An exhibit from the collection of 
J. Lawrence Mitchell  


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      It has often been said in jest that Britain and the US are two nations divided by a single language. In this exhibit, we explore some of the changes that occur when a book crosses the Atlantic and what we learn by comparing such "Transatlantic twins."  For the most part, the books selected are by well-known, though not necessarily "famous," twentieth-century British and Irish authors: Walter de la Mare, Roy Fuller, David Garnett, Sean O'Faolain, Theodore Powys, William Trevor, Sylvia Townsend Warner. George Bernard Shaw is the exception here. There is one American author, Budd Schulberg, so we can also ask whether there are features specific to books crossing the Atlantic in different directions.

      A reasonable assumption would be that British authors are first published at home and then see their books exported to America. For a variety of reasons, this pattern of publication is not invariable. Sylvia Townsend Warner's whimsical The Cat's Cradle Book, for example, was first issued in the United States in 1940, but not for another twenty years in England because paper was rationed there during World War Two and, in any case, many of the stories were first published in The New Yorker. Similarly, Llewelyn Powys published many of his earlier books in the United States first because his literary connections (including Theodore Dreiser and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as his older brother, John Cowper Powys) were centered in New York.

      The same book published in America and England often bears different titles as well as dust jacket designs and other differences of presentation. When Garnett's  British hardback, A Shot in the Dark, reappears in America as a paperback, The Ways of Desire, something more than a titillating title has been added. In advertising terms, the book has been "repackaged" so that the title and the cover illustration together seem to promise a very different, and far more explicit, story than the original.  The two books appeal to different sensibilities and thus attract different kinds of readers! But it would be unfair to suggest that the staid British writer is somehow always victimized by crass American commercialism. Consider the case of the Welsh writer, Rhys Davies. His first novel, The Withered Root (1927), has as its hero a young evangelical preacher who is constantly beset by temptations of the flesh. The illustrator, William Roberts, one of the Vorticist painters associated with Wyndham Lewis, renders these temptations with an explicitness daring for its era; the American illustrator reproduces the same scene in a way designed not to offend contemporary American sensibilities. Roy Fuller's Ruined Boys (1959), with its veiled reference to the kind of homosexual relationship believed to be common in English Public [i.e. private] schools, was also clearly too much for the American publisher, who selected the more demure That Distant Afternoon as the title, albeit from the same poem by W. H. Auden.

     Yet alterations driven by considerations of morality or by a publisher's nervousness are in a distinct minority. More common are those made as marketing devices. When Ray Garnett drew a large wood engraving of pigs for Theodore Powys's  Mr. Tasker's Gods, it was with the full knowledge that the pigs were the gods to the farmer. Alfred Knopf seems to have concluded that pigs, however artistically well rendered, simply would not sell the novel; instead he selected a more conventional vignette of a plough-man behind his horse (also by Ray Garnett) which suggested the book's rural setting if not its contents.

      For the American publisher there was always some risk in taking on a new and /or otherwise little-known British writer. One solution was to import a set of sheets rather than producing a new edition, at least until the book had sold enough to warrant a separate American edition. Another technique was to "educate" the would-be reader by supplying information on the dust-jacket about the title, the contents, or the author. In such cases, a substantial block of text might be needed, as in The Verdict of Bridlegoose where the allusion in the title to Rabelais' Judge Bridlegoose would have puzzled many readers. Sometimes too even a strikingly effective illustration of the sort found in the English edition of Broomsticks (1923) is sacrificed in order to persuade potential readers (via multiple blurbs) of the book's merits—in this case that it is "a juvenile classic in the making."

      The dozen versions on display of Lolly Willowes (1926) offer an opportunity to contrast the treatment of this classic across a span of  seventy-five years and in a number of languages. The dust-jacket of the first English edition gives no hint of "what lies beneath," that is, the transformation of a harmless spinster into a witch. The history of the American edition shows what a difference a bold design can make. The fact that Viking first imported sheets tells us that the publisher was not confident about success. But a combination of factors made for brisk sales: the colorful dust-jacket illustration and the selection of the book by the newly-founded Book-of-the-Month Club. A number of later editions inevitably capitalize on one or both of these features.   However, by the time that the Women's Press edition appeared in the seventies, Warner's novel was being reinterpreted: no longer a whimsical fantasy but an acerbic story "about spinsterhood and about family relations." The woman on this cover is a "plain Jane" as distant from the witch on the Viking broomstick as she is from the attractive young redhead on the cover of the Popular Library paperback. The French edition, by contrast, implicitly and intriguingly identifies Lolly or Laura with Warner herself by selecting a photograph of Warner taken around the time she wrote the novel.

      This exhibit examines only a few of the ways in which twins can and do differ.  A common language and, to some extent, a common culture do not guarantee singular interpretations.  British books in the U.S. are inevitably marketed differently than they are in their homeland, and vice versa.  Ultimately marketing decisions are attempts at interpretation.  And we can perceive much about how each country (despite, again, a common language and heritage) reads its literature by examining the manner in which that literature is presented and represented, packaged and repackaged, on both sides of the Atlantic.   

 

J. Lawrence Mitchell