After years of publishing academic and popular-press works Du Bois penned his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece; it was published in 1911. It detailed the story of two African American youths, a male named Blessed Alwyn (“Bles”) and a female named Zora. The setting lay in fictional Tooms County and the equally fictional city of Toomsville, Alabama, during an undisclosed period after the end of the Reconstruction era. The silver fleece of the title symbolized the all important cotton that Black and White farmers grew for their livelihood. In Du Bois's novel, cotton was both a major source of their exploitation as well as the hope for African American financial, and indeed social, progress.
Amidst gender, race, and class oppression—portrayed vividly, even didactically, by Du Bois—the two protagonists grew together as friends and later as a romantic couple. They parted ways when Zora's past as a survivor of sexual exploitation by powerful Whites became known to Bles and wounded his sense of propriety for a future spouse.
The separate experiences of Zora and Bles in the cities of New York and Washington, D.C. enabled them to find their true purposes in life. Zora was employed as a domestic servant to a rich White woman, a job that gave her the opportunity to broaden her self-education, but was not her life's calling. Zora became focused on helping the Black farmers in Tooms County. Upon her return there she began to establish an economic community oriented to cotton production and designed to challenge the White power structure of the area. In Washington Bles delivered speeches in support of the Republican Party, but discovered that his strong sense of personal integrity had no place in the often mercenary partisan politics of D.C. Bles returned to Toomsville and assisted Zora in strengthening the new African American community. Bles ultimately realized that his earlier criticism of Zora was misguided; it was more important to further their common cause for justice and equality.
Reviews of The Quest of the Silver Fleece by Du Bois's contemporaries varied. Readers reacted differently to the not-so-subtle portrayals of social oppression and the possible solutions to such problems. William S. Braithwaite, for example, deemed the novel about universal themes and to be in the spirit of Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901) (Braithwaite 1911). Some, however, did not evaluate the book so highly. Benjamin Brawley considered that Quest demonstrated how Du Bois was “a sociologist and essayist rather than a novelist” (Brawley 1916).
From The Quest of the Silver Fleece we can draw at least three insights into Du Bois's understanding of the relationship between literature and social activism. The novel highlighted the importance that Du Bois placed on the leadership of experienced and dedicated African Americans in the struggles to promote racial and social progress. Also, Quest illustrated the positive and necessary role of African American women in such struggles. Finally and quite pointedly, Quest exemplified Du Bois's view that literature, and art in general, should be “propaganda” about the very real social progress and the future potential of African Americans (see his 1926 essay, “Criteria of Negro Art”).