Sunday, August 30, 2009

"...for my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset..."

Listening to this week’s memorials to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, in the midst of the reflections upon the depth and significance of his legacy and the tributes to his generosity and compassion both as a legislator and as a person, I heard several references to a poem by poet and dramatist Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). This poem, the moving dramatic meditation of the king “Ulysses”, has had particular meaning for the Kennedy family -- it was his brother, President John F. Kennedy’s favorite verse and Ted quoted from it in his famed keynote (concession) speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. I don’t think many politicians in our current generation could not just fittingly borrow from a nineteenth century English poet but also use that poet to lead and inspire; in place of Tennyson, today we have empty political idioms and clichés that mean nothing to either the speaker or the listener -- mere placeholders for ideas rather than the ideas themselves.

As my own small gesture of remembrance to my state’s late senior Senator, this week’s book is The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate, published by Harper & Brothers of Franklin Square, New York, in 1870. As far as I can determine, this was the first appearance of the “complete” works of Tennyson (to date) in the United States. It came out at a time of great triumph and tragedy in the poet’s life -- in the two decades before its publication, Tennyson saw his appointment as poet laureate and the printing of some of his greatest and most well-loved works of poetry, but also the still-birth of his first child and the passing of his mother. Rather than attempt to distill the life and works of the great Victorian writer, I will refer you to the Literature Network and the Tennyson Page for more details about the man and his poetry.

This is a first edition, second issue of of Harper’s publication (the first issue was bound in red cloth and included “Timbuctoo”, the poem that won Tennyson first prize in the Cambridge University poetry contest); it includes several dozen poems, including over twenty poems that were first published in 1830 but did not reappear in subsequent editions of the The Poetical Works. Though the book’s actual value is only $8-$20, some unscrupulous dealers online are asking for over $100 for their copies of the first first.

The binding is pebbled green cloth with gilded title and decoration on the cover and spine and the publisher’s blind-tooled “HB” stamp on the back. The contents are organized roughly chronologically and includes additional sections of “Miscellaneous” poems and “Experiments”. At the end there are several pages of publisher’s advertisements (approximately one-hundred titles headed “Valuable Standard Works for Public and Private Libraries, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York; the “Gift-Book for 1870” titled The Favorite Poems of England; Thomas Carlyle’s History of Friedrich II; John Lothrop Motley’s The Dutch Republic and The United Netherlands; and Benson Lossing’s Field-Book of the War of 1812, described in the subtitle as “the Last War for American Independence”). Throughout there are black-and-white illustrations by various artists; some are apparently reproduced by plate printing and some in the old-fashioned manner with woodblocks.

The pages measure 16cm x 24.5cm and are of an inexpensive (and not entirely acid-free) paper. Running-titles on each page give the title of the poem that starts on that page and the pagination (which runs [i]-[viii] in the preliminaries and [9]-232 in the book itself; at the end, the publisher’s advertisements are paginated [1]-[8]). The book’s collational formula may be expressed as: [#2] [18]-158 2]; $1 [numeric]. Unfortunately, the condition of my copy is quite poor: the cover is bumped and stained slightly, and hanging to the spine by a thread (literally); the binding is coming apart (showing, again, the paste, stitching, and scrap-paper used to hold the spine together); many pages are folded, torn, chipped, water-stained, and bent; at least one page (33/34) is missing altogether. There is little foxing on the pages, though lots of grubby marks, suggesting it has been well-read.

Some of the poems have small, faint pencil marks (lines, dashes, x’s) showing that they had obviously attracted some early reader’s attention (and were, perhaps, being memorized). On the recto of the illustration leaf facing the title page there is an elegant, penciled inscription by the book’s very first owner, who evidently gave it as a Christmas gift to his wife:

Mary .E. Homer

From her Husband -

Henry Homer -

Dec 1870

Given the ubiquity of these names -- particularly in late nineteenth-century America -- I’ve had little success identifying the owners.

As for “Ulysses” itself (which you can find online in two audio versions: one read by Sir Lewis Casson and one a techno-remix of Casson’s reading, made by Dr. J), it was first published in 1842, following the death of one of Tennyson’s close friends. The poem’s counterpoise of mourning and hope, the delicate balance between the need to both grieve and celebrate life, seems an ideal fit to the story of the Kennedy family, with its own epic intermingling of adversity and accomplishment. The Literature Network states:

This noble poem, which is said to have induced Sir Robert Peel to give Tennyson his pension, was written soon after Arthur Hallam's death, presumably therefore in 1833. "It gave my feeling," Tennyson said to his son, "about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in 'In Memoriam'."

It is not the 'Ulysses' of Homer, nor was it suggested by the 'Odyssey'. The germ, the spirit and the sentiment of the poem are from the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's 'Inferno', where Ulysses in the Limbo of the Deceivers speaks from the flame which swathes him.

The passage in question from Inferno (xxvi.94-126) reads:

Neither fondness for my son nor reverence for my aged sire nor the due love which ought to have gladdened Penelope could conquer in me the ardour which I had to become experienced in the world and in human vice and worth. I put out into the deep open sea with but one ship and with that small company which had not deserted me.... I and my companions were old and tardy when we came to that narrow pass where Hercules assigned his landmarks.
'O brothers,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West deny not to this the brief vigil of your senses that remain, experience of the unpeopled world beyond the sun. Consider your origin, ye were not formed to live like Brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.... Night already saw the other pole with all its stars and ours so low that it rose not from the ocean floor.’

The word “Camelot” has been often summoned up to characterize, not just the Kennedy administration, but the entire aura of the Kennedy style of optimism, intelligence, and liberalism. With Senator Kennedy’s passing, I’ve heard commentators on the radio and Internet chirping rather hollowly about “the end of Camelot”. The very phrase betrays the ignorance of those who use it, for the entire point of Camelot is that it does not end -- Arthur was not the King once, but the Once and Future King; Camelot is not something in the past but an ever-sought after goal for the future. As Ted put it in 1980 and again in 2008: “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Or, as Tennyson put it in his 1830 “Morte D’Arthur”:

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere,
‘Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world;
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.’

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A 19th Century Transliteration of a 16th Century Treatise on Transliteration

Most people -- myself included -- usually buy books that either appeal to a specific content area or topic about which they have an interest or that have some common bibliographic trait. Even rare book collectors, whose highly particular areas of specialization often range from the bizarre to the more bizarre, tend to allow a single compulsion to dictate their buying habits. But there is something to be said for the occasional eclectic and meaningless purchase. This week’s book, for example, was something I grabbed at a used book store for a bargain; even though it is about something I know essentially nothing about, I thought that it would be an intriguing addition to my bookshelf and, as it turns, I was right in more ways than one.

The book is Hart’s Orthography and is a "reprint" of the sixteenth century phonetician and Chester herald John Hart’s 1569 An Orthografie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or painte thimage of manne’s voice, moste like to the life or nature (more specifically, it is a lithographed edition of the copy held by the British Museum -- today the British Library -- but transliterated, on which more below). It was published, sold by, and likely prepared, by Fred Pitman of the Phonetic Depot, at 20 Paternoster Row, London in 1850. As its name suggests, the firm Phonetic Depot specialized in texts presenting orthographic studies and transliterations of standard English works into specialized shorthand.

The book that is reprinted -- Hart’s Orthografie -- was originally published by William Sere “dwelling at the west ende of Paules [Churchyard], at the signe of the Hedge-hogge” (St. Paul’s Churchyard was the central book production and retail market for London from the start of English printing in the fifteenth century up until the devastating German blitz bombings of the 1940s). The original was probably imprinted by London printer Henry Denham. As the title suggests, the Orthografie proposed an inventive new system of writing that Hart felt would more accurately record the English language as it was spoken; his book set out the rules of this system and defended its need for sociological, pedagogical, and economic efficiency reasons.

The binding is a gray-brown cloth with Victorian style decorative blind tooling around the edges both front and back and a gilt title in the center of the front cover. The pages measure 9.5cm x 15cm and are in 4+ unsigned gatherings in duodecimo format. 

The pagination corresponds to the pages of the book being reprinted, beginning on the reprint title page (the second leaf after the edition title page) and runs [1]-78 with a blank flyleaf at the back. The final pastedown has almost entirely come up from the inside of the back board; the front cover is bumped on the corners and the spine is split so that, as with other books in my collection, the scrap-paper the printed used in the process of constructing the codex’s backbone is beginning to show (I can’t tell what the document once was but three identifiable phrases are “incorporates” “Freemen”, “of the Borough”, and “previous to the last”, all which suggest that it was a legal text). The spine damage is causing the book to open very loosely, though nothing is completely separated yet.

With the exception of segments of English and Latin text such as section and chapter headings, the dedication (to academic Jacob Bredan), the license and colophon, selected primary source quotations, and (most intriguingly) published marginal reference glosses, the entire text is written in what seems to be Pitman shorthand: the main text, the table of contents, the publisher’s prefatory note to the reader, the author’s note (titled, “To the doubtfull of the English Orthographie, John Hart, Chester Heralt, wisheth all health and prosperitie”), are all in Pitman, a system of writing developed by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897) in the early nineteenth century and that resembles a cross between cuneiform, Hebrew, Korean, and Martian. The book’s contents (after the table of contents, dedication, stationer’s letter, and author’s letter) are as follows:

Preface: “The Preface, wherein is brieflye conteyned the reasons, causes, commodities, summe and effect of this Treatise”. The sections in this chapter are: “The first commoditie for the unlearned natural English people”; “Secondly for straungers, or the rude country Englishmen which may desire to read English as the best sort use to speak it”; “Thirdly for cost and time saved”; “And last, for a helpe for the learned sort which desire to pronounce other tongues wright.”

First chapter: “What letters are, and of their right use”.

Second chapter: “How some men maintaine our abused Inglish Writing”.

Third chapter: “Of the divers vices which use maintaineth in our writing, and how they are particularly by reason confuted.”

Fourth chapter: “Of the number of our vowels, and of their auncient sounds, in which they are always used, in the newe maner hereafter: by which their perfite use, our present abused sounds of some of them are found to be Diphthongs.”

Fifth chapter: “The number of consonantes & breathes which we use in our speech, with the leaving of superfluous letters, and receyving of such other as we neede: with example of their right use.”

Sixth chapter: “Of the accidentes unto vowels, to weete, time, tune, and breath, with Diphthongs, and Triphthongs, and an order of distinction and pointing used thereafter.”

Seventh chapter: “An exersiz of dat huir iz sed: huer-in iz declard hou de rest ov de consonants ar mad bei dinstruments ov de moute: huire var o-mited in de premiser, for dat ui did not mur abiur dem.”

Eighth chapter: “/exampls hou serten uder naisons du sound der leters, bod in Hatin, and in der muder tung, derbei tu kno de beter hou tu pronouns der spires, and so tu vid dem as de du.”

(The original edition, and the table of contents in this book, indicate that there should actually be nine chapters; for some reason this was printed with only eight -- there is a Pitman shorthand notation in square brackets on the final page that may explain the missing chapter, but I cannot translate it.)

That's right. The last two chapter titles are written in what sounds, today, like a pidgin German-English language. This is, in fact, Hart’s proposed system for more accurately spelling English words. Though it sounds ridiculous to us today, this provides fantastic evidence as to how “proper” English actually sounded to a sixteenth-century Englishman (such as, for example, Shakespeare). Of course, we must take into account the fact that many of the phonemes had different sounds then than they do today, and many of the letters likely resulted in different aural effects. Nonetheless, Hart’s work offers a unique look at how English was undergoing radical changes, most notably the Great Vowel Shift that completely revolutionized the language, evolving it from Chaucer’s Middle English of the middle ages to the Modern English of the Renaissance. 

My careful readers will have noted that the book was published by Fred Pitman and is written in Pitman shorthand: I can’t imagine that this is a coincidence, but I have no idea who this man was -- one of Sir Isaac’s two sons was named Alfred but he wasn’t born until at least eleven years after this book was published (it is worth noting that Sir Isaac was one of ten siblings, none of whom I have been able to learn more about).

The original book was printed in Latin and standard English (with the exception of the last two chapters, which were -- as they are in Pitman’s reprint -- written in Hart’s orthography). In addition, the original changes the order of some of the preliminaries, moves some of the paratext to the back of the book, and includes a “table” of key terms and their location in the book (essentially an early index).

My copy -- as with so many of my books -- is rich with evidence of use. On the title page a late nineteenth century hand has inscribed in thin brown ink “H Ellis”. Another reader has thoroughly marked up chapters 2-6 (with some minor marks in the other chapters, including attempting phonetic interpretations of Hart’s orthography in the final chapter), writing out notes, reminders, and attempted translations of the Pitman in the margins with a gray pencil. This reader has made a note at the end of the book that seems to be dated “4 June 1868”.

About Hart, I can do little more than quote in full Vivian Salmon’s entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which provides also a good brief on the history of early modern orthographic scholarship:

Hart, John (c.1501–1574), herald and phonetician, belonged to a family of tenant farmers long settled at Northolt, near London; his father, John Hart, died about 1500. There are no records of his baptism and education, but his writings demonstrate that he was a well-read man, acquainted not only with classical languages, but also with several contemporary vernaculars. He may have spent some time at the University of Cambridge, since he had intellectual or personal links with three Cambridge scholars, two of whom, Sir Thomas Smith (d. 1577) and Sir John Cheke (d. 1557), were (like Hart) active in promoting spelling reform; a third, Sir William Cecil (d. 1598), was described by Hart as his ‘specially good master’. As a powerful figure in government circles, Hart's ‘master’ was in a good position to act as his patron, and he became by the 1550s a diplomatic courier, then in the 1560s an official of the court of wards and liveries and a herald pursuivant. He was finally promoted in 1567 to the highly prestigious rank of Chester herald at the College of Arms in London.

Hart wrote three treatises on spelling reform; the first (1551) was not published at the time; the second, An Orthografie (1569), was a more sophisticated version of this manuscript; and the third, A Methode (1570), instructs learners in the use of the ‘phonetic’ alphabet which Hart devised. A fourth work intended to provide a simpler alphabet was not completed. Hart proposed to reform English spelling because it was both inconsistent and irregular. A fairly standardized orthography had been developed in the fifteenth century by chancery scribes, whose obligation to send out legal documents, by now in English, to all parts of the country, and to speakers of regional dialects, required them to use a generally regular and comprehensible spelling system. But when Caxton set up his printing press in 1476, he abandoned the regularized orthography of the scribes—possibly because he had to employ foreign compositors—and his successors, even as late as 1551, were no more systematic.

Hart hoped to reform English orthography because it was an obstacle to the acquisition of literacy by, for example, protestants anxious to read the Bible for themselves in their quest for salvation. Furthermore, literate foreigners needed assistance in coping with the vagaries of English spelling, which were such a deterrent to comprehension. Hart's aim was to match graphs and sounds, taking as his standard the speech of the court and of London and its environs. Where necessary he provided new graphs where single characters representing single sounds were lacking in the existing alphabet, as with, for example, and . In Hart's system, one graph represented one sound and vice versa. He also explained, for the benefit of speakers of other dialects who needed to be conversant with the sounds of the standard language, how individual sounds were articulated. Consequently, he not only became a spelling reformer, but also developed into a phonetician of outstanding intelligence and insight.

Whereas the study of orthography in the classical tradition was based on the written representation of vowels, diphthongs, semi-vowels, and consonants (including a sub-category of mutes), Hart based his phonetic script on the spoken language, noting for the first time by any scholar several features of connected English speech, such as elision, assimilation, stress, and intonation; and in his study of individual sounds, he noticed such features as the aspiration which follows initial voiceless plosives, represented by Hart as in, for example, pheip, for ‘pipe’. These features are clearly visible in the phonetic transcription of some forty pages of text included in An Orthografie.

Hart was not the first English scholar to publish his ideas on spelling reform, since he was forestalled by Sir Thomas Smith, who published his De recta et emendata linguae anglicae scriptione in 1568, but he was the first (in 1551) to deal with it so subtly. Unfortunately his work did not meet with the lasting success it deserved, possibly because Richard Mulcaster published, in 1582, The First Part of the Elementarie, a proposal for reforming English spelling, without using new characters. It was based as far as possible on traditional and established spellings, and proved extremely popular, superseding Hart's more academic works.

Hart died in London on 16 July 1574, leaving a widow, Mary. She was still alive in 1578, when she presented a petition to Lord Burghley.

A final note about my book is worth making, and that is the question of scarcity. At least twelve research libraries list copies of the 1850 Pitman edition in their public catalogs: not an overwhelming number by most measures. A search of dealers reveals, surprisingly, nobody selling a copy of the 1850 edition (in 2009 Kessinger Publishing, a print-on-demand firm, made a reprint of the 1850 reprint available and these are not worth anything). In 1969, Scolar Press printed a octavo facsimile edition of Hart’s original (somewhat rare) and the Orthografie was also included in the two-volume John Hart’s Works on English Orthography and Pronunciation, edited by Bror Danielsson and published by Almquist & Wiksell of Stockholm in 1955-63 (very rare). I’m left, then, with an enigma: a book that seems quite lonely in modern collections, written in an alphabet I cannot understand, about a language no longer in use.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

22,000 Pages, 50 Volumes, 500 Works, and 5 Feet (and 6 inches)

“A big leather-bound volume makes an ideal razor strap. A thin book is useful to stick under a table with a broken caster to steady it. A large, flat atlas can be used to cover a window with a broken pane. And a thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.”   - Mark Twain

I can only speculate on what Twain would have done had he managed to get his hands on this week’s book. Or, rather, books.

This week’s item is actually 50 books, covering nearly 500 works of literature and critical essays across a span of approximately 22,000 pages, stretching for a total of five famous feet.

In the late nineteenth century, legendary Harvard president, chemist, and later ambassador to England Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) began frequently claiming that any person could obtain a full liberal education by simply dedicating 15 minutes every day to reading from a specific canon of books that could fit entirely onto a five foot-long shelf. In 1908, the publisher Peter Collier (of Collier’s Weekly and who specialized in publishing multi-volume sets of noted authors) challenged Eliot to prove his assertion. Eliot -- who was about to retire and was looking for a project to financially support him after Harvard -- collaborated with English professor William Neilson (who did most of the serious work of editing the texts and writing the introductions) and from 1909 (ironically, the same year Peter Collier died) to 1910, P. F. Collier & Son published the first edition of the Harvard Classics series -- or, as it has come to be known more colloquially, “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf”. More precisely, the total length of the 50-volume set comes to five feet and six inches.

The series was designed to be an entire college education course in a single set of books. As Neilson wrote: “The Five-Foot Shelf, with its introductions, notes, guides to reading, and exhaustive indexes, may claim to constitute a reading course unparalleled in comprehensiveness and authority.” The series was immensely popular, thanks in large part to Eliot’s celebrity and Collier’s aggressive marketing campaign. By 1929 approximately 350,000 complete sets had been sold; that’s 17.85 million volumes, 7.7 billion pages, and, of course, 1.93 million feet of books (that’s 365 miles, or roughly the distance from Boston, Massachusetts to Dover, Delaware). In 1917, Collier followed up on the series with an added twenty volume Classics of Fiction shelf, also selected by Eliot and a popular Junior Classics series followed for younger readers. Subsequent editions of the Harvard Classics appeared throughout the twentieth century, particularly into the 1930s; today a hardcover set is available from Easton Press and a paperback version from Kessinger. In 2001 the contents of the series were also made available online from Bartleby, where you will also find a full table of contents for the various volumes.

This ubiquity of publication, even of the first edition, combined with the fact that the set is not often broken up, has resulted in the fact that the series is not remarkably rare. According to literary critic Adam Kirsch -- whose 2001 article on the books for the Harvard Magazine is perhaps one of the best accounts of the story behind the Five Foot Shelf -- entire sets are often to be found on eBay for around $300, though many dealers are selling the full set now for between $400 to $1,000 and individual volumes for anything from $3 to $125. Randolph Holhut, in another well considered essay on the set, its shortcomings, and its relevance today, comments that he purchased the fifty-one volumes at a flea market for $5: “the literary bargain of the century,” he admits. Another book blogger remarks that she got 17 volumes for $20 and, amusingly, one of the commenters on her post adds that he actually came by his set because it was included as part of an antique bookcase he bought. At this point I should observe that my set arrived at my house stacked in a laundry basket, a free donation to Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase by one of my partner’s then-coworkers who needed the extra shelf space for books that she “actually would read”.

Each volume is hard-bound in pebbled blue cloth, with spine titles that look like they may have once been gilt but are now so worn as to appear like blind tooling. A white Harvard insignia is on the spines below the title of each volume and a white volume number (very often faded) is below that. The pages measure 12.5cm x 19.5cm and are of a firm, though not entirely acid-free stock with no evident watermarks. Each volume was printed in octavo, but the gatherings are not signed; the pagination runs variously, usually between 300 and 450 pages per volume, and each contains blank flyleaves front and back. Facing the title page in each volume is an illustrative plate. The title page itself includes a red stamp of the series insignia; many of the title pages also claim the volume is "Illustrated" but in each the only illustration is the initial plate facing the title page. According to the colophon found on the ultimate page of content, the books were designed by William Patten, who worked for the Collier Press.

Because Neilson very often used versions of texts based on other editors’ works, the copyright pages often provide dates, publishers, and editors antecedent to the Harvard Classics imprint. For example, the copyright notice on Volume 49, Epic and Saga, observes beneath the Collier copyright (1910) that “‘Beowulf’ is published by special arrangement with Professor Francis B. Gummere / Copyright 1909 / By the Macmillan Company”.

To help the printer keep his work in order, the foot of each title page has a small-font indication of the volume number, the series (“HC”), and a cryptic “I” or “A” (either a gathering mark -- though since the other gatherings are unsigned, this seems unlikely -- or perhaps some indication of the issue number). In some places the speed with which the machine-presses were run is suggested by occasional blurring caused by dancing type or running ink (see below). Overall, though, Patten and Collier did a solid job producing a sturdy set of books meant to be handled, consulted, and passed down through the generations.

I am having some difficulty ascertaining precisely how my set fits into the print run of the first edition of 1910. Many dealers and writers remark that their copies are bound in red cloth; mine is in blue. Most accounts of the set casually remark that the set consists of fifty-one volumes, not fifty (as mine does; Bartleby’s online version actually skips Volume 50 and goes straight from 49 to 51 -- for those interested, therefore, in reading the contents of this 50th edition, including Eliot’s informative remarks on his project’s intentions, a rough plain-text version is available online). In these instances Volume 51 is titled Lectures and consists of scholarly essays grouped into historically relevant disciplinary categories, to accompany the preceding volumes’ primary texts; these essays were mostly contributed by Eliot and Neilson’s colleagues at Harvard. My set’s Volume 50 consists of “The Editor’s Introduction”, a “Reader’s Guide” to the series (which provides an introductory paragraph to six disciplinary-based “courses” and then refers the reader to the appropriate volume and selection for relevant primary texts), and three indices (a first-line index for the verse works, a general index, and a chronological index). At the start of the volume is a profile photogravure portrait of Eliot (shown above). The 51st volume actually was appended to the series later, in 1914 (a 52nd volume with an entirely separate Reader/Study Guide appeared even later). Given all of this, I am inclined to view my set as a later issue of the 1910 edition, perhaps the second state.

There is apparently no marginalia in my copies, though I confess to only having given each volume a cursory glance-through. The books are generally in good condition, though the covers are often bumped, faded, or slightly stained. It is evident, despite their good shape, that some use of them has been made: several of the apparently more frequently read volumes (such as the volume on English Renaissance poetry, the index volume, and even the first volume of the set) have splitting spines within the binding and a few have scraps of paper left in places to apparently mark a reader’s place.

Eliot's series has often been raked across the coals of political correctness and damned to the pits of academic inconsequence for being one more instrument of deadwhitemaledness domination of the western literary canon. There are no women writers in all 22,000 pages and nearly all of the men who are included come from Europe (and most of those from England). In addressing how he chose what he chose (see his remarks in Volume 50, to which I have linked above) Eliot was candid in some respects, but in other places it seems unfair to anachronistically apply modern standards of equitable and reasonable inclusion to an academic who could not help but be a product of his times. This does not excuse the absence of more diverse writers and thinkers from the series, but it has served as a very fruitful opening for modern commentators to build on Eliot and Neilson’s work and to critically question how we today might go about attempting a similar project in our own time. We have responded with ideas as varied as Allen Ruppersberg’s artistic take on the idea and NPR’s democratically-structured enumeration of texts. Recent commentators have noted, in addition, that Eliot had no compunctions about denying many deadwhitemale writers and thinkers from inclusion despite the fact that today we consider them essential: there is no Freud, no Nietzsche, no Marx, no Aristotle, no Aquinas, no Hegel.

In sum, the series reveals more about Eliot than it does about “western civilization”, or, as put by Christopher Beha, author of The Whole Five Feet, an account of his undertaking to read the entire series: “They provide a picture not just of the Classics themselves but of the world -- northeastern America in the first decade of the 20th Century -- that complied them.” In the included works we see Eliot’s political biases towards libertarianism and stoicism in the selection of texts on statecraft and governance, his academic biases in his preference for humanistic essays about science rather than actual texts of science, his subjective assessment of literature and poetry with practical applications as having greater value than that with mere aesthetic attractions, and his preference for the personal and autobiographical over the empirical, the imaginative, and the abstract in almost every category. (Kirsch notes that Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography occupies the prime place of Volume I and suggests that perhaps this was Eliot’s “ideal work of philosophy”: “a man overcoming obstacles, doing useful work, going to bed early, and rising healthy, wealthy, and wise”.)

Inevitably, the most usual attraction of the Harvard Classics -- like any massive work of writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary or The Bible -- is either in the marathon attempt to read the entire work or the simple abandonment of the work to the shelf as mere wall-dressing to present the facade of learning (or, as Finley Peter Dunne put it, "Th' first thing to have in a libry is a shelf. / Fr'm time to time this can be decorated with lithrachure. / But th' shelf is th' main thing"). There are, of course, other possibilities; for Boston journalist David Mehegan the series became a tangible, moving memorial for his deceased grandfather; for Malcolm X they became a means to transform his time in prison into an opportunity to explore the history and culture of his oppressor; for Bing Crosby in the 1956 film High Society they became a short-cut joke as a way of revealing something about his character. But in all these uses, there seems always to be the underlying tension between the sense that one ought to pick up the books and read through them and the sheer, daunting weight of all that paper and ink. 

As Twain put it, “A classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

John and Rue Carpenter's Music "Therapy" for Children, Turn-of-the-Century Style

Earlier this week, I came across the following composer’s instruction written into a piece of piano music: “Bigger, with Emotion”. Struck by the imprecision and mild flakiness of this instruction, my partner and I discussed the delicate balance between musical guidelines that are too vacuous and vague and those that are too rigid and precise. In the spirit of that conversation, this week’s book offers a turn-of-the-century look at how clever those instructions can be. Like some other books I’ve featured, it was a gift that I gave my partner because of her interest in music, early childhood education, and, more specifically in this case, music "therapy" for children.

The intriguing title is Improving Songs for Anxious Children, with words, music, and art by John and Rue Carpenter (this is the title page’s claim, but in the book itself the art is all signed “RwC” and the music is all signed “J. A. C.”; it is likely that they both collaborated on the lyrics). This copy is the third edition, published by G. Schirmer of New York in 1913, and distributed by The Boston Music Company. The first edition was published by A. C. McClurg & Co. of Chicago in 1904, under the title When Little Boy’s Sing (which volume 45 of The Critic described as “happy in conception and pleasant in arrangement and decoration”) and included twelve songs. In 1907 McClurg published the second edition, which added twelve more songs and changed the title to the more gender-neutral Improving Songs for Anxious Children (of this, the New York Times, in its November 16 “Books for the Babies” column on children’s books available for the holidays, reported that it was “a charming book with the quaintest of pictures and rhymes,, to which the latter may be sung”). In 1913, Schirmer obtained the rights to seventeen of the songs from the collection and issued the third edition. Left out of this final version were songs such as “Aspiration”, “The Thunderstorm”, and, happily, “Happy Heathen”.

As John Carpenter’s biographer, Howard Pollack, observes, these songs were all written shortly after the John and Rue’s wedding, probably in 1901 and 1902. “The couple intended these songs as household music for the edification of children,” writes Pollack, “in the tradition of such French songbooks as La Civilité and Puérile et honnête, which the composer’s mother had sung to him as a child. The songs also resembled Yvette Guilbert’s Chansons de la vieille France (illustrations by A. Roubille), which the composer kept in his library.” (42-3)

One thing that the study of book history teaches is the importance of judging a book by its cover and this was no exception. Indeed, it was the beautiful, over-sized cover that drew me to this book in the store in the first place. The binding is hardback deep yellow cloth with a yellow, abstract floral patterned paper pasted over all but the spine edge on both the front and back boards; the title and author credits are on another pink slip of paper pasted on top of the floral paper. The pages measure a terrific 35.5cm x 27cm and are of a mid-weight semi-gloss stock. There are no gathering signatures, but the book was printed in oblong octavo (not, as most online dealers inexplicably claim, quarto) and is paginated from the half title page to the end of the content, 1-50. A final unnumbered white leaf of the same stock ends the book and there are blank flyleaves conjugate with the paste-downs at front and back, made of a pink construction paper. A printer’s mark (24045) appears on the copyright imprint (on the verso of the title page) and in the lower inside corner of the half title; I believe that this is the first, or possibly second, printing of the third edition (which it seems went through three issues).

The book would have been handled by adults, playing the music for children, and so the condition is generally better than it would have been had the book been handled by children. At the second opening, between the half title and title pages the spine has split, causing some of the gatherings to hang loose, but none of the leaves are separated. The corners of the front and back boards are bumped considerably and there is some chipping to the fore-edge of the boards. Two leaves (pp. 29/30 and 41/2) have tears in the lower margin (not affecting the text) and the upper stitch of the four-stitch binding (evident in the pp. 24-25 opening) has come undone. There is no owner’s marginalia. Few dealers seem to be selling the 1904 or 1907 copies, which suggests that they are markedly rare (the 1904 edition is valued at $300 to $400). The 1913 edition is slightly less rare, though still worth collecting (valued at between $50 and $100).

I’m not sure what the term “Anxious” in the title is meant to suggest about the book’s target audience, but the seventeen songs in the collection are each aptly titled. In their order in the book, they are:

Practising [as in, practicing playing music]
For Careless Children
Red Hair
The Liar
A Wicked Child
Maria, -- Glutton
Good Ellen
A Plan [to terrorize his parents when he grows up]
Making Calls
When the Night Comes

Many of the songs present first the lyrics in the form of a poem, accompanied by a water-color illustration of the central conceit, followed by the musical notation (written for piano with accompanying lyrics) which is often decorated with additional illustrations on the theme.

To return to the original premise of this post, however, one of the more amusing features of the music are the instructions Carpenter provides at the start of each song. Most musicians are familiar with the traditional Italian tempo and mood directives such as “Largo”, “Capriccio”, “Vivace”, etc. Carpenter, however, uses English adverbs carefully chosen to correspond to the song’s subject. Thus, for example, the song “Stout” is to be played “Heavily”, the song “Practising” to be played “Slowly and painfully”, “Vanity” is “Languidly” played in 6/8 time, “Humility” must be played “Slowly and without display”, “A Plan” (in which the narrator plots to get a horse and gun and become a reckless cowboy) is to be “Loud and manfully” played, and, of course, “Good Ellen” is to be played “In Moral Tone”. Whether or not these instructions are useful to the musician is debatable (as a pianist, I would have no idea how to play something “morally”), but they make for fun reading nonetheless.

The couple responsible for this book deserve some notice as well. John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951; shown here in 1932), considered “the most American of our composers” by Walter Damrosch, was one of the first composers to incorporate popular music and jazz into his orchestral works. Inspired first by Debussy and Stravinsky, he went on to write ballets on modern themes (one titled “Skyscrapers”) and cinematic music as well (his “Adventures in a Perambulator” was meant to be the score for the sequel to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”). Carpenter loved to draw material from American icons, ranging from the poetry of Langston Hughes (used as lyrics) to the George Herriman comic strip “Krazy Kat” (made into a ballet). His first wife and the woman responsible for the art in Improving Songs for Anxious Children was Rue Winterbotham (?-1931), a notable designer, artist, and art collector, who served as a leading figure in Chicago’s art world in the 1920s.

This collection of music was the Carpenter’s first published collaboration, and it was well received and, for its time, slightly unconventional. Pollack writes: 

Although somewhat coy and precious, these children’s songs exhibit a gentle irony free from the more conventional sentimentality of Carpenter’s earlier music. Some of the songs even register a mild sort of anti-Victorian protest, for instance, the arbitrariness of gender roles (“Red Hair”) or the agony of being seen and not heard--or fed (“Making Calls”). Others...project a dreamy, visionary utopia where “little boys / Can hop and play / the whole long day / And never be scolded for noise”. The charmingly deadpan humor of Improving Songs also strikes a distinctly American note, making the collection a turn-of-the-century precursor to the world of Our Gang and Peanuts [and a late contemporary of Peck’s Bad Boy]. The music contains many trademarks not only of the contemporary vernacular but of of popular American music yet to come. The poignant “Making Calls”, for instance, has the sweet yearning of a late Gershwin tune, while the childlike bravado of “A Plan” anticipates Richard Rodgers. Even the simply lullaby “When the Night Comes” has a slightly jazzy flavor, including a final major triad with an added sixth, a chord whose unusual spacing emphasizes the music’s modal ambiguity. At the same time, these songs exhibit Carpenter’s characteristic refinement, in particular the beautifully Schumannesque “Spring”.

Of Rue’s artwork, Pollack states that the “elegantly cartoonish illustrations perfectly match the music and texts.” But Pollack also seems to mistake some of the Carpenters' subtle humor. For example, the narrator of “Red Hair” is clearly a little boy whose red hair and feminine clothing -- no doubt imposed upon him by his parents -- have made him remarkably self-conscious about his gender image. Pollack, however, fails to see this and writes, instead: “The little girl who wants to get rid of her red curls and have straight black hair ‘like other boys and not like silly girls’ has enormous bows on her shoes, her dress, and her hair; even her dog has bows!”

As noted earlier, however, the Carpenter’s collection of children’s songs went over well, even being adapted for concert performances by orchestras in Chicago and New York throughout the first two decades of the century. The critical magazine Current Opinion praised the works: “Absolutely unqualified is Carpenter’s triumph in the realm of children’s songs.... Both verses and music are by Mr. Carpenter, it is understood. [sic] They reveal a subtle insight into child psychology and an intangible something we may call the comic spirit in music. These songs are...vivid and colorful.” Even more flattering was the letter poet Louis Untermeyer sent Carpenter after his wife started singing the music at home: “If your other work has half the originality and strength of these children’s songs we both believe...that no writer that America has yet produced can equal you in eloquence and sincerity.” And according to Kate Douglas Wiggin, the songs in Improving Songs for Anxious Children were quite simply “among the wittiest of their kind in all musical literature”.

What so many of these contemporary reviews neglected to mention, however, was the role Rue (shown here, on the left of the photo, with her friends on a beach in France in the 1920s) played in John’s musical output. She did more than just add artwork to their book. As Pollack points out, she was “the guiding genius behind her husband’s work” and that it was only after their marriage “that the sentimentality that marred his juvenilia from the 1890s” evaporated and his style both matured and gained its “verve” and “fun”. “Rue helped bring Carpenter -- literally and figuratively -- into the twentieth century,” Pollack concludes. And, of course, without her hand in the partnership we would not have this beautiful, witty book of children’s songs to collect, peruse, and enjoy today.