the collection of
J. Lawrence Mitchell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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