Does the Book You Are Devouring Read as the Author Intended?

By Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo | The Crisis, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

Does the Book You Are Devouring Read as the Author Intended?


Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo, The Crisis


Does the Book You are Devouring Read As the Author Intended? Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics In Twentieth-Century African American Literature By John K. Young (University Press of Mississippi, $40)

I learned early in my reading life that there's nothing like a neighborhood library in a Black community. While the main branch library will usually have a larger collection and spiffier books, the neighborhood library will house older, out-of-print editions. There's something intriguing about the covers and designs of early editions of Hurston and Ellison, or chapbooks published by Dudley Randall's Broadside Press.

The humble reminiscence above was my personal introduction to the complex field of "editorial theory," the subject of John K. Young's Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. The title makes Young's book sound like another guide to navigating the shark-infested waters of the publishing world. It isn't.

Black Writers, White Publishers is a scholarly examination of editorial theory and book production. A published book is the work of several hands - editors, graphic designers and advertisers. And it is also almost always the product of a series of negotiations between a writer and an editor. In 1939, Richard Wright's White editor, Edward Aswell, encouraged him to remove Bigger Thomas's sexual fantasies from the first edition of Native Son. How differently would we read the book today if the change had never been made?

Young devotes a chapter to the textural confusions of Nella Larsen's Passing. Larsen's novel has two endings. The first two editions featured a closing paragraph that disappeared in the edition published in 1929, and that has remained excised from most subsequent editions. There is no reliable evidence to say whether the excision reflected or didn't reflect Larsen's intentions.

Young, a professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia, describes a classroom exercise: "For my courses, I ask the campus bookstore to order equal numbers of the Rutgers and the Penguin editions [of Passing], in order to take advantage of the different endings currently in print. Half of the class reads each edition...On the second or third day of our Passing discussion, we reach the novel's end, and I ask someone to read the last paragraph aloud. Puzzled expressions soon appear on half the students' faces."

Young uses this perplexing moment to introduce his students to the difficulties of editorial analysis of African American literature. …

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