Sunday, June 14, 2009

"And now I sit and muse on what may be...": A First Illustrated Edition Longfellow Poem

This time of year sees high school and college graduations all around the country, and it was no different in our neck of the woods. Since so much attention is given to the graduates going through their rite of passage, I decided that with this week’s book I’d turn the attention back to the other players in this annual drama: the parents. The book is, once again, not technically part of my collection, though it does currently reside in Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase.

The book itself is actually a single poem, accompanied by 42 illustrations, and typographically stretched out to fill a whole volume. The poem is The Hanging of the Crane by the American literary icon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and this was its first appearance in book format, published by the noted Boston firm of James Osgood in 1875 and printed by the Welch, Bigelow & Co. University Press. It had first been published in the March 28, 1874 issue of the New York Ledger, though Longfellow had probably written it for private circulation amongst his acquaintances before that date because it was only through the intervention of his friend Samuel Ward that Robert Bonner, proprietor of the Ledger, bought the manuscript from the poet for the staggering sum of three thousand dollars (nearly $57,000 in modern currency). Today the Osgood edition is not extremely rare, though it is quite collectible; most dealers value it at approximately $40 to $90 (or $200-$400 if signed by the poet). 

The poem appeared in many later editions and anthologies, perhaps the most significant reprinting being the 1907 Houghton Mifflin edition to celebrate the centennial of Longfellow’s birth (Houghton Mifflin was the firm that Osgood’s company eventually became; Osgood itself had previously been the legendary Ticknor and Fields, publishers of nearly every nineteenth century American author of note, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau). The 1907 edition included illustrations by Florence Swan that were based on the Longfellow’s house on Craigie Street in Cambridge, where Longfellow himself hung his own fireplace crane in 1843.

This copy was rebound after the turn of the century for an early owner, and while some collectors would consider it therefore less valuable I find the binding -- green cloth boards with green leather corners and spine, with gilded edges and elaborate tooling and marbled paper on the inside -- both tasteful and elegant. The rebinding was done by J. W. Meyer & Company, a New York bindery located at 147 West 24th Street in the first decades of the twentieth century and that had gone into business in 1905. Knowing the importance of original bindings, Meyer’s craftsman preserved the original leather exterior of the first binding -- rich green all over with sumptuous illustrations and gilded decoration -- and pasted the cover, spine, and back onto extra leaves at the back of the book. Overall, the book is in excellent condition.

The pages measure 15cm x 21.5cm and, with the exception of the leaves inserted by the second binder (two at the front and five at the back), are of a heavy, almost card-like, stock with brightly gilded edges. Providing a collation of the book is made more complicated than normal for several reasons: it looks as if the sheets were not printed in the customary fashion but were printed with two conjugate leaves (that is, one oblong sheet) impressed at a time and then quired together into two large gatherings; this, however, does not account for the rebinding, which could have resulted in a reconfiguration to the original gatherings (and may explain the apparent loss of a leaf at the start of the book).

Many dealers online describe the book’s construction as octavo, but this seems merely conjectural to me. The pagination of the book reveals that an initial leaf was apparently lost in the rebinding: after the two leaves inserted by the binder, the preliminaries run [iii]-x, with [i-ii] as the missing initial leaf. After the preliminaries there are two unnumbered leaves and then the start of the poem proper, which runs [15]-64. The inserted leaves at the end are also unpaginated. This is the first time I’ve seen a book in which the miniscule Roman numerals used to paginate the preliminaries are continued numerically with the Arabic numerals used to paginate the book’s contents; I don’t know if this was part of this book’s unique design or a regular trait of the printer or publisher’s.

There are no marginalia in the contents of the book, though there is one instance of an owner’s annotation on the recto of the second inserted leaf at the front. A neat italic hand, using dark brown ink, has gifted the book with an amusing little inscription:

November 5th, [19]58

To Finn & Esther and their brood!

A token of thanks for being a real live family for me -- 

An old book for your new home from the boy who wouldn’t stay for dinner, but did stay a month plus.

As Ever

Mike better known as “George”

In addition to the inscription, Mike apparently also removed a previous owner’s bookplate from inside the front cover, where the residue of the label’s glue is still faintly visible.

The book’s preliminaries include a plate showing a dinner party, facing (through an intervening tissue leaf) the title page (with the copyright notice on the verso), followed by four pages of a “List of Illustrations” giving the illustrations’ caption, artist, and page number; after this there is an illustrated half-title followed by the poem itself, divided into its customary 7 sections. All of the engravings were done by the English emigrant poet, political essayist, Chartist, and artist William James Linton and by artist, book designer, and newspaper man A. V. S. Anthony, who also designed the book and supervised its printing. I assume that Anthony was brought into the project by Portsmouth, NH native poet and novelist Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who met Anthony when the two were working at the  New York Illustrated News (Aldrich as editor and Anthony as art manager), though Anthony had a closet relationship with Osgood’s firm in his own right, working as an editor on a youth newspaper the firm published and providing engravings for other books, including John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1870 Ballads of New England. Aldrich is significant because, according to an account given by Aldrich in the preface to the 1907 centennial edition, he was the cause of the poem’s composition:

One morning in the spring of 1874, Mr. Longfellow came to the little home in Pinckney Street [in Boston], where we had set up housekeeping in the light of our honeymoon. As we lingered a moment at the dining-room door, Mr. Longfellow turning to me said, “Ah, Mr. Aldrich, your small, round table will not always be closed. By and by you will find new young faces clustering about it; as years go on, leaf after leaf will be added, until the time comes when the young guests will take fight, one by one, to build nests of their own elsewhere. Gradually the long table will shrink to a circle again, leaving two old people sitting there alone together. This is the story of life, the sweet and pathetic story of the fireside. Make an idyl of it. I give the idea to you.” Several months afterward, I received a note from Mr. Longfellow in which he expressed a desire to use this motif in case I had done no thing in the matter. The theme was one peculiarly adapted to his sympathetic handling, and out of it grew “The Hanging of the Crane”. 

Anthony and Linton’s engravings are based on the work of two artists: painter and book illustrator (often used by Osgood’s firm, including for their 1875 edition of Whittier’s “Mabel Martin”) Mary A. Hallock, whose work supplied 28 of the plates, and the great American landscape painter Thomas Moran, whose work supplied 14. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the landscape and nature illustrations are by Moran; all of the interior and portrait illustrations are by Hallock. Besides that art, the book includes numerous emblematic and ornamental “vignettes” drawn by illustrator (and Civil War veteran, wounded June 14, 1863 during the 133rd Regiment of New York Volunteers attack on Port Hudson, LA) John J. Harley.

The “sweet and pathetic poem of the fireside” (to use the Riverside edition’s description), as suggested by Aldrich’s anecdote, centers around the plight of the empty-nester. It takes as its core motif the old house-warming custom of installing the “crane” (the hinged metal arm that held cooking pots over the fire) into the fireplace; the celebration of the hanging of the crane was symbolic, usually the last preparation before moving in and transforming the house (to use the cliché) into a home. For those of you interested in reading it, the full text is available online.

According to Alma Bount, in her Intensive Studies in American Literature, the structure and evocative mood of the poem is elegantly simple:

Part I is introductory, and represents the poet as remaining after the guests have spoken their good wishes and departed, and as sitting before the fire to dream about the coming life of the family just established. The other six parts contain the six pictures of home life that drift through the mind of the dreamer, and carry the founders of the family in his imagination from youth to old age. The table is represented as the gathering place, partly form the suggestion of Longfellow’s words to Aldrich, and partly because the entire family meets more often at the table than anywhere else. Each picture is preceded by a prelude of six lines. This breaking of the poem by preludes would not be good in a continuous narrative or description, but is an excellent device for keeping separate a series of six pictures scattered over a period of fifty years. (164) 
[The] closing part is remarkable for the way in which it gathers up the earlier parts, and rounds the poem into rhetorical completeness.... The figure in [the final] lines refers to the apparent endlessness of the home the parents have founded, one generation following another in their imagination, through ages to come. (167) The poem as a whole is quiet and meditative -- it is a series of six dream pictures. The poet writes tenderly, as one who has lived through these scenes and loves the memory of them. This poem would earn for Longfellow the title of “Poet of the Home and the Fireside,” if he had no other claim upon it. The poem is true to life, inspires the imagination, and pleases the artistic sense by its beauty of expression. (167-8)

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