Granted, Gates is, as we've seen in recent days, a race hustler. It's completely in character for Gates to try to make money off his unfortunate temper tantrum by whipping it into a PBS documentary. Yet, for most of his long career he's been the classiest race hustler in the racket.
But, my goodness, does he ever hustle.
I touched on his indefatigability in my 1997 book review, "The Ebony Tower," in National Review of the (purportedly) Gates-edited Norton Anthology of African-American Literature:
Although anthologies of black American writing have been published by the score over the last 150 years, this enormous tome is sure to attract much attention, due to the authority of the "Norton Anthology" brand name and the well-deserved celebrity of co-editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The multitalented Dr. Gates somehow manages to be a master political operator in the growth industry of multicultural studies, an impressive researcher into the history of black literature, and a graceful writer for general audiences.
Franklin Foer explained this mystery the next year in Slate in "Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Academic as Entrepreneur."
Gates does so many things at the same time that you have to wonder how he makes sure all of them meet the same high standard. The answer is, he can't. In 1997 alone, according to his curriculum vitae, he wrote four long pieces for The New Yorker, published one book, and edited two more. He also supervised doctoral dissertations, taught two undergraduate courses, ran Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (raising funds, balancing budgets, recruiting professors, planning conferences), served as director of editorial content for a publishing imprint he co-founded, was a consultant on Steven Spielberg's Amistad, scripted and hosted a Frontline documentary on the black bourgeoisie, and developed a six-part BBC-PBS documentary on Africa--the entire continent. He continued as an editor of Transition magazine; the Black Periodical Literature Project; the Zora Neale Hurston Library series; the 30-volume African-American Women Writers, 1910-1940; and the 2 million word Encyclopedia Africana. Nominally, at least, he sat on the board of editors of 29 other journals and on 82 advisory committees for museums, theaters, institutes, literary prizes, and universities.
This month's Boston Magazine takes a hard look at Gates. It gives you an exhaustive account of his career, marred by a deeply unfortunate headline: "Head Negro in Charge." [That's Gates' own joking term for himself.] The Du Bois Institute site details Gates' many projects, including the Encyclopedia Africana. If you're interested, it says it's hiring.
Gates works very hard. Most days, he starts writing at 5 a.m. A 9,000-word New Yorker profile that would take most journalists weeks or months flows effortlessly from his pen. An incisive piece on Louis Farrakhan was reported Monday afternoon, written Tuesday, edited Wednesday, and closed Thursday. Gates drafted his 216-page memoir, Colored People (1994), in six weeks, though some critics thought the final result reflected the hasty composition.
But hard work alone doesn't explain Gates' output. He also understands a fundamental maxim of capitalism: Don't do yourself what you can pay others to do for you.
It is a time-honored perquisite of senior professorship to have students act as minions, fetching books from the library and doing grunt research. Many scholars have figured out how to turn this somewhat feudal tradition into an industry. In the 1980s, for example, Yale Professor Harold Bloom served as the "editor" of 160 anthologies of literary criticism, even though it was graduate students (and a few undergraduates) who actually waded into the library and picked out the selections. But Gates pushes the envelope. He may be the only academic with a self-designated "chief of staff" who handles day-to-day details and deals with reporters. An assistant edits his writing. Another conducts research, keeping him abreast of the latest developments in hip-hop and digging up quotes for New Yorker pieces. Dozens of other writers and editors are hired to help produce his various projects. To put together one volume, The Dictionary of Global Culture, for instance, Gates used 32 research assistants and 32 fact checkers, in addition to 27 writers. (For this piece, I spoke with 17 current and former Gates employees.)
The last large-scale reference work Gates co-edited, also with Appiah, was The Dictionary of Global Culture, published last year. The book was meant to be the multiculturalist rebuttal to E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s controversial The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988); the idea was to highlight the accomplishments of non-Western societies and their contributions to Western culture. But it was too weirdly conceived and poorly edited to do all that. As a response to Hirsch, it is irrelevant, appearing long after most had forgotten Hirsch's book. It is also filled with easily dismissable PC agitprop. As a reference work it fails, because entries are shorter and less informative than most entries for the same subjects in even the Encyclopedia Britannica. And it is embarrassingly error-ridden.
Why would Gates allow the publication of such a book with his byline and photo on the dust jacket? He had no idea it was so bad. After coming up with the idea for the project and appointing an "associate editor" to run it, he says, he was only minimally involved. According to those who edited the Dictionary, Gates read entries only just before they were sent to press, then looked closely only at items within his area of expertise, such as the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston. The book's introduction was drafted by Appiah [who, by the way, is the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, the famous Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain in the late 1940s]. ...
Gates' 29-page CV is packed with other projects to which he devotes scant energy. Between 1992 and 1998, for example, he contributed not a single word to 28 of the 29 magazines where he is listed as an editor. He does none of the line editing of articles for Transition, even though it proclaims his editorship in ads. For the 40 volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers he edited, he appointed others to put together the books and write their introductions. Ten other editors helped put together The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, even though it was his byline that appeared on the cover. ...
The problem is, the work that comes out of his scholarly chop shops isn't nearly as good as it should be.