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Celebrating Juneteenth with brilliant literary voices

Inside the reissue of Leon Forrest’s novel ‘Divine Days’
surrouned by bookshelves, three people look at a book manuscript and the novel "Divine Days"
Northwestern University Press has reissued the novel "Divine Days," by the late Northwestern professor Leon Forrest. From left, Anne Gendler, Northwestern Press managing editor and director of editorial, design and production, Parneisha Jones, Press director, and Morris (Dino) Robinson, production manager. Photo by Stephen J. Lewis

Leon Forrest was a lifelong Chicagoan who used his writing to chronicle life and myth on the South Side, first as a newspaper journalist, and later, as an author who worked with notable figures such as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison.

In addition to teaching at Northwestern from 1973 until his death in 1997, Forrest served as chairman of what was then the African American Studies department from 1985 to 1994. Some of his most popular courses included Studies in Spiritual Agony and Rebirth, Art of James Baldwin and Black Families in Literature.

During his career, he penned four novels, among other works, featuring his jazz- and blues-inspired prose. His final novel, often called his magnum opus, was “Divine Days.” The sprawling book chronicles one week in 1966 in Forest County — a fictionalized version of Chicago’s South Side — through the eyes of Joubert Jones, a veteran and aspiring playwright who recently returned there.

Though it was lauded by critics, “Divine Days” faced obstacles: Its original printing was destroyed in a warehouse fire, and many of Forrest’s requested revisions weren’t implemented in the next editions.

The novel had fallen out of print until early last year, when publishing imprint Seminary Co-op Offsets reissued it. The imprint, which focuses on Chicago literary voices, is a collaboration between Northwestern University Press and the iconic Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Hyde Park. “Divine Days” is its first project.

Seminary Co-op Offsets’ reissued “Divine Days” includes updated text that better reflects Forrest’s vision and an added table of contents and character list to guide readers’ journeys through the 1,168-page work. The book is also among more than a dozen titles included in Northwestern University Press’ 2024 Juneteenth sale.

Northwestern Now recently sat down with Press staff to learn about the reissue of “Divine Days,” why Juneteenth is an especially fitting time to dive into the novel and more.

Why was it important to the Press to publish a version of “Divine Days” that better matched Forrest’s vision?

“In short, because this is a literary masterpiece! The music of this book will get under your skin. But also, this was a labor of love because we felt very close to Leon Forrest as we worked to restore the book to his original vision. Leon Forrest taught at Northwestern University for more than two decades. He lived in Evanston. A lot of the book is set in Chicago, very recognizable to those who know the South Side and the West Side.”

— Anne Gendler, managing editor and director of editorial, design and production

How would you describe Leon Forrest’s writing style?

“There is something about the lost art of music in prose, be it the language, dialect or premise of the story. Chicago writers like Forrest, Cyrus Colter, Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks mastered lyrical undertones in their work. Leon Forrest possesses a controlled rhythm in his work that reads like musical prose.”

— Parneshia Jones, director of Northwestern University Press

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Each change we made was small in isolation, but the cumulative effect was a sea change.”

Anne Gendler, managing editor and director of editorial, design and production

What changes does the republished version of “Divine Days” have from the original? How do they better reflect Forrest’s vision for his work?

“We had already committed ourselves to bringing out a new edition of ‘Divine Days’ when the author’s grandson Zachary Price forwarded us a letter from Forrest’s literary agent, referencing errors in the original that the author had always wanted to correct. Along with the letter was a copy of the hardcover edition of ‘Divine Days’ annotated by Forrest himself. It was filled with hundreds of Post-it notes, flagging corrections regarding spelling, punctuation and formatting. (The corrections had reached [publisher W. W. Norton & Company] too late for them to be incorporated into the next printing, which was already underway.)

The Press decided to make those hundreds of changes, and they emboldened us to fix other similar errors that we saw ourselves and which we believed the author would have wanted us to correct. Some of these errors were camouflaged by the experimental nature of the writing or the use of dialect and deliberate misspellings elsewhere. We had to work very carefully to remain faithful to Forrest’s vision.

Each change we made was small in isolation, but the cumulative effect was a sea change. Our edition should provide for a smoother reading experience and one that more closely adheres to the author’s intentions.”

— Anne Gendler

Tell me about a few of the other books you’re highlighting for Juneteenth.

“Over two decades, Patricia Smith searched estate sales and talked to elders to amass a collection of rare 19th-century photographs of Black men, women and children. In ‘Unshuttered: Poems,’ Smith imagines the stories these people may have told if America had allowed them to.

Feelin: Creative Practice, Pleasure, and Black Feminist Thought,’ by Bettina Judd looks at how Black women artists approach and produce knowledge as sensation: internal and complex, entangled with pleasure, pain, anger and joy, and manifesting artistic production itself as the meaning of the work.

Last is a book close to us as a university press: Lavelle Porter’s ‘The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual.’ This book evaluates how Black writers depicted academic and campus life in literature and produced counternarratives that celebrate Black intelligence and argue for the importance of higher education.”

— Kristen Twardowski, director of sales and marketing

How can these stories, especially “Divine Days,” help us celebrate and commemorate Juneteenth?

“Juneteenth is about celebrating the past and looking to the future, and these books do just that. ‘Divine Days,’ in particular, showcases Black legacies. The book is about jazz, and literature, and cinema, and Shakespeare, and the Bible, and classical mythology. It’s about Chicago — the place, the people. Even though ‘Divine Days’ was first published [decades] ago, reading it, you can feel the spirit that still exists in the South Side today. And though the original printing of the book was destroyed in a warehouse fire at Another Chicago Press in 1992, the book has been rebirthed through Seminary Co-op Offsets. I can think of nothing more poetic or truer to Juneteenth than that.”

— Kristen Twardowski