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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 624-669

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Timing Impossible Subjects:
The Marketing Style of Booker T. Washington

Carla Willard
Franklin & Marshall College

When you come to write your autobiography, string along the narrative of your own life just as many human stories of this kind as you can. A whole life is summed up in every one of them.

Letter from Walter Hines Page to Washington (Dec. 31, 1889)

Whether or not Washington believed what he said is certainly an interesting question. But he did know that he could accomplish his objective by telling white men what they wanted to hear. And it has never been very difficult for a Negro in this country to figure out what white men want to hear: he takes his condition as an echo of their desires.

James Baldwin, "In Search of Martin Luther King, Jr."

Of the first U.S. national media editors, it was the World's Work's Walter Hines Page who most often wrote about a narrative style that could quickly drive home a point. He studied the brevity of brand advertising with a covetous eye, praising brand layout as the briefest of storyforms written "to the point" and, curiously, thus filled with a "thousand and one things a manufacturer would want to say about the benefits of his product." 1 The relation between the brevity of storyform and a profusion of things to say was precisely the relation Page found in the story style of Booker T. Washington. His advice to Washington excerpted above came after reading "Signs of Progress Among the Negroes," and from that moment on, Page began to think of the Tuskegee president as a master of narrative brevity: Washington's [End Page 624] stories "summed up" and, accordingly for Page, were rich in suggestiveness.

Several months after Page's letter, Washington began narrating aloud the serialized version of "Up From Slavery" to his ghostwriter, Max Thrasher. It is difficult to weigh the extent of Thrasher's influence on Washington's style, but it is certain that Washington, vowing to do away with his former and rather disastrous absenteeism in writing, essayed from l899 onward to establish himself in every sentence and in every image printed in his voluminous magazine and book publications. 2 Along with Thrasher and the Outlook staff, he edited and re-edited "Up From Slavery," and in the fall of l900, he sent to Outlook's New York offices a story whose pace was, as Page advised, quickly summarizing the telling of his own and other lives. Along with the text of the first chapter, Washington also forwarded a graphic account of his educational program at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Appearing with "A Slave Among Slaves," a series of halftone photographs charted Tuskegee's remarkable rise from a few ramshackle houses and acres in l881 to the professional appearance of a small college town in l900 featuring a residential faculty. 3

Little critical attention has been paid to Washington's remarkably prolific work for regional magazine media or to his post l896 writings for the white, professional-managerial class (PMC) audiences of the first national media in the United States: the l890s mass-circulation magazines. 4 The magazine context sheds significant light on his complexity as a race leader and also on the rather curious fact that the very first image to present Tuskegee's industrial workers to Outlook's audience appeared as a photo of eight women in a garden (fig. 1). Contemporary studies reveal many anomalies of the man, including a covert political life and a hidden hand advancing an equity principle that vied with the national segregation politics best symbolized by Washington himself--remembering that he held up a visible hand and splayed fingers to represent a single-but-separate nation for a packed house at the l895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition. 5 However, Washington's attempts to challenge national segregation policies went far beyond the secret act that no one could see or hear. His magazine stories challenged, as well, by giving innovated shape to a highly...


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