“In the first place,” he wrote, “remember that in a book review you are writing for a public who want to know whether it is worth their while to read the book about which you are writing. They are primarily interested more in what the author set himself to do and how he does it than in your own private loves and hates. Not that these are without value, but they are strictly secondary. In the next place, respect yourself and your office so much that you will not complacently pass and praise drivel and rubbish. Grant that you don’t know everything; you still must steer true to the lights of your knowledge. Give honest service; only so will your opinion come to have weight with your readers. Remember, too, that you can not well review a work on African history, for instance, if that is the only work on the subject that you have read. Therefore, read widely and be well informed. Get the widest basis of knowledge for your judgment; then back your judgment to the limit.”
Harrison’s own “base of knowledge” was encyclopedic. Besides reading Latin, he kept up with books in several European languages, and at one point he intended to study Arabic. But the very ardor of his devotion to critical journalism made it harder to bear the scorn of white book publishers, who tended not to send review copies to black newspapers even after repeated requests. This policy, wrote Harrison in one column, “is short-sighted and unsound. After all, pennies are pennies, and books are published to be sold. We believe that the Negro reading public will buy books—when they know of their existence.”
His work for newspapers was just one part of Harrison’s rich and complicated career as a public intellectual. Among other things, he seems to have been a speaker so effective as to make Cornel West seem tongue-tied by comparison. But some index of how badly he faded from the historical record can be found in Oxford University Press’s new Encyclopedia of African-American History, 1896 to the Present. Its five massive volumes make a few passing references to Harrison, but he has no entry of his own.
While Jeffrey Perry has rescued Hubert Harrison for the historians, perhaps it is book reviewers who should erect a memorial to him. For he was one of our own. His devotion to a thankless task should make him our patron saint—unless, of course, we give that over to St. Jude, who traditionally handles lost or desperate causes.