Sunday, May 17, 2009

Learning to Speak Proper English...Goldsmith-Style

As mentioned in a previous posting, one of my favorite bookstores in the Amherst area is Valley Books. According to the local paper, Valley Books will, after 34 years, be closing its store in July and switching entirely to online sales only. I understand the economic necessity of this, but will miss having the chance to wander aimlessly through their stacks, coming away with a small haul of treasures for myself and family members. Wandering stores that sell new books is sterile compared to wandering used book stores (and I say this as someone who has worked as a manager in a new book store); the nearly infinite range of opportunities, of stumbling across a neglected treasure, of purely random browsing rely upon having a store like Valley Books -- not in a searchable online format, but in the real, material sense.

One of the most important changes in our society as we shift to digital, web-based retail services is that we’ve become increasingly close-minded in understanding our own wants. I say “close-minded” not in the sense of “ignorance” but in the sense of being blind to associative connections between objects and the possibility of unregulated discovery. Some website features, such as Amazon’s “Customers who bought this also bought....” box, attempt to emulate the feeling of browsing in a store, but these are, ironically, restrictive in their universality, suggesting that my individual tastes as a reader are identical to everyone else’s or that I would like them to be identical (though I suppose that by commodifying our tastes like this, corporations can more easily manipulate our consumer demands); perhaps the closest things to random discovery online is the StumbleUpon application, but even this is -- like ads on Google, Facebook, or Hulu -- tailored to the user’s “preferences” and relies upon user feedback for its site aggregation and hierarchization. Paradoxically, while the Internet opens up access to a world’s-worth of information and materials, it demands that we move linearly, orderly, and teleologically in order to realize that access 

This is on top of the fact that random browsing -- truly random browsing and not the carefully cued consumer manipulation of the “Customers who bought this...” box -- works upon the premise of the unknown (as opposed to web-searches, which, again ironically, work strictly upon the premise of the exactly known). And from that sense of the unknown, that sense of the possibility of completely unique discovery, comes the joy of browsing a used books store.

But now to contradict my curmudgeonly digression... For this week’s book I’m going to take a look at a volume that I purchased through that den of bibliographical risk: eBay.

This book is Irish essayist, physician, poet, dramatist, and novelist Oliver Goldsmith’s classic sentamentalist tale The Vicar of Wakefield, “The First Edition. With Accents.” That period after “Edition” is misleading because, of course, this is not the true first edition (which appeared in 1766, four years after Goldsmith finished writing it). This edition was published in Halle, Germany in 1787 and includes accent markings (not unlike the pronunciation markings I’ve written on previously) intended to help a reader share the work aloud. Several other sites online, including libraries and dealers, confuse the word “Halle” on the book’s title page with the name of the publisher and wrongly ascribe the publication location to London, probably because the book is in English and the true first edition was published in that city by Francis Newbery; this error is significant if my theory on the reason for the inclusion of accent marks (below) is true. The book was printed and sold by Friedrich Daniel Francke. Its assessed value is between $100 and $150.

As the title page claims, this is the “first edition” of the novel to use accents, but this is somewhat misleading as it was also the only edition to do so. I can find no information as to why Francke published the book “with accents” or who supplied the markings, but given that it was published in Germany it seems likely that the intention was for readers to use the book as a language development tool. Native German speakers who were acquiring a proficiency in English could use the book as a guide to inflections, with the added benefit of reading and becoming familiar with one of the most popular novels in England at the time. My suspicions may be confirmed by the intriguing marginalia in my copy (on which more below).

The book is bound in half-brown leather with brown paper pasted over the boards; on the spine there are five raised bands, the title, and some elegant floral tooling, all of which has faded considerably. As usual, the top edge of the spine is flaring a bit from being pulled from the shelf over the last 220 years. In addition, the paper on the boards is heavily worn away, particularly in the spots along the front edge where a reader’s hand would hold the volume open. This is just one piece of evidence, amongst many, that reveals that this particular book was much used in its day. There are a total of 164 leaves in the book; its collational formula may be expressed as 8o: [#][a1]-[a6]A1-[U4][ϗ]; $5. Some dealers online list the book as 12o, which is incorrect. The catchwords across the sheets and the pagination are consistent, which suggests Francke’s shop was competent in its craftsmanship; the use of “a” for the initial gathering’s signature, followed by “A” for the second gathering, shows that -- as was usual practice -- the first gathering of preliminaries for the book was printed last. The lack of the final two leaves of gathering “a”, combined with the presence of a cancellans stub between [a6] and A1 suggests that leaf [#] was actually part of sheet “a” (leaf a7 or a8). Each leaf measures 4in x 7in, with four vertical chain-lines separated by 1in each; the paper is rag linen typical of the period, with no evident watermarks. The final leaf is evidently an insertion as the paper is substantively different from the rest of the book and the six chain-lines run horizontally, separated by 1in; the edge of an unidentifiable watermark is just visible along the outer edge of the page.

 The book begins with an initial flyleaf blank on the recto and with a print, on the verso, of the vicar, Dr. Primrose, coming across a rural couple making out on a pile of hay. Gathering “a” is paginated as [I]-XII. The unsigned a1 presents the title page on the recto (with a rather dramatic print of Burchell rescuing Sophia from drowning); a2r-v is the author’s “Advertisement”, which lacks the accents used in the rest of the book; a3-[a6] provide the “Contents” of the chapters (again, without accents). The novel itself runs from A1-[U4] and is paginated 1-312; the bottom portion of U4v contains a daunting paragraph of “Errata”, nearly all of which correct errors in the placement or style of accents rather than actual readings in the book, indicating that the volume was carefully proofed at the print-shop by whoever it was that added the accents (a dashed pen mark through the errata list shows that a reader knew to read it first and take its instructions into account before or while reading the book; the mark was made as a reminder to the reader that he or she had checked the passages listed and, indeed, an inspection of the words cited in the errata list shows that, throughout the book, the same ink that made the dashed line has quietly made all the corrections called for by the list). The final leaf ([ϗ]) is blank on both sides and, as noted above, was an addition to the volume prior to binding.

Goldsmith's novel is in the manner of a fictitious memoir (hence the subtitle, “A Tale, Supposed to be written by Himself”) and was one of the most popular novels of the early nineteenth century. It was particularly influential amongst other writers, many of whom either directly or indirectly referenced it in their own novels (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, and Johann Wolfgang van Goethe all mention it in their works). While the plot is likely to strike many modern readers as romantic melodrama typical of the period, there is a heavy undercurrent of satiric humor that casual readers often overlook; in addition, Goldsmith innovated in his use of non-narrative literary forms within the book in order to expand beyond the limitations occasioned by the book’s first-person point-of-view (these include devices such as poems and sermons).

According to Washington Irving’s Oliver Goldsmith: a Biography, Goldsmith (1730-1774; shown here) had no intention of publishing the work but, having been arrested by his landlady for failure to pay his rent, he eventually gave the manuscript to his friend Dr. Samuel Johnson, who on his behalf sold it to a stationer for sixty pounds. (Interesting side note: the stationer was Francis Newbery, whose uncle, John, is credited with first making children’s literature a sustainable part of the English book trade and after whom the famed Newbery Medal is named.)

As noted above, this copy has been well-read: the peeling and wearing of the paper on the boards corresponds to where a hand would hold it open, there are an abundance of fingerprints and grubby smudges on many of the pages, page-corners in places show creases from having been turned-down, and there is marginalia from several different hands throughout.

On the inside of the front cover a thick brown ink has written:

G.C.M. 1790

29t. Nov

Below that the same ink and hand has scribbled “36” and a series of carefully scribed letters in gothic black letter that seem to read “H Smith”. Running perpendicular beneath this, in carefully formed pencil, are another set of gothic letters that seem to spell the same thing. An owner previous to this also used the inside of the front cover for a set of mathematic figures. A fainter ink, and different hand, has written “Grey” (“Greof”? “Gres”?) here as well.

There are at least three, or possibly four, hands that occur throughout the book. One of these is incredibly faint, in pale pencil, and can barely be seen making illegible marginal and interlinear annotations only occasionally; it was also used to signal readerly boredom in some places, tracing and shading letters faintly on some pages (including the word “Wakefield” on the title page). It first appears in the form of an illegible caption written beneath the illustration facing the title page. In other places it has underlined a word and offered a (now illegible) note in the margin, usually of about one word in length and thus suggesting a translation or synonymic gloss.

Another hand is in a darker ink and first appears with the inscription “Henry and Mariae von” beneath the title page illustration. This ink (or one similar to it) appears frequently in the book (mostly within the first 120 pages), marking crosses next to passages (perhaps place-holders; some of them include the word “Hier”, which is German for “here”), underlining words, and making notes in the margins. Most of these notes appear to be vocabulary-related, providing synonymic glosses for some words and, in many cases, German equivalents for Goldsmith’s words (it took me some time to figure out why I couldn’t understand any of the transcriptions I was making from the annotations; only after I returned to write up the book’s publication origin -- noted above -- did it occur to me that the language was not English). The same hand appears doing the same thing, but in a lighter ink, in many passages (some of the same ones where the darker ink was used).

Another hand appears only once in the book (as far as I can tell) and suggests that, if the volume was indeed in Germany in the last decade of the eighteenth century, it was possibly in this country approximately a century later. In the upper margin of page 25, a cursive English hand has written in pencil: “John Smith April 6th 1893”. Perhaps John was related to the “H Smith” whose name appears on the inside of the front cover. Given the Anglicized name and the use of the American date format, I suspect that by the last decade of the nineteenth the book had made its way to the United States (or, at least, into the hands of an American owner).

Needless to say, the name “John Smith” is a ridiculously difficult one to trace historically, and so the knowable provenance of this particular book will have to end where I began this post: in the muddled world of online book sales, from whence -- via “Father Landson” of Texas -- it has come to reside in Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase.

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