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grinding ] gnashing: Juxta collation of Delany’s Blake yields insights into the novel’s uncertain conclusion

Martin R. Delany was an African American abolitionist and political activist.  His only novel, Blake, or, the Huts of America, features runaway slave Henry Blake, who travels through the American South disseminating a “secret” which implicitly foments a slave rebellion, although such is never explicitly stated.  Although Delany sought to have the novel published as a book, it was never accepted for publication but did appear twice in serial form.  Chapters 1-23 and 29-31 were originally found in the 1859 Anglo-African Magazine. The complete novel was discovered years later in the 1861-62 Anglo-African Weekly.  These issues revealed a new setting of the previously discovered 26 chapters, as well as an additional 44 chapters. Although Floyd J. Miller produced an annotated edition of Blake in 1970 for the Beacon Press, publishing all 70 chapters, in preparing his edition he did not collate the two serializations of the first 26 to see if Delany revised between 1859 and 1861.  These chapters lay uncollated until I took them up this past November as a project for Jerome McGann’s “American Historiography” course.

My materials included the Arno Press reprint of Volume I of the 1859 Anglo-African Magazine and scans of the original 1861-62 Weekly broadsides.  I uploaded the texts chapter by chapter into Juxta Commons, collated them, and then used Juxta’s Edition Starter feature to produce HTML files which I then linked together into a navigable website created through GitHub.  For more on the process of using Juxta for this project, see last week’s post.  The purpose of my post today is to highlight a few of the changes my Juxta collations revealed.

The collations revealed many variants between the two serializations.  Delany made scattered substantive changes to the work, usually changing one or two words or slightly or rearranging a sentence for clarity.  The many small changes reflect an author interested in smoothing out and correcting his work but not in altering its original meaning.  Delany’s letter to William Lloyd Garrison on 19 February 1859 supports this impression:

The three chapters published in the first number of the Magazine, were full of errors, in consequence of the hurried manner in which it was got out, and the whole will be carefully revised and corrected as far as published up to the time, should the work be taken up by a publisher. [1]

Delany was at this point inquiring after a publisher to print the novel in book form, but it is likely that in anticipation of the next serialization in 1861, Delany would have wished to make these revisions and corrections.

Most of these changes serve to clarify Delany’s meaning or improve the language, but many render the depictions more powerful and striking.  In one of the most shocking chapters of the novel, an abused slave boy is forced to perform tricks for his master’s guests.  He is described in 59 as “the miserable child” and in 61 as “the miserable child of pity.”  In 59, he is made to caper about on all fours “like an animal,” but “like a brute” in 61.  The two words technically mean the same, but “brute” sounds more abrasive.  A peculiar change which Delany makes is in the physical description of the boy: in 59 he has “protruding upper teeth,” while in 61 he has “protruding under teeth.”  Provided this is not a mere misreading on the part of the compositor, if deliberate I believe the purpose of this is to increase the shock factor of the scene and make it all the more jarring, as an overbite is much more common than an under-bite.  Delany does not change anything in the overall meaning of the work, but he does make this instance of abuse more dramatic.

Another characteristic instance of increasing the power of a scene occurs in Chapter XXIX: when the runaway slaves evade capture, their white pursuers stand “grinding their teeth” in 59 but “gnashing their teeth” in 61.  The use of the word “gnashing” increases the sense of angst as well as lending a Biblical quality to the scene, invoking the image of those in Hell and their “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 25:30; Luke 13:28; Acts 7:54—to name a few).  I mention this particular revision because it is an example of the Biblical language which pervades the entire novel, and it is also one of several instances where Delany revises in favor of increasing this Biblical quality.  In Blake, Henry is frequently depicted as a Christ figure, a Messiah who will come to bring liberation to the slaves.  As Henry travels the South, slave families welcome him into their homes, expecting his arrival without having received any warning of his coming.  One couple says they knew Henry by a mysterious “mahk”["mark"], and descriptions of slaves receiving the “secret” are fraught with harvest images, heightening the millenarian impression.  Before running away from his master, Henry tells his mother- and father-in-law, Mammy Judy and Daddy Joe, “time with me is precious” in 59 and “the time with me is precious” in 61.  ”The” makes Henry’s statement seem less like a declaration of being in a hurry and more like a hint that his time with Judy and Joe is a transient and preset period of time—much like Jesus’ time on Earth, which he knows will end, first with the Crucifixion, and second, the Ascension.

The last issue of Blake in the Weekly shows Henry and the Cuban blacks and mulattoes enraged at the murder of poet Placido, and the final sentence of the novel is suggestive of the advent of rebellion: “Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!”  However, the absence of any further issues begs the question: did Delany write an ending featuring an actual rebellion, or did he finish on that final powerful but inconclusive imprecation?  One theory which we discussed in Professor McGann’s course is that an actual rebellion is never intended, but rather, that the real revolution is to be an intellectual one and will occur through the enlightenment of the slaves.  Throughout the novel, Henry tells his fellow slaves, “Stand still, and see the salvation,” and the emphasis on seeing suggests the focus to be enlightenment rather than warfare.

One of the most intriguing group of changes is that of dialect orthography, and these changes—although far from solving—can inform this question of intellectual versus martial revolution.  In Blake, spelling of dialect is used to show the gap between “intelligent” and “unintelligent” characters, both black and white.  Henry’s speech is perfectly spelt standard English, and it is he who first recognizes his right to freedom, escapes from his bondage, and disseminates the “secret” to others, which may well be that same recognition of their own right to freedom.  The slaves’ non-standard dialect becomes a marker of their intellectual bondage, and the pattern of revision enforces this idea.  In 1861, all slave dialect is re-spelt to be easier to read—the original orthography being at times prohibitive to readers’ comprehension.  Below are some examples of words that are consistently revised in the slaves’ dialect:

Wat a mautteh 59]What a mahtter 61
wud 59] word 61
fadah 59] fader 61
widah 59] wider 61
ouah 59] our 61
ah 59] I 61
nebeh 59] neber 61
cah 59] cant/can’t/ca n’t 61

Without evidence in Delany’s correspondence with his editor, it is impossible to know who was responsible for these changes.  I strongly suspect that, even if prompted by his editor to improve readability, Delany was involved in making these changes, as they ultimately support the trajectory of the novel.  Although the orthography is adjusted, other variants reveal the intent to retain the language divide between the educated and uneducated slaves.  This is accomplished through the insertion of subject-verb disagreement in dialect which would otherwise sound too standard due to the improved spelling:

I hate him so! 59] I hates ~ 61
while we wuh at de suppeh 59] ~we was~ 61
Dat’s what I like to know 59] ~I likes~ 61
yeh keep 59] yeh keeps 61

Clearly, those responsible for these revisions wanted Blake to be readable but also wanted to keep the speech gap in tact.

Further evidence of intentional dialect revision can be found in the language of the poor whites, which, unlike that of the slaves, is frequently altered to make these characters sound more backward and less intelligent.  For instance, while in 59, the slave trader Harris calls Henry a “fellow,” the word “feller” is consistently substituted in 61.  Below are other similar changes:

might have 59] might a’ 61
if 59] ef 61
is she 59] am she 61
No she ain’t 59] ~arn’t 61
just 59] jist 61
little tired, I spose? 59] little kind ‘o tired, I spose? 61
Didn’t come far 59] ~fur 61

The orthographical revisions are intriguing to me because they show an increased desire as of 1861 to make it clear in Blake that enlightenment is not racially determined but may be acquired–or not–by all, regardless of race.  Enlightenment is critical to the slaves’ rebellion, whether this rebellion be a literal uprising or the realization of the slaves’ equality, and the compromising of the whites’ own enlightenment suggests an even greater certainty of the slaves’ eventual success.

When Blake was serialized in 1859, the Civil War loomed on the horizon.  When the Anglo-African Weekly set the first issue of the new serialization (26 Nov. 1861), hostilities had long since begun, and a potential end to the age of slavery was in sight.  Blake is full of apocalyptic images, and the revisions revealed in Juxta suggest that when the apocalypse comes, the newly enlightened slaves will be as or better qualified than the whites to assume their new place in society.  Given this, actual rebellion becomes a moot point, making it all the more likely that Delany never penned the much anticipated uprising.

These reflections constitute an initial analysis of the results of collating this fascinating work.  I will continue my research and appreciate any comments you may have.  Those interested may access the complete results at Blake, or, the Huts of America: a collation.

Notes

1. Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, 19 Feb. 1859, Garrison Papers, Boston P.L./Rare Books Dept, cited in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, ed Robert S. Levine (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003): 295-96.


Stephanie Kingsley is a second-year English MA student specializing in 19th-century American literature, textual studies, and digital humanities. She is one of this year’s Praxis Fellows [see Praxis blogs] and Rare Book School Fellows.  For more information, visit http://stephanie-kingsley.github.io/.

2 responses to “grinding ] gnashing: Juxta collation of Delany’s Blake yields insights into the novel’s uncertain conclusion”

  1. Call for Blog Posts on Juxta Commons

    [...] off the series the past two weeks with her posts on “Work Flows and Wish Lists” and race, orthography, and enlightenment in Delany. Contact projectmanager@nines.org if you are interested in sharing your work and thoughts on Juxta [...]

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