Thursday, August 13, 2009

OneWorld Classics: Bringing Sexy Back

I recently discovered OneWorld Classics, an English independent publisher launched in the spring of 2007. OneWorld has the laudable aim “to expand the literary canon in the English-speaking world through a series of mainstream and lesser-known classics, often by commissioning new translations.” In particular, OneWorld is looking to “redefine and enrich the classics canon by promoting unjustly neglected works of enduring significance.” Fortunately for those of us in the U.S., OneWorld’s publications are readily available here.

Perhaps the best thing about OneWorld's books is the extensive supplementary material provided within each book. Most editions contain photographs, notes, short pieces on the author’s life and works, and other relevant commentary. For poetry translations, all of OneWorld’s editions are bilingual.

Curious about OneWorld Classics, I recently picked up James Hanley’s Boy, a OneWorld edition published in 2007. Boy was first published in England in 1931, but, shortly after publication, the book was denounced as obscene and removed from circulation for more than 50 years. Like all OneWorld titles, this new edition of Boy includes useful supplementary material, including photographs of the author and his family, a history of Hanley’s life and works, and an excellent introduction by Anthony Burgess, whose concise synopsis of the book captures Boy’s bleakness:
A boy escapes from a tyrannical father by stowing away on a merchant vessel bound for Alexandria. He is ill-treated and sneered at by the crew, undergoes his sexual initiation in an Egyptian hotel, and then, writhing in the shame of syphilis, is put down like a sick dog by the ship's captain.
During his life, Hanley boasted he wrote the first draft of Boy in just ten days. Though other sources claim that may be an exaggeration, the book retains the immediacy and rough edges one would expect from a quick draft. What Boy lacks in literary graces, however, it makes up for in social significance. Boy revealed the horrible circumstances faced by many children from working class homes forced into the workforce at a young age. Hanley was prosecuted for obscenity for Boy, but, while the book addresses themes of sexuality, it's far from obscene. Rather, it reveals what many wished would remain hidden, and, for that crime, it was unavailable for decades. We are fortunate OneWorld is returning to life (and general availability) classics like this one.


rjnnagle said...

Two remarks.

First, sexually explicit books didn't get mainstream until the 1960s (with grove press pushing the envelope). Henry Miller had to go through hoops in the 30s to get his works published.

Second, remember that at the urging of Time-Warner, Universal Disney, the US extended copyright law from 75 years to 95 years. This work would have gone into the public domain in 2007 (75 years after publication). Thanks to the lobbying of these media groups, we would have been able to download this work for free by now. Instead, we will have to wait until the year 2027.

As a general rule, I try to avoid all works published between 1922 and 1942 unless they have been released in the public domain or if I can find it at the library or a used book shop. Nobody should be profiting from the copyright extension act.

It's good to be devoted to the classics, and I applaud companies that produce critical editions. But that doesn't excuse the act of making money off works which properly belonged to the public domain in the first place.

Gwen Dawson said...

Given that the copyright extension act happened, I would rather have access to the work than worry about OneWorld, or similar publishers, making some money by making the books available, particularly when they've done such a nice job with the supplementary material.

Anonymous said...

I like the sound of these books, especially all the extra material that is packaged in them.