20 November 2019

Beautiful Joe: Now with 30% Less Violence!

Beautiful Joe
     (Modern Abridged Edition)
Marshall Saunders
Racine, WI: Whitman, [c. 1965]
254 pages

Whitman is the first publisher I knew by name. Its books were the stuff of childhood birthday parties, given to friends who'd really wanted a Hot Wheels Super-Charger. I was never so unfortunate as to receive a Whitman book myself; until this month, the only one I ever owned was Who's Got the Button?, a Monkees tie-in that I bought sometime in the early 'eighties.

Who's Got the Button? was written by William Johnston, author of other Whitman titles like Gilligan's Island, The Munsters and the Great Camera Caper, and Ironside: The Picture Frame Frame-Up. None were considered part of the publisher's Classics Library.

I bought Whitman's Beautiful Joe after reading the 1927 "New and Revised Edition." Writing in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Elizabeth Waterston informs that the violence of the 1894 original was "softened" for that latter edition." I found the violence hard and hard to take, and was certain that Whitman had softened it even further for we children of the 'sixties.

And I was right.

The greatest distinction is found early, in the novel's most violent scene. I've struck out the sentences that are absent in the Whitman edition:

Those familiar with Beautiful Joe know further violence follows when Jenkins mutilates Joe by cutting off his ears and tail with an axe. The pivotal scene, it's just as it is in the 1894 first edition.

By my calculation, the word count of Whitman's "abridged" Beautiful Joe is just over 64,000; roughly 30,000 less than the original. Of the numerous deletions, this is the longest:

Saunders' second novel, Beautiful Joe was written with an eye on a prize offered by the American Humane Education Society (hence the reference). That the novel won is surely owes something to its incorporation of the Society's positions, including "the proper way to kill animals." Saunders was also smart in taking the sad story of a Canadian dog and transplanting it to Maine. To these northern eyes, the most interesting passages are those in which Americans express concern for the future of their nation:

The comments about immigration, Spaniards, and Italians, do not appear in the Whitman edition.

Less violence. Less bigotry, too.

But I wouldn't give it as a birthday present.

Object and Access: A hardcover issued without dust jacket. The cover, endpapers, and interior illustrations are all by Robert MacLean.

I purchased my copy for $US9.38 from an Ohio bookseller.

There are plenty of copies listed online at similar prices.

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  1. In fact, a reduction of about 30,000 words to 64,000 words probably has a lot more than 30% less violence. The bits - there are some bits, surely - that aren't violent will remain in the book without cuts, regardless of its length, whereas the 30,000 lost words will nearly all feature violence.

    1. Bet you're right, Roger. The figure was flippant; I didn't put much thought into it. That said, I was surprised that Beautiful Joe's mutilation was untouched. I'm guessing that whoever red-pencilled the book thought it was too important to alter.

  2. The web seems to think Whitman released their abridgment in 1955...

    1. I think the web is right, Todd. Researching this piece, I noticed a Whitman edition with a different, less attractive cover. The copyright page on mine states 1965, which seems a bit late.