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W.E.B. Du Bois’s Foundation Myth of At(a)lanta

This paper examines W.E.B. Du Bois’s revision of Ovid’s myth of Hippomenes and Atalanta (Met. 10.560-707) in his essay “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” which forms the fifth chapter of The Souls of Black Folk. The aim here is to show how Du Bois systematically rewrites Ovid’s myth of Atalanta from a philosophical standpoint as a moral and historical allegory for the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Scholarly discussion of evidence for Du Bois’s knowledge of the Ovidian text will be reviewed (Cowherd 2003; Cook and Tatum 2010), and new references to this episode and others like it in the Metamorphoses will be treated. Some of the new references do not occur in Du Bois’s narration of the story but in his exposition of its allegorical meaning, when he recollects points from Ovid’s myth rather than his own version. Du Bois thus demonstrates knowledge of his source and continues his dialogue with it after he has given his own version of it.

The paper also seeks to go beyond the commonplace idea that Du Bois presents a new version of the myth updated for his own times (cf. Moses 1975: 417; Cook and Tatum 2010: 116-17). In particular, it questions Tatum’s conclusion drawn from Atalanta’s “swarthy” appearance that Du Bois “transforms the story of Atalanta into something distinctly un-Ovidian, closer to the spirit of the United States in 1903 than anything Greek or Roman.” The moralizing impulse of Du Bois’s mythopoesis certainly runs counter to Ovid, but to characterize his intentions as “closer to the spirit of the United States in 1903” is an oversimplification; it does little justice to the classicism, and more specifically Platonism, that influenced his thought about what the spirit of the South should be in 1903 (cf. Hairston 2013). Furthermore, formally speaking, Du Bois’s discursive practice is steeped in the classical tradition. The very idea of envisioning the city of Atlanta as an eponymous mythical heroine is a classical conceit that calls to mind the Greco-Roman tradition of city-foundation legends. Du Bois exploits the possibility that the “winged maiden of dull Boeotia” is the personification of the “capital” of the South and sees in her race with Hippomenes a cautionary tale both for whites and blacks about the reconstruction of the South and its union with the North after the American Civil War. As long as Atalanta outstrips her suitor and keeps her “eyes still toward the sky and hills” of Platonic ideals, her future promises “to know the end or aim of life” as opposed to the “lawless lust” of a marriage that is “cursed.” Nonetheless, Atalanta has also succumbed to the temptation of golden apples laid in her way by Hippomenes, and in a blaze of passion defiled the Temple of Love, surrendering her philosophical ideals for “greed” and “material prosperity” as seen in her factories and “seething whirl” of activity.

Yet Atalanta’s race may not be lost, if it is a question of race, which Du Bois implies when he writes: “how swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who out-raced her” (77); and “[h]ere stands this black young Atalanta, girding herself for the race that must be run” (80). Atalanta’s wings (attached to her feet in Met. 10.587: passu volat alite virgo) are what enable her to win the race. Du Bois identifies these wings with Black universities such as Atlanta University, which provides students with the potential for flight from the temptation of Hippomenes and his golden apples: “In a half-dozen class-rooms they gather then,—here to follow the love-song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine ... The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen's sons by Atlanta University” (82).