Sunday, March 28, 2010

Attribution of an Anonymous 1903 Book and More Unscrupulous Dealers' Shenanigans

Modern books by anonymous authors typically don’t remain anonymous very long. But occasionally a twentieth or twenty-first century volume crops up that still compels dealers and scholars alike to scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders, and take a best-guess approach. And in some cases -- as in this week’s book -- it seems that some dealers take advantage of a book’s anonymous authorship in an attempt to foist a famous (and hence expensive) author’s name onto the volume.

This week’s book is the anonymous The Literary Guillotine, a satiric critique of fashionable (and not-so-fashionable) literary styles, writers, and books of the turn-of-the-century. Written in the style of a series of criminal trials held “before the Literary Emergency Court holden in and for the District of North America”, the principle characters of the book are Mark Twain and Oliver Herford (both sitting as judge of the court) and Charles Battell Loomis (for the prosecution). One dealer (Sumner & Stillman) provides the following amusing reference from the book:

One is a case brought by Henry James against Mary Baker Eddy, claiming infringement of patent because her new book seems to bear his level of obscurity. In finding for the defendant Eddy, Mark Twain and the other two judges note, “The testimony does not show an infringement of patent on the defendant's part. On the contrary, an examination of the works of the defendant shows clearly that her obscurity is of her own invention, beyond the mental capacity of mere man. In reading the complainant's [James's] later writings, one cannot, it is true, by any effort of the mind understand the separate patent obscure sentences; but at the end one has a fairly foggy idea of the lack of progression of the story.”

The book was published in London and New York by John Lane, of the London-based Bodley Head, in October 1903; it had first appeared, however, in 1902 in the magazine The Reader, published by The Reader Publishing Company. No editions subsequent to that of 1903 were published. The appearance of the 1902 serial publication date on the copyright page has confused some dealers, leading them to think that their copy of the 1903 edition is actually a second edition. However, the phrasing used to identify the publication date is consistent with that known to be used by the Bodley Head to indicate its true firsts at the time. The book was printed by the important Boston, MA firm The Heintzemann Press -- described in the New York Times (25 May 1901) as a distinctive, even revolutionary, printer of “strength and...distinction”. It is an intriguing book, though by no means extraordinarily rare;

Heintzemann printed the book in duodecimo format. It was issued with uncut pages but all in my copy have been cut by a previous owner. The pages measure 12cm x 18cm and are of a firm (though now slightly aged) stock with vertical 2.25cm chain-lines (no watermark); pages facing red ink have picked up faint leaching-over of the color. The running-titles include a somewhat fancy decorative border. The pagination runs as follows: [i-ii], decorative flyleaf; [iii], half-title; [iv], blurb; [v], illustrated title page; [vi], copyright page; vii-x, table of contents; [ix], blank; [x], abstract of first “case”; 1-262, text proper (in nine chapters); [263], “advance opinions” of the book; [264-265] publisher’s advertisements for “Books on Modern Criticism” (see end of post); [266-267], blank; [268] decorative flyleaf.

The title page illustration shows various writers’ names (in red) floating around the silhouette of a guillotine scene (in black), almost as if the names were spurting out of the device like blood; the same illustration appears on the cover. The pastedowns and outer pages of the flyleaves bears a decorative pattern of book titles in black ink and authors’ names in red ink (see top of post). The binding is made of gray papered boards bearing the illustration in black ink and the title in white (see below); the spine is black buckram with a paper title label. The top-edge of the pages are red. The corners are a bit bumped, but it is otherwise in fine condition. I can find no evidence that it was issued with a dust-jacket.

The nature of the book’s contents has made its anonymity problematic for dealers and scholars. Many of the writers who appear in the book have at times been put forward as a candidate for the book’s authorship (sometimes even those writers being mocked in the book!), including Booth Tarkington and Winston Churchill. Dealers particularly like to attribute it to Herford, Loomis, or, of course, Twain (Samuel Clemens), though these seem unlikely (the cause of the confusion may be the awkward art design in the corner of the cover and title page: beneath the cryptic “By ?” float the names of Twain, Herford, and Loomis [see below]). Occasionally it is wrongly attributed to the publisher, John Lane -- a common error with listings of anonymous books. All of these misattributions are the result of either radically sloppy research or attempts at outright deception.

The author of the book was undoubtedly poet, dramatist, and novelist William Wallace Whitelock (1869-1940). Most dealers online base this claim on a 23 December 1924 letter sent to photographer Irving Underhill (1872-1960) by Twain scholar and bibliographer Merle Johnson (published in the summer 1951 issue of the newsletter Twainian). In the letter, Johnson alludes to the fact that Twain was aware of (and unperturbed by) Whitelock’s use of him in the book. This is the only piece of contemporary external evidence about the book’s authorship that most dealers seem to cite, though I’ve come across at least two more abundantly obvious references that considerably predate Johnson’s letter. The following appears in the entry for J. B. Lippincott Company in the 14 September 1907 issue (No. 1859) of The Publisher’s Weekly:

They have also just ready “When Kings Go Forth to Battle,” a new novel by William Wallace Whitelock, whose “Literary Guillotine,” published several years ago, aroused considerable favorable criticism. (p. 604)

Even more baldly obvious, however, is the title page of Whitelock’s Foregone Verses, published in 1907 by Richard Badger of Boston; beneath the author’s name it plainly states “Author of ‘The Literary Guillotine,’ ‘When the Heart is Young,’ etc.” Despite the wishful thinking of some profit-mongering dealers, it seems incontrovertible that Whitelock was, indeed, the author of The Literary Guillotine.

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