Last Look

Happy holidays

A literary telegram.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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On Christmas Eve, 1943, Richard Wright (1908-1960) was sent this telegram by Paul R. Reynolds Jr., his literary agent. (The telegram is now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which recently celebrated Wright's centennial.) Several years earlier, Wright's Native Son had become the first best-selling novel by an African American. But the new manuscript was "a very different, more personal, type of work," observes novelist Caryl Phillips, who teaches writing at Yale. "In other words, a risk." He calls it "one of the great American coming-of-age texts."

The first part of the book, an account of Wright's upbringing in the Jim Crow South, was published as Black Boy. Reynolds was right about one thing: it was a huge commercial success. But he was wrong about the editing. Not only was the manuscript cut in two, but the second part wasn't published until long after Wright died. Phillips's comment: "So much for editorial work 'of a most minor nature'!"

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