restricted access Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
John K. Young. Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2006. ix + 230 pp.

John K. Young's book opens compellingly with a litany of African American writers who altered their texts dramatically or succumbed to distasteful advertising campaigns to appease white editors and publishers. His chapters take up the careers of five authors in more detail: Nella Larsen, Ishmael Reed, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. In particular, Young asserts that in the twentieth-century African American texts were often made to conform to a one-dimensional and monolithic blackness expressed through a discrete entity called "black literature"—a form in which this "blackness" "could be produced and consumed" (33). While Young concedes that the power imbalance between white editors/publishers and African American authors is a "normal publisher-writer relationship" "to some extent" (3), he insists that these relationships enact "a much deeper cultural dynamic" with immediate consequences (i.e. violence) (4).

Young's greatest innovation is his coupling of editorial theory and African American literary theory; he concludes, we cannot "gloss over" [End Page 379] these texts "production histories" for they are just as important as the "cultural and social context generated therein" (185). Borrowing heavily from Jerome McGann, Young sets out to study the "bibliographic code" of African American texts: "first editions, colophons, book jackets, title and copying pages, drafts and manuscripts, and advertisements" (23). Introducing both the material and immaterial aspects of racial and textual interpretive strategies, Young contends that "Reading texts, like reading races . . . [is] an attempt to understand the soul or identity beneath the skin, or the text inside the covers" (21). In short, Young fruitfully juxtaposes two hermeneutics: one that has too often forsaken material forms in efforts to capture the real essence of stories, and the other that has determined that material forms have proven unable to hold a real racial essence. That said, crucial distinctions between African American bodies and texts are sometimes elided in Young's efforts to yoke their common instabilities, and, oddly, the eponymous racial divide between writers and publishers is not interrogated. Instead, Young precariously relies on authorial intentions to stabilize his method, tracing the bibliographic codes of African American texts as a way of recovering information about African American authorial practices and desires that has been lost or suppressed because of racist publishing and scholarly practices.

Young's first two chapters focus on the vagaries of white publishing practices. In his treatment of Nella Larsen's Passing, Young explores the mysterious disappearance of the last paragraph of the first edition of Passing in subsequent printings of the novel. In focusing on the implications of reattaching the excised paragraph, Young suggests that a whole scholarly tradition focused on sexual and racial instabilities is unsettled. And while Young is unable to solve the mystery, he does argue that the most ethical editorial policy is to provide a critical apparatus that acknowledges the "gap in textual knowledge" in this way "refus[ing] to choose either ending" (37, 46). Next, Young reviews archival evidence of Ishmael Reed's "collaboration" (76) with Doubleday in the publication and marketing of Mumbo Jumbo. While outlining a number of ways that the novel "subvert[s] Western cultural traditions within the framework of conventional literary structures" (85), the most energetic section outlines the inclusion and the disappearance of the novel's original black copyright page, which, he claims "replaces the normal—and normative—whiteness of the standard page with a black field for the book's expression of itself as literary property" (69).

Young's next two chapters outline how two authors have subverted white publishing practices. For example, Young asserts that after Gwendolyn Brooks became a self-proclaimed black nationalist and began publishing with small black presses, she was able to produce [End Page 380] new ways of "defining blackness" for local black audiences and white readers. In particular, Young notes the ubiquity of the anthology Selected Poems, which truncates Brooks's career by ending in 1963 when she left Harpers and compares its paratext to that of Brooks's self-published anthology, Blacks. Young insists that...


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