“Damn all publishers...”
November 1, 2019 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Doris Lessing correspondence deepens insight into The Grass is Singing by Harry Ransom Center I spent a month at the Ransom Center last year, working mainly with the extensive Doris Lessing archive. It is a wonderfully diverse selection of materials from across her career, and an almost complete collection of her typescripts from the 1970s to 1999. I found three references to Lessing in the Knopf collection. The first two were mundane letters related to the editorial processes for two of her novels. The third related to The Grass is Singing, Lessing’s first novel, which was published in 1950—but not by Knopf. Lessing recounts why in the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade:

“Alfred Knopf in New York said they would take the book, if I would change it so that there was an explicit rape, “in accordance with the mores of the country”. This was Blanche Knopf, Alfred’s wife, and the Knopfs were the stars of the publishing firmament then. I was furious. What did she know about the “mores” of Southern Africa? Besides, it was crass. The whole point of The Grass is Singing was the unspoken, devious codes of behaviour of the whites, nothing ever said, everything understood, and the relationship between Mary Turner, the white woman, and Moses, the black man, was described so nothing was explicit.”
The folder I discovered in the Knopf collection filled in further details of this story. In a letter dated January 3, 1950, Mrs. Robert Shaplen (“for Alfred Knopf Inc.”) wrote to the literary agent Naomi Burton at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She said that Knopf was “tremendously impressed” with the novel and “would like to make an offer” subject to some changes, including to the ending:
“It seems to us that the curious, well-developed relationship between Mary Turner and Moses is not carried through to its logical and emotionally necessary conclusion, but ends inconclusively, so that his murder of her is not the satisfactory resolution of a dissonance, but a mere full stop. Moses must rape the unfulfilled and half-willing Mary, and then murder her out of a mixture of disgust and fear. We are not asking this for any reasons of sensationalism, but simply because it seems to us the logical, and indeed, inevitable, climax to the story.”
posted by Fizz (2 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I picked up a copy of The Grass is Singing thinking I was about to read a real life version of Anna's novel Frontiers of War in The Golden Notebook, and I had the impression Frontiers of War was a romance against the backdrop of war — not necessarily shallow or lacking insight (not possible from Lessing, I thought), but stirring and with a happy ending.

What I got instead was a steep descent into madness, so skillfully drawn that I felt myself being pulled down along with the protagonist. It was like jumping into a pond for a refreshing swim without realizing it was fed by a hot spring. The scalds were superficial, thank goodness, though when I developed what would probably be classified as a case of ICU delirium decades later, I was amazed how well Lessing captured my experience of a psychotic break as seen from the inside.

But Knopf was right about America's emerging appetite for novels exploring sex between blacks and whites, and the more titillating the better, because when Mandingo was published 7 years later, it ultimately sold more than 5 million copies.

Of course, since Knopf wanted an explicit account of a white woman raped and killed by a black man, they probably thought of it as a cautionary tale with a side of titillation rather than the much less threatening main course of titillation offered by a plot mainly featuring black women being raped by white men, which is what I remember from my sister's copy of Mandingo (the second image in my link).
posted by jamjam at 6:37 PM on November 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

This article is wonderful, but also very timely for folk in Austin. The Harry Ransom Center has a small Lessing exhibit running right now (along with fin de siecle Magician Posters and Geoffrey Chaucer). It draws on some of the same letters as well as some very cute correspondence between Lessing and a young Philip Glass.
posted by stirred for a bird at 12:27 PM on November 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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