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Navigating the Print Line: Shaping Readers’ Expectations in Booker T. Washington’s Autobiographies BOOKER TALIAFERRO WASHINGTON WAS NOT AN EASY PERSON TO KNOW. “He was wary and silent,” recalled W. E. B. Du Bois. “He never expressed himself frankly or clearly until he knew exactly to whom he was talking and just what their wishes and desires were.” A skillful diplomat, Washington mastered the prickly art of sycophancy. Tactfully, he navigated the precarious minefield, the problematic “color-line” to use Du Bois’s words, in America. In her Works Progress Administration interview, Sarah Fitzpatrick expressed a more pragmatic view of the late African American leader. Booker T. Washington, the former Alabama slave recollected, “wuz a wise man . . . he al’ays let de white man shine, so he could live an’ wurk he’er.”1 More recently, Louis R. Harlan likened him to the artful Br’er Rabbit of African A N T O N I O T. B L Y Antonio T. Bly is an Assistant Professor of History at Appalachian State University. His work explores the interplay between African American Studies and the history of the book in America. A version of this article was presented at the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing) 9th Annual Conference at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on July 22, 2001. Much like Booker T. Washington, I am indebted to my ghostwriters. In that regard, I would like thank William Carroll, Joanne M. Braxton, and Robert A. Gross, all of whom have encouraged my interest in Washington. I also wish to thank the anonymous readers of the Alabama Review and of course its editorial staff, especially Carey Cauthen. As always, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my wife Donnamaria who has endured me, my work, and has commented on several drafts of this article. 1 Interviews with former slaves were recorded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1936–38. WPA interviewers were instructed to record the dialect used by these former slaves as they recounted their experiences in order to capture the “essential truth” present in their words. “These life histories [were] taken down as far as possible in the narrators’ words. . . . Rich not only in folk songs, folk tales, and folk speech but also in folk humor and poetry, crude or skillful in dialect, uneven in tone and treatment, they constantly reward one with earthy imagery, salty phrase, and sensitive detail.” Works Progress Administration for the District of Columbia, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (Washington, D.C., 1941), viii–x. J U L Y 2 0 0 8 191 American folklore who used craftiness to outsmart his adversaries and deference to achieve influence and sway. Those who have taken Washington’s “conventional public utterances,” he went on to explain , “as evidence of a simple mind have underestimated the man. He manipulated platitudes as though they were checkers in the game of life, sometimes crowning platitude on platitude to increase their force. His aim was not intellectual clarity, but power. His genius was that of stratagem.”2 Perhaps nowhere is Washington’s genius better exemplified than in his autobiographical work. Shortly after he rose to prominence in 1895, Booker T. Washington set about publishing two different accounts of his life story. Autobiography, he believed, gave him an opportunity to spread his philosophy of industrial education, thrift, and progressive social reform. To that end, the principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute employed two separate ghostwriters to assist him in the work, two copyeditors to oversee the proofs, and two publishing firms who commanded different segments of the book industry. In true Washingtonian fashion, the Wizard, as many of his contemporaries dubbed him, had two separate audiences in mind when he decided to write. In 1900, The Story of My Life and Work appeared in print. It was written primarily for rural, southern African American readers. Less than one year later, Doubleday, Page, & Co. published Washington’s Up from Slavery. It was written largely for urban , northern whites.3 2 W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 190-215
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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