Making the Wright Connection

An Online Community for the Study of Richard Wright

“Black Boy and American Hunger: Richard Wright, Revision, and Narrative Systems”

Posted on October 20, 2011 | No Comments

John Young, Professor of English at Marshall University, shares the abstract of the paper he will present at the forthcoming MLA Annual Convention, January 5-8, 2012.

For 32 years, everyone read the wrong version of Black Boy. The only publicly available version was that which Wright revised at the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club and his influential editor at Harper & Brothers.  American Hunger, originally the second half of Wright’s autobiography, finally appeared on its own in 1977 (though sections had been serialized in 1944 and 1945, surrounding Black Boy’s original publication in the last year of the war).   HarperCollins, the current instantiation of Wright’s original publisher, now issues the “Restored” Black Boy, with revisions for the first editions now relegated to notes.  While the rhetorical marker of a “Restored” edition bestows agency on the editor’s recovery of a lost original, the “Abridged” designation elides the Book Club’s consistent muting of Wright’s sexual and political content, as if the manuscripts had simply run long.

I read both versions of Black Boy in juxtaposition rather than adjudicating between them for a “correct” or “definitive” edition.  Indeed, I would argue that such a “both/and” editorial method is especially appropriate for most African American modernist literature, as the ostensibly private sphere of authorial composition and revision has already been rendered troublingly public through Du Bois’s double consciousness.  Black Boy is hardly the first text to be revised before publication in accordance with the marketing pressures of more culturally conservative readers, but the category of race—as produced historically in terms that conjoin ideology and aesthetics—puts particular pressure on conventional notions of the public/private distinction between manuscript and print.  Because the public sphere of literary reception is largely defined through what the philosopher Paul Taylor terms “thick racialism, which holds that the physical differences between races are signs of deeper, typically intellectual and moral, differences,” the assumed autonomy of the private sphere of composition and revision is compromised by the need to produce a textual self in accordance with (or in opposition to) thick racialist aesthetics.

The interesting and productive question is then not which version of Black Boy to privilege, but rather how to read their manuscript and published editions in mutual relation, for what they reveal about both Wright’s authorial choices and the social spheres circumscribing them.  In his 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Wright laments that African American texts of this period could function only as either “a sort of conspicuous ornamentation” or “the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America for justice” (53).  At the level of narrative content, Black Boy rejects this false dilemma, condemning the entire racist structure of midcentury American society rather than pleading for justice from it.  At the same time, the rhetorical effects of both works’ revision and marketing reinforce the dichotomy Wright interrogates in “Blueprint.”  Whereas the narrative voice in each text implies an authorial position well beyond the unspoken publishing premise that “all non Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes,” as Zora Neale Hurston opined in “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” the revised implied author of Black Boy brackets off cultural complications from their marketing images.  In this interaction of versions, between Wright’s compositional and publishing decisions, and between each text’s linguistic and bibliographic contents, lies the real story of Black Boy.


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