Monday, February 16, 2009

Israel Alger's 1825 "Pronouncing Bible"

One of the advantages to living in an area with several colleges is the preponderance of very good used bookstores. In downtown Amherst there’s a hidden gem of a second-hand books store called Valley Books (“hidden” because you have to go around to the building’s rear parking lot and down into the basement to find it) that has a great little collection of antiquarian, rare, and just plain odd titles. For nearly a year, whenever I visited there I eyed this particular volume before finally springing for it several months ago.

This is a first edition of “The Pronouncing Bible”, or by its full title, The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments; Translated Out of the Original Tongues, and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised, the Proper Names of Which, and Numerous Other Words, Being Accurately Accented in the Text, and Divided into Syllables, as they Ought to be Pronounced, According to the Orthoepy of John Walker, as Contained in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Key to the Classical Pronunciation of Greek, Latin, and Scripture Proper Names.

The book was edited by Israel Alger and published in 1825 by Lincoln & Edmands, at 59 Washington Street in Boston, MA. It was printed in stereotype by T. H. Carter & Company. The binding is a very dried and cracked leather (the spine has lost some of the brittle leather along the very top edge, no doubt caused by being pulled off the shelf improperly for 184 years). The pages measure 13 cm x 21 cm. It was printed in gatherings of six, but the signatures (where they appear) are often incorrect. I won’t try to count the number of leaves (this is one of those satisfyingly hefty, tight books), but it has a thickness of 7 cm. The “Old Testament” (or, more properly, Hebrew Testament) comes to 714 numbered pages; the “New Testament” (that is, Christian Testament) is 218.

There are two unnumbered flyleaves at the front: one is the typical pastedown on the back of the front board, the other is blank. This is followed by a leaf with the illustrated title page on the recto and on the verso the copyright notice issued by John Davis, clerk of “the district of Massachusetts”, and an “Adver-tisement” (dated March 4, 1825) in which the editor justifies his decision to present pronunciations. This is followed by another prefatory leaf providing an “Explanatory Key to the Regular Native Sounds of the English Vowels” and some rules on “Irregular Vowel Sounds, Characters, &c.” on the recto and verso; the verso also contains a table of contents to the various books of both Testaments. Between the two Testaments there are two unnumbered pages: the first is headed “Family Record” and has a space for “Marriages”, two spaces for “Births”, and one for “Deaths”; the second has an entirely new illustrated title page for the “New Testament” on the recto and on the verso a “Table of Measures, &c.” and “A Table of Offices and Conditions of Men” (both to explain biblical terms for the reader).

Finally, at the back there is a leaf (numbered p. 219 and 220) of “Recommendations” -- similar to the endorsement quotations we often find on modern dust-jackets from famous or particularly qualified individuals. In this case the individuals are all pastors, rectors, and principals of schools and seminaries (all Protestant, almost entirely from the Boston area). At the very bottom of the verso of this page there are publisher’s advertisements for The Pronouncing Testament, The Pronouncing Introduction to Murray’s English Reader, and The Pronouncing English Reader. A manicule beneath these points to the following sentence: “In these editions of the above works, it has been the object of the publishers to elevate the standard of school-books, in typographical execution. The works have been beautifully stereotyped, and are printed on fine paper, and handsomely bound. N B. The School Committee of Boston have approbated the Pronouncing Introduction and the Pronouncing English Reader, and directed these editions to be used in the Publick Schools in the city.” Two blank fly-leaves and a paste-down conclude the book. The estimated value is $200 to $300.

The reason for an entirely separate title page at the head of the “New Testament” is that Alger had earlier printed (through the same publisher) the Pronouncing New Testament as a separate book in 1822.

The Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University states the following: “The reverend Israel Alger (1787-1825) graduated from Brown University in 1811, later receiving the A.M. degree and establishing a private school in Boston of which he was a master. He published a pronouncing New Testament in 1822 and a complete Bible in 1825, the later an octavo volume of 932 pages with thirty small engravings, two to a page, with frontispieces for each of the Testaments. The intention of Alger, stated in the advertisement for the New Testament was ‘to divide and accent the proper names, as they occur in the text, and in such a manner as will best show their true pronunciation [and thus] facilitate the just and proper reading go the Sacred Scriptures’. As an aid to pronunciation it met with such warm reception that it was kept in print for thirty-five years, the last edition appearing in 1861. The invention of stereotyping enabled the publisher to retain printing plates made from the pages of handset type for future editions...” The claim that the book contains 30 small engravings puzzles me, since my copy does not have these. I’m unable to locate any evidence of excised pages (as often happens with old books, prints are sometimes cut out to be sold or framed separately, often leaving the inner edge of the page still in the binding and a jump in pagination); perhaps mine is actually a later issue of the first edition (though why the publisher would want to remove illustrations is beyond me; usually subsequent issues and editions add illustrations).

Alger’s stated intention in developing “The Pronouncing Bible” was to enable readers of the book, particularly those who are not “men of science and elocution”, to be able to fluently read passages aloud without tripping over or misconstruing proper names, technical terms, or foreign words. His target audience included both “schools and families”. This practice was not isolated to works such as the Bible, of course (I have in my collection a first edition “pronouncing” Vicar of Wakefield, for example), but it does exemplify a particular moment in time when the reading public (especially for such canonical works as The Bible) was viewed as primarily patriarchal -- that is, a public in which the father/husband/teacher would read aloud to those who either could not read themselves or who could not fully “appreciate” the text if they were to read it silently. I find it slightly ironic that these patriarchal readers would, themselves, require a corrective aid (in the form of a pronunciation key) in order to assist them in carrying off their enterprise and to make them appear more educated.

In my copy there is little evidence of readership; there are no marginal marks or annotations that I have been able to spot (though one page in the Book of Joshua has its corner turned down, perhaps accidentally) and it is generally in good condition (though some pages are worn and there is foxing throughout; the slight spine splitting that occurs around the start of the "New Testament" section might suggest either that the book was often opened to this point or simply that, being near the middle, it was the weakest point of the book's hinge). Even the “Family Records” page is blank. This could bespeak either a lack of use or, conversely, extensive but highly careful (respectful) use. As noted above, the broken bit on the top of the spine suggests that it was frequently pulled off the shelf improperly. Two pages are torn and have been repaired with modern clear tape. The only mark of ownership is on the recto of the blank fly-leaf: at the top there appears a thick brown ink inscription reading “Jonathan Cowls” in a late 19th century hand.

The fact that this book once belonged to Jonathan Cowls will mean nothing to those of you who don’t live in the Amherst, MA area. In the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, however, the name of Cowls is significant. In 1731 Jonathan Cowls Sr. moved to Amherst (he helped found the town) and ten years later bought the farm that is still today the family homestead and business headquarters for Cowls Building Supply. He started a lumber harvesting and milling business that is today still run by the Cowls family (now 9th generation), making it the 12th oldest continuously-operating family-owned business in America. The Cowls family were Revolutionary War soldiers, farmers, builders of roads, and founders of churches in the western Massachusetts region throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Jonathan Senior’s son was Jonathan Junior (who founded the North Church in Amherst); his son was (surprisingly) also named Jonathan. Given the date of the book (1825) it was likely one of these two who owned my copy of the “Pronouncing Bible”.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. Any chance we can get a closer look at one of the pages with the pronunciation markings in the text? Can you get a sense, reading it aloud, if there was a particular accent the author favored?

    I agree the narrative format to the posts is much better than the more clinical method with which you began.