I find myself to be continually intrigued by the phrase “as now printed,” found in “The Forethought” chapter of Souls of Black Folk (6). The edition we have says that this note was written at the same time as the original release of the book in 1903, indicating that DuBois anticipated that Souls of Black Folk would not only be re-released but also that the text itself would be edited. I don’t claim to know what DuBois was thinking when he added those words to the introduction to the text, but to me, it feels as though he was both reserving the right to edit and release different editions to his own work (which we know he did) and also acknowledging that future reprintings might be out of his own hands and things that he wanted to be included might not be there. This prediction has come true; for example, we don’t have the bars of music talked about in that same sentence in our edition and the most commonly released edition of Souls of Black Folk isn’t the most recently updated version but instead the first edition, which contains anti-Semitic language that DuBois later removed.
This begs the question as to why people are so focused on the first edition as being the master text with no room for error, especially in the case of Souls of Black Folk, where DuBois’ edits greatly change the tone of the book and get rid of hate speech, two things that one would think would be important when considering what edition of a text to print.
At this point, it is worth discussing what an edition means. “An edition is when you make a significant change to a book. It doesn’t count if you fix a few typos or art mistakes — the change has to be important.” The issue is that people often say “first edition” when they mean “first printing,” and it is often difficult to figure out which, if either category, a book falls into. A printing of a book is akin to the making of a series of Prince’s woodblock prints – back when printing was a manual process, a first printing consisted of any copies of that book made without the removal of the original type plates from the printing press. Thus, there could be infinite first editions of books, but only a limited number can be from the first printing, and those are the ones that are valuable to a book collector. The problem with this terminology is that even book collectors and other experts often use the word “edition” when they mean “printing,” as I mentioned before.
Though using first editions (and I mean edition in its actual definition, as in the source text remains the same regardless of printing) isn’t something that is explicitly emphasized in academia at the undergraduate level, it’s pretty unusual for a professor to ask you to use books that are different in text from the first edition, and there’s a pretty good reason for that. Ray Bradbury, in an afterword to a later republication of Fahrenheit 451, gave a pretty compelling explanation: “Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe … into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy … Every story, slenderized, starved, blue-penciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story … Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel.” This kind of new edition, where an editor who is not the author goes through and takes things out and censors things explains why using specific editions of books is important and why it is generally desirable to use a reprinting that contains an as early as possible edition.
This same article that cites Bradbury tries to explain the lure of first editions in this way: “It’s the edition the author actually saw through production and the closest in time to the writing, and therefore the edition most likely to represent the author’s intent.”
Therein lies the problem: we read the first edition as the most important edition because of a history of editors releasing editions that stray further and further from the author’s original intent, as Bradbury mentioned in the anthology that edited down works to make them fit in a smaller book. This also assumes that later editions were made without the author’s knowledge or involvement. Of course, this is also a copyright problem: once a work reaches a certain age, there is no longer a copyright on it and people may do with it as they please, leading to further issues. This also ties back into a lack of belief in intellectual humility: we assume that the first edition must be the best edition because it is what the author wanted at the time of publication, and why would the author ever admit that they were wrong? These two things have most certainly contributed to why the first edition of Souls of Black Folk is the one that is most commonly published.
The problem with this system is that it is not set up for new editions released by the author themselves. As many of my classmates have already discussed, DuBois exhibited an unusual level of intellectual humility in recognizing the problems with the language found in Souls of Black Folk. I think that Brittney’s post “Step 1: Know Nothing” phrased it best: “He saw the similarities in suppression between the Black and Jewish communities and had sympathy for them. He knew he made a mistake having the echo of Antisemitism ring throughout his lyrical liberation of “The Souls of Black Folk.” He showed that ‘the willingness to openly change his mind shines through with similar sanity.'” Still, most publishers have chosen to ignore this in favor of the myth of the sacred first edition.
This is why I like that DuBois included “as now printed” in his introduction to Souls of Black Folk. In republishings where the first edition is printed, it is a reference to the fact that it is not the only edition of Souls of Black Folk that exists and might prompt people to look for other printings, including the one that we have, which is what DuBois probably would have wanted. In our edition, the one that DuBois released most recently, it reads as an acknowledgment of intellectual humility and the right of the author to change their own works.
I think this links well to Urban Garden and the kinetic (pun very much intended) nature of the work. For me, the most fascinating part of seeing the creation of Urban Garden was that at any given time, whatever was on the canvas could be the end product. Because of the limits of the time period of Prince’s residency, the creation of the work stopped at an arbitrary time; the piece was done because we said it was done, not because an artistic plan was executed to completion, not because it was ready to be displayed: it was done because it simply was. I love that the real art of Urban Garden was the process of creation, and the arbitrary nature of the finish highlights this. The fantastic thing about Urban Garden is that there is no first edition because it is a kinetic piece. Unlike woodblock prints, for example, what is on the piece now was not planned and the piece could be hung back up and continue to be worked on and it wouldn’t make a difference to the value of the work. There is no first edition of Urban Garden because it was (and still could be) a work in progress up until we decided not to work on it anymore.
This is what authorial edits should be like: the most recent legitimate authorial edition should be what editors choose to publish. To act otherwise ignores the fact that authors are human and make mistakes and leaves no room for intellectual humility, a virtue that is severely lacking in this day and age. They should be given the chance to remedy them without having to worry about the mythos around the importance of first editions trumping the desires of the author. I do think that having archival records of first and other early editions is important, but perhaps they aren’t the ones that we should be commonly disseminating, especially if they contain harmful language that the author wanted to be removed.