Re-Presenting Black Boy: The Evolving Packaging History of Richard Wright's Autobiography

Article excerpt

By the time the sixtieth anniversary edition of Black Boy (American Hunger) appeared in 2005, scholars had already thoroughly investigated the life and work of Richard Wright. Half a dozen biographies and hundreds of academic essays and conference presentations had all contributed to the critical discourse on Wright. Keneth Kinnamon's expansive bibliographies A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2005), for example, contain more than 20,000 annotated items relating to Wright. Despite all the research and writing that scholars have pursued relating to the inner workings of Wright's novels and nonfiction however, we have produced relatively little about the significance of the surface. That is, almost no scholarship treats his book covers. Consequently, those covers offer valuable textual evidence about how his works have been presented to different generations of readers.

The evolving publishing or packaging history of Wright's autobiography constitutes a fascinating series of marketing decisions made by publishers and their book designers over the years. For a little more than six decades now, book publishers have sought to re-present Black Boy to various generations of readers in ways that situate the autobiography into distinct historical contexts. The varied editions of Black Boy display a body of bibliographic codes that yield important information concerning the production and reception of Wright's work since its initial publication in 1 945 and the autobiography's most recent printing in 2008. The visual histories of Black Boy, and more specifically the book covers, deserve a closer look in our overall appreciation of the Richard Wright that general readers often encounter. Taken together, the Black Boy covers represent an intriguing interrelated graphic narrative that is arguably more central to the reception of Wright than has been previously acknowledged.

In 1945, Wright's autobiography was 228 pages and included an introductory note by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The 1966 edition of Black Boy contains an afterword by scholar John Reilly. The 1998 Perennial Classics edition of Wright's autobiography, Black Boy (American Hunger) is 419 pages and includes an introduction by Jerry W. Ward, Jr., notes on the text by Arnold Rampersad, and an additional section of the book that did not appear in the 1945 version. The 2008 edition features a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones. Edited and promoted in different ways before and after its initial printing, Wright's autobiography stands as a case in point to the kind of complex relationships that exist between a writer, his manuscript, publishers, editors, and subsequent reading authences.

The editorial changes to Wright's autobiography have been addressed by a number of scholars including Michel Fabre, Jeff Karem, Arnold Rampersad, Janice Thaddeus, and James Tuttleton. Karem explains that as a result of editorial revisions dictated largely by his publisher, Harper and Brothers, and the Book-of-the-Month Club, which eventually chose Black Boy as one of its selections, "Wright was led to alter his conclusion and even to delete describing his experiences in the North after leaving the South." According to Karem, "these changes effectively blunted Wright's broader critique of American race relations and confined Black Boy to a regional narrative of childhood and adolescence."1 Karem's essay and the writings by the aforementioned scholars provide useful accounts of the editorial changes to Wright's narrative. But, what about the packaging of Wright's autobiography? How have publishers decided to re-present Wright's narrative to appeal to distinct readerships? And what can the various book cover designs of Black Boy tell us about Wright's evolving status in literary history?

Collecting multiple editions of Wright's autobiography over the last several years has awarded me special opportunities for exploring and interpreting the transmission of his work. …