unusual thing in Brown's time, even among Northern abolitionists. The biography, Du Bois said, was “a record of and a tribute to the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” (3)
John Brown is the only biography penned by Du Bois.
(1) Du Bois, W. E. B. John Brown. New York: International Publishers, 1962. First printing 1909 by George W. Jacobs and Co. of Philadelphia. Preface.
(2) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., Ed. John Brown. The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xx.
(3) Du Bois, W. E. B. John Brown. New York: International Publishers, 1962. First printing 1909 by George W. Jacobs and Co. of Philadelphia. Preface.