Shelf Life after Death
Steerforth Press resurrects a long-lost writer
Vincent Carter's coming-of-age novel Such Sweet Thunder got some positive press when it debuted last month. Kirkus Reviews -- the advance guard of book reviewers -- dubbed it "a diamond in the rough." This would be good news for any book. But the fact that Carter's book received any press at all is significant. Few people ever thought the manuscript would appear on bookstore shelves, least of all Carter himself.
Typically the author is a book's biggest booster, a tireless advocate expected to soldier on disregarding rejection after rejection. But for Such Sweet Thunder, the road to print ran in the opposite direction: The book reached bookstore shelves thanks to the intercession of Chip Fleischer, an inquisitive and determined publisher at South Royalton's Steerforth Press.
Carter, an African-American expatriate, finished the book in 1963 and he and his literary agent started shopping it around. Seven years and 11 publishers later, Carter finally gave up and asked his agent to return his manuscript. He died in 1983 at the age of 58, his magnum opus unpublished.
It probably would have remained that way if it weren't for a fateful coincidence. Like Carter, Fleischer grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Three years ago, a friend of Fleischer's stumbled upon a copy of Carter's 1973 memoir -- his only published work -- while browsing in a used bookstore. Because of the Kansas City connection, he sent Fleischer an email recommending The Bern Book: The Record of a Voyage of the Mind.
"When I went to get a copy of The Bern Book, it was just to read it," says Fleischer. "It was not with any expectation as a publisher. It was just as a Kansas City boy."
Fleischer liked The Bern Book. He appreciated Carter's quirky style. But what really piqued his interest was an aside in the book's introduction. Herb Lottman, then the international correspondent for Publisher's Weekly, mentioned Carter's unpublished work. "Herb made it very clear that Carter had written a great novel," Fleischer explains. "As a publisher, I thought, 'What the heck happened to it?'"
Intrigued, Fleischer contacted Lottman, who told him the bad news -- since Carter's death, Lottman had purged his files. He didn't have the manuscript and he didn't have contact information for Carter's friends or family. The novel had disappeared.
Fleischer decided to find it. Encouraged by the publisher's enthusiasm, Lottman agreed to help. He spread the word through publishing circles that Fleischer was interested in Carter's long-lost novel. Meanwhile, Fleischer concentrated on Kansas City, hoping to locate the late author's relatives. He searched records in the public library. He scoured the archives of the Kansas City Star. He found nothing. "I was beginning to lose faith," he says, "when out of the blue we got this fax from Herb." In the fall of 2001, a friend of a friend of a friend of Lottman's provided a phone number for Liselotte Haas, Carter's longtime companion.
The phone number was supposed to be for a Swiss yoga institute, where 69-year-old Haas is an instructor. Fleischer asked Steerforth's foreign-rights director Helga Schmidt to call, thinking that the person who answered might not speak English. But the number was for Haas' own apartment. She answered, and spoke to Fleischer. Yes, she said, she had the manuscript. Yes, she'd send it to Vermont. Within a week, the FedEx truck arrived with the long-awaited novel.
"For everything to so quickly and easily fall into place after bumping into brick walls was absolutely wonderful," Fleischer remembers. "And then the pessimist in me immediately turned to 'What if I don't like it?'" But Fleischer did like it. "I just got more and more excited as I started to read it," he says.
Carter's hefty, 538-page
tome tells the story of his 1930s Kansas City boyhood. The narrative revolves around the intellectual, sexual and artistic awakening of Amerigo Jones, the author's fictional stand-in. Amerigo is a quiet, awkward boy who possesses a lively imagination. He lives with his young parents, Viola and Rutherford, in an apartment off an alley in Kansas City. His excellent manners and keen intelligence set him apart from his more rambunctious peers and earn him the respect of his family and his neighbors. "'Mer'go," says a family friend, "ain' just no ord'nary boy."
And Carter was no ordinary Kansas City writer, Fleischer discovered. Though the 39-year-old publisher is white, Jewish and grew up on the wealthier side of town, he recalls wandering as a boy through the city's art museum and being moved by the same works of art that influence Amerigo. Read-ing Such Sweet Thunder, he quickly developed a deeper appreciation of Carter's achievement. He recognized immediately the novel's historical significance, which reviewers have also pointed out. Amerigo's segregated, Jim Crow world, says Kirkus, is "too seldom seen in American fiction."
But most importantly, Fleischer was fascinated by Carter's style. His regional dialect crackles with energy: "I was standin' pat in ma gray bo-back, Jack!" says Ruther-ford," ...Me an' your momma was layin' down a Camel-Walk while you was home 'sleep!"
Fleischer also sensed that Carter had composed his prose with an instinctive rhythm, derived from a deep appreciation of the jazz music he heard as a child. He frequently uses sounds or words to shift from one scene to the next, most notably the word "boom," which sometimes refers to actual noises and sometimes to the psychic reverberations of Amerigo's epiphanies. Carter also repeats certain phrases like a coda, enhancing their meaning with each repetition.
Carter sampled from a less familiar tradition as well: Euro-pean Modernism. Confronting the mysteries of a world he is only beginning to comprehend, Amerigo is reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus, the hero in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.
When he stumbles upon something he doesn't understand, Amerigo grapples with it internally, as when he becomes angry at a man for mistreating his wife:
A distant, abstract rage filled his chest, his throat... The speculation for which there were no words catapulted him once again into the burning atmosphere germinating with particles of sound and color and movement, and caused him to lose all awareness of himself, of his beginning or of his end. What had once been his ears were now volumes filled with sound, what had been his eyes were orbits filled with light, what had been his body a configuration of driven snow, finally coming to rest, a burning droplet upon a wrinkled sheet, exposed to the light of day.
Violence, poverty and racism saturate Amerigo's life, but much of his struggle to define himself occurs inside his own head. The rich, lyrical prose with which Carter describes this struggle mesmerized Fleischer.
He decided not to tinker with it. Besides deleting a handful of adjectives from the first 100 pages, Fleischer and Steerforth's editorial director Robin Dutcher left Carter's manuscript mostly as they found it. "Really great jazz artists are steeped in musical theory that allows them to improvise without just making noise," Fleischer explains. "Carter knew what he was doing."
Fleischer did make one very noticeable change, however. Carter called the manuscript The Primary Colors. Fleischer didn't care for the title. Since Carter dedicated the book to Duke Ellington, the publisher felt it would be appropriate to rename it Such Sweet Thunder, honoring the Ellington/Billy Strayhorn tune by that name. The composition was a tribute to Shakespeare, and the phrase is from A Mid-summer Night's Dream. The association makes perfect sense to Fleischer, given the book's reliance on jazz, and on European literary sensibilities.
Indeed, Carter's penchant for detail-heavy, stream-of-consciousness writing, combined with his intimate rendering of African-American domestic life, produces a uniquely compelling Bildungsroman. Publisher's Weekly acknowledged this achievement in a starred review, calling the book "a marvelous blend of jazz rhythms and high literary tradition." Ironically, it was probably this unique fusion of styles that kept the novel from being published in the '60s.
Fleischer doesn't know for sure why Carter's manuscript languished in obscurity for 30 years. When he visited Haas last Octo-ber, he discovered the writer's correspondence with his agent, Toni Strassman. It revealed that, though several publishers had expressed interest, they were concerned about the book's length and its reliance on heavily accented dialect. Carter took these criticisms to heart. He made significant changes, but eventually turned his creative energies toward visual art and lost interest in the project. When Carter shelved the book in 1970, the revised version had yet to be seen by the publishers who had suggested the changes.
Perhaps Carter sensed that there were other unspoken reasons for the book's rejection. Fleischer speculates that the author's race played a role. The novel wasn't what publishers were looking for in "Negro Literature" in the '60s: It's not a protest novel. Despite his deprivations, Amerigo finds much joy in his surroundings, as when he savors an evening in the alley:
I hope it never changes, he thought... He looked from the height of his contentment into his alley. From the many doors and windows, from the host of familiar faces on the porches rose a gentle swell of talk and laughter interspersed with music -- from a radio, a Victrola, from someone singing or playing a guitar or playing a harmonica; accented by the sound of babies crying, a glass shattering against a floor, of automobiles whizzing up and down the boulevard, up and down the avenue. It filled his eyes and ears with the sweetest sound he had ever heard."
"Carter conveys a certain love and generosity of spirit towards this place," notes Fleischer. "He provides a much more complete and relaxing picture of everyday life than a book with an agenda and a [political] purpose would." He suspects that publishers might have deemed the book unmarketable for this reason.
Most undergraduate English majors are familiar with another victim of this publishing bias. Zora Neale Hurston's highly acclaimed novel Their Eyes Were Watching God suffered a similar fate. Hurston's love story, like Carter's novel, features a protagonist who struggles with something other than oppression. Both Amerigo and Janie interact primarily with other black characters. Neither book directly addresses a white audience, not even confrontationally.
Hurston's novel was published in 1937 and out of print by the '60s. Black male authors like Richard Wright derided it for its lack of attention to racism and black-white relations. Though she enjoyed some success, Hurston died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave. In the '70s, Alice Walker and other black female writers demanded Hurston's work be brought back into print and included in the African-American literary canon.
Unlike Hurston, however, Carter has few well-known champions. His book is not an accessible, plot-driven love story like Hurston's, which enjoys a healthy following among black women, feminists, women's studies majors and folklorists. And Carter alienated black writers of his time who pleaded with him to return to the States. His decision to remain in Switzerland, focusing on art instead of activism, caused his name to drop from the radar screen.
Carter's absence from the U.S. affected Fleischer's efforts as well. To garner attention for the project, he sought blurbs from prominent African-Americans. He had heard that Ellen Wright, widow of author Richard Wright, had read and liked the manuscript years ago. But when he contacted her she had no memory of it.
He sent the bound galleys to several African-American writers. "I got a nice note from Toni Morrison's assistant," Fleischer recalls, but none of the writers he queried were willing to comment. "It became very clear that the most besieged group in America is the group of African-American intellectuals. Unless a book is put in their hands by people they know and trust, they won't touch it."
Such Sweet Thunder is an unlikely candidate for the best-seller lists. It's a risky publishing venture, and Fleischer's enthusiasm has been absolutely crucial. As the publishing industry has become dominated by large corporate publishing houses, fewer and fewer publishers have been willing to pursue quality books with limited financial prospects. And dead authors are especially difficult to work with -- they're not available for rewrites, and they don't do book tours.
Fleischer and Steerforth have some experience with literary revivals. Ten years ago the fledgling press bought the rights to the novels of Dawn Powell, a New York novelist of the '20s and '30s whose work had been out of print for years. Influential writers like Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal praised Powell, and the new editions sparked enthusiastic critical attention, though it never translated into wild financial success.
Because of risks involved, the Vermont publisher's independence -- its ability to continue publishing quirky books -- is precarious. The company suffered losses in 2001 and 2002. It's not surprising that not everyone at Steerforth has been as enthused as Fleischer. Michael Moore, one of the company's senior editors and the conduit through which Steerforth acquired the Powell books, was doubtful. He recalls liking Such Sweet Thunder but having reservations. "I thought it was probably an impossible publishing project," says the 61-year-old editor. "I couldn't imagine how we would get attention for it. Unlike Dawn Powell, who had all of these fans like Gore Vidal, this guy was pretty obscure."
But even Moore's cautionary tone hasn't dampened Fleischer's passion for Carter's book. "Even-tually you just have to start painting the fence and having fun," he says, alluding to the famous scene from Tom Sawyer, "and at some point, people will come along and say, 'Hey, what are you doing? Can we join you?'"
So far, Fleischer's strategy seems to have paid off. Thanks to the positive press, bookstore and library orders have surpassed the initial run of 8000 copies. Steerforth has a second run scheduled. The book has also started to receive notice in the African-American community. Black Renaissance Magazine, New York University's magazine of African-American affairs, will print an excerpt in its next issue.
Fleischer is pleased, not just because of what this means for Steerforth, but because he feels he has rescued something worth saving. "You just feel at times the author's speaking to you, for you and you alone to understand completely. That's what I love most about this book.