Martin Delany's BLAKE; OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA. A CORRECTED EDITION by Jerome McGann, ed., Reviewed by Evan Loker
Ed. Jerome McGann
(Harvard, 2017) xxxviii + 344 pp.
Reviewed by Evan Loker on 2020-05-19.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Since its recovery by Floyd Miller in 1970, Martin Delany's serialized novel Blake; or the Huts of America has been at the forefront of successive trends in politically-minded Americanist Studies. The peculiar vicissitudes of its publication history --serialized in magazines just before the Civil War and reprinted in a single volume only in the Beacon Press edition of 1970-- have made this sophisticated, sprawling novel by one of the nineteenth century's foremost black intellectuals and activists into something of a projection screen and prooftext for commentators on black life. The publication of a new edition by Jerome McGann is thus an opportunity to take stock not only of Blake, but also of the recent critical moment in which it found favor.

Initially appearing in serial form in 1859, as shown above, and then again in 1861-1862, Blake was Delany's only known work of narrative fiction and was never revised for publication as a book. As such, it abounds in gaps, eccentricities, and even a missing ending. Miller's pioneering edition, therefore, was a milestone in the mid-twentieth-century project of recovering hitherto lost black texts and the establishment of what Cedric Robinson termed the "black radical tradition" (Black Marxism:The Making of the Black Radical Tradition [1983. 2000]). Delany was thus restored to the prominence he enjoyed one hundred years prior and established as a figurehead of early black nationalism. Nevertheless, Miller's edition likely abetted the long-running underestimation of Blake as a literary text. Its manuscript errors and the lack of a robust secondary apparatus ensured that it was read less as a novel than as a mouthpiece for the author's political commitments.

By the early 1990's, however, scholars such as Paul Gilroy and Eric Sundquist inaugurated a sea-change in our understanding of Blake, stressing not only its transatlantic scale and political radicalism but also its formal and rhetorical ingenuity. Somewhat paradoxically, the lacunae in both the manuscript of Blake and its plot have left an unusual space for speculative, utopian readings informed by recent trends in critical theory and black studies. Such readings celebrate Delany as a visionary proponent of transnational blackness, anti-Lockean political ethics, and non-teleological models of social revolution. Yet, as important and vital as these readings are, they have tended to discourage systematic treatments of all that Delany achieves in Blake. While the numerous gaps in the novel as well as its missing ending have made way for productive critical speculation, scholars have up to now deferred the yeoman's work of mapping out its complex narratological structure, topical empirical references, and catalogue of black vernacular speech, among other things.

To meet this need, Jerome McGann's new edition of Blake offers both a "corrected version" of the manuscript and a "corrective version" vis-à-vis utopian critical trends. Though it may seem surprising that such a long-overdue task has been undertaken by a distinguished scholar of British Romanticism, the surprise is unwarranted. McGann is not only an accomplished editor but a pathbreaking critic. The critical works for which he is best known -- The Romantic Ideology (1983) and the Poetics of Sensibility (1998) -- famously deflated many cherished mythologies of the Anglophone literary canon by freshly re-affirming the value of political and textual criticism. Perhaps the speculative readings that Blake has up to now received led McGann to this daunting editorial task. In any case, his "corrective" efforts have produced a highly reliable, authoritative edition of a novel that McGann rightly calls an "ambitious investigation of the history and vicious social conditions that characterized the emergent American Empire in the nineteenth century" (ix).

A brief plot synopsis illustrates both Delany's ambitions and the challenges posed to an editor. Much of Volume I takes place on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Valley, circa 1852-1853. After his wife Maggie is sold away to Cuba, the titular hero (Henry Blake) vows not only to find her but to avenge the injustice of slavery by realizing his "plan for a general insurrection of the slaves in every state" (40). He embarks on his famous voyage across the slave states, organizes cells of his "scheme" at each stop, and returns to Mississippi to guide his family and comrades up the Underground Railroad to Canada. In Volume II, with plans for a US uprising in place, Henry reunites with Maggie in Cuba. Linking US slavery to the social panorama of black Cuba, Henry weaves together a Pan-American slave uprising, sabotages a slave-trading voyage, and leads debates on black liberation theology and revolutionary strategy. On the eve of the planned revolt, however, suspicious white authorities try to suppress the increasingly "disobedient" black Cubans. Also, right after this conflict comes to a head, the narrative breaks off, and the final chapters, though probably published, are not extant, nor are their contents known.

The text of Blake presented here is wonderfully laid out and scrupulously researched. As the Editor's Note explains, the only previous version of Blake (the out-of-print Beacon edition) did not rigorously compare the two surviving magazine sources for the novel: the well-known Anglo-African Magazine (1859), which includes only Volume I, and the more complete Weekly Anglo-African version of 1861-1862. Besides correcting typographical mistakes and incorrect names, McGann cross-checked the editions to simplify the orthography of the slave dialects while preserving essential differences of region, class, education, and status (xxxvii). Anyone familiar with the volume and variety of black speech in Blake will applaud this labor. Given the critical prominence of orality and vernacular literatures, we are fortunate to have a reliable copy of Delany's catalogue of vocabulary and speech patterns. The editorial apparatus strikes a similar balance between rigor and readability. To avoid congestion, Delany's original footnotes are left in, while McGann's detailed annotations are numbered in superscript and unobtrusively placed at the end of the text.

Admirable in its breadth and lucidity, the scholarly apparatus ably guides readers through an ambitious, digressive narrative in which Delany maps the global reach of antebellum slavery. In his excellent Introduction, McGann explains the context and reception of Blake. After summarizing Delany's life and work, he concisely identifies several key elements of Blake: its use of scripture and rhetoric in "giv[ing] imaginative shape to a redemptive black future," its strident critiques of structural white supremacy, and its global vision of antislavery politics (xvii). Besides providing helpful guidelines (including breakdowns of themes, tropes, and plot arcs), McGann suggests useful starting points for interpretation that manage to be both demystifying and generative. Blake, he observes, is a novel that "tells" rather than "shows." For instance, rather than depicting the clandestine meetings in which Henry enlists enslaved leaders into his planned uprising and revealing the details of his scheme, the narrative merely reports that a "seclusion" was held. But McGann says we should not consider this withholding a mystery. Instead, he writes, we should read such lacunae in light of the novel's commitment to black consciousness-raising: "Blake's central argument is that the primal act of insurrection is an individual's first conscious commitment to personal independence" (xiv).

The Introduction also cogently explains the formal architecture of the novel. To rebut the old commonplace that Blake is a "bad novel," McGann highlights its rhetorical and allegorical sophistication, placing Delany in a genealogy of didactic yet inventive prose narratives -- "fiction with a purpose" -- ranging from John Bunyan to Upton Sinclair (xv-xvi). At first, I worried that McGann's description of Blake as "rhetorical rather than mimetic" conceded too much to the ghost of Henry James, and even risked throwing further shade on its literary merits. But perhaps anticipating this reaction, McGann goes on to demonstrate the novel's formal artistry and complexity. In addition to tracing the careful patterns of repetition that undergird its literal and allegorical plot, he identifies its multiple levels of narration: the voices of the protagonist (Henry), the third-person narrator, and Delany's own authorial interjections (xvi). McGann's analyses lead him to a bold prediction regarding the famous "lost" climax (xxiv). Eschewing the temptation to fetishize textual absence, McGann refreshingly extrapolates from the aforementioned diegetic patterns and Delany's other writings to imagine what the novel's ending might be. It may be objected that such a strong reading of the lost chapters pre-empts the principle that the reader should be allowed to decide. But in any case, McGann's comprehensive essay enables new readers to approach Delany's singular text with a thorough knowledge of its context, key elements, and narrative strategies

McGann's Historical and Critical Notes are perhaps this edition's best feature. The notes not only explain the profusion of historical references, but also clarify key concepts and motifs, suggest further readings, and offer signposts to help navigate this quintessentially loose and baggy book. These annotations alone make the new edition indispensable for students of antebellum literature, as I found when teaching Blake to a recent upper-level undergraduate class in which half the students read McGann's edition and the others its precursor, the 1970 Beacon edition. While all the students were fascinated by Blake's Afrocentric political theology and radical philosophy of history, McGann's Notes enabled the first group to recognize easily the key statements and episodes in which these themes develop, and also to find helpful starting points for the development of their own ideas. Those who used the 1970 edition often missed the finer points of Delany's themes and were less able to quickly find relevant details and episodes.

Beyond what they offer to students, the paraphrases, definitions, and close readings in the Notes will enlighten even advanced scholars. Among other areas, McGann's attention to Blake's literary intertexts is exemplary. While his caliber as a Romanticist makes him especially sensitive to the novel's frequent and complex allusions to the King James Bible and British poetry, he is no less adept at tracing its intertextual wandering through the whole range of contemporaneous Anglo-American genres and texts.

In the secondary apparatus I found just occasional shortcomings. Since Blake exhaustively anatomizes the US empire and the post-1830s slave trade, I was surprised to find in this edition so few references to the voluminous historiography on slavery that has emerged in recent decades. Besides missing recent work on nineteenth-century slavery and capitalism by scholars such as Diana Raimey Berry, Walter Johnson, and Daniel Rood, the Notes and Further Reading sections overlook some important historical developments explored in the novel, such as the impact of steamboat networks on the Deep South and the surging demand for enslaved labor. Also, while Delany's knowledge of Cuba and Africa was partial at best, the Notes could have included the likely primary sources that inform Blake's depiction of Caribbean slavery and West African slave depots, since the editor so expertly gathers such information for similar topics elsewhere. But these are minor quibbles. Ultimately, the sheer volume and utility of the references and guidelines offered here compel grateful admiration.

This elegant, accessible, and definitive edition of Blake marks a significant achievement for both editor and publisher. It is a boon for anyone interested in New World slavery and nineteenth century US culture and politics as well as for specialists in fields such as US literature, black studies, Cuba studies, and the history of slavery and abolition. Equally laudable is its affordable pricing and availability on digital platforms, which will help attract the broader readership it deserves. McGann's critical and philological labors reveal Martin Delany -- his vitality and prophetic insights -- in fresh colors. In our current intellectual and political moment, this is no small gift. As slavery and its afterlives continue to warp our culture and politics, Blake suggests a way out of this seemingly endless, cyclic nightmare: a way out that is paradoxically visionary yet pragmatic. Like many works in the black radical tradition, Delany's novel does more than indict an oppressive social system with the dizzying and expansive scale of its critique. It offers a provocation, pushing readers to translate literary expression and rhetoric into new arguments and effective action. As my students came to see, it is in this sense that Blake's missing final chapters still call out for future readers to complete them. McGann's superb work here has given us a head start.

Evan Loker is a Candidate for the PhD in English at Johns-Hopkins University.

Leave a comment on Evan Loker's review.