Sunday, July 18, 2010

Grave Literature

My fiancée and I have recently started attending local estate auctions in order to get some nice furniture for our new home. At our first estate auction, I successfully bid on two boxes of antiquarian books (yeah, I know: not furniture...). The experience was quite different from what I’ve written on previously in regards to attending a book auction. At the estate auction, the choices in terms of books were far more limited; however, because fewer people there were interested in books at all (they were mostly bidding on the furniture, art, furnishings, and jewelry) the price was ridiculously reasonable. This week’s book is one of the items acquired for Tarquin Tar's Bookcase from my prevailing bid.

The book is a first edition of Churchyard Literature: A Choice Collections of American Epitaphs, with Remarks on Monumental Inscriptions and the Obsequies of Various Nations, written by John R. Kippax and published by the eminent firm S. C. Griggs and Company of Chicago in 1877. The book was printed by the Chicago firm of Blakely & Brown (founded in 1871 by Connecticut native Charles Franklin Blakely). A second edition was published by Singing Tree Press of Detroit in 1969, a third by Corner House of Williamstown, MA in 1978, and a fourth by Heritage Books of Bowie, MD in 1994.

Dealers online list the first edition as “collectible” and price it from between $18 and $63 (an association copy signed by the author is being sold for $125). In other words, even at its cheapest valuation, this one book (out of two boxes of approximately 40 books) is worth (at retail) about one-third of what I got the lot for at auction. At its highest valuation (sans autograph) it’s worth more than what I paid for the entire lot.

Kippax (1849-1922) was a member of a nineteenth-century archaeological society, which was his justification for authoring the book -- his first publication; he is perhaps better known, however, for his later interest in various fields of science.

The record of his publications suggests an eclectic range of interests over his lifetime. In 1880 Duncan Brothers of Chicago published Kippax’s A Hand-book of Diseases of the Skin and their Homeopathic Treatment (further editions from other publishers followed in 1884 and 1890) and in 1884 Gross & Delbridge of Chicago published his Lectures on Fevers: Delivered at the Chicago Homeopathic Medical College.

Homeopathy remained Kippax’s interest throughout the 1880s and 1890s. In 1910, however, he released a book titled Comets and meteors, and in 1914 G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York published his richly illustrated book on astronomy, The Call of the Stars: A Popular Introduction to a Knowledge of the Starry Skies. I’ve had difficulty finding good biographical information about John Kippax, but it seems from the history of his publications that he was a man of many different studies.

The book is bound in red cloth with some ornate black decorations on the cover and gilded decoration (now faded) on the spine. The pages measure 12.5cm x 18cm and are of a slightly heavy stock that has faded a bit with age. Preliminaries include four blank flyleaves (the first conjugate with the front pastedown), a frontispiece (graveyard scene before a church and the last three lines from Longfellow’s 1842 poem “The Goblet of Life”), the title page with copyright on the verso, the dedication (incorporating a quote from Robert Blair’s 1743 poem “The Grave”), the table of contents, and a two-page preface signed “J. R. K.” and dated “Oak Park, Nov. 5, 1876.” The pagination of the book silently incorporates everything from the title page onward, running [1]-[10].

The contents of the book include an Introduction on the history and aesthetics of graveyard epitaphs and obsequies (pp. 11-35); epitaphs on eminent personages (pp. 37-63); admonitory epitaphs (pp. 65-86); devotional epitaphs (pp. 87-102); adulatory, laudatory, and bombastic epitaphs (pp. 105-128); professional epitaphs (pp. 129-145); ludicrous, eccentric, and ridiculous epitaphs (pp. 147-165); punning and satirical epitaphs (pp. 167-176); miscellaneous epitaphs (pp. 177-198); and an index to names, places, and subjects in the book (pp. 199-213). Four blanks end the book.

The unusually large number of blanks at the start and finish of the book -- seemingly such a waste of paper -- perhaps were to encourage readers to jot down their own discoveries of interesting or moving graveyard literature. Having grown up in Salem, MA and wandered many an old and peculiar cemetery, I can recall coming across a number of haunting (and some humorous) inscriptions dating back to the 1600s. The examples that Kippax provides of what he terms “grave literature” are quite diverse, but the reader (well, at least, this reader) is drawn especially to the numerous examples of witty and humorous epitaphs (see the images throughout this post). The form of the genre -- pithy couplets that often have to stretch to rhyme with an odd last name -- makes it ripe for the set-up and delivery of punchlines, one-liners, and word-play. I suspect there’s also a certain element of catharsis in laughing in the presence of death; to mitigate, or at least manage, the haunting mystery of the inevitable demise that awaits us all, we take comfort in the macabre juxtaposition of the grave and the jest.

There are no reader’s marks in the copy, but it was evidently well-read: the outside of the spine has split toward the bottom, revealing the discarded paper used in the binding of the book (not enough text is visible to make out what precisely was used). There are a couple of penciled dealers’ marks on the recto and verso of the front flyleaf and in the lower inside corner of the penultimate flyleaf. The recto of the front fly also bears two stickers that offer a clue as to the book’s past. In the middle of the page is a simple bookplate bearing the name “H. H. Player”. I’ve found a gentleman named Henry H. Player who lived on Queen Street in Middlesex in England around 1847, but that may be too early a date for this book. Besides, I suspect this copy hasn’t left the United States.

In the lower inside corner of the same page there’s a store sticker for W. A. Butterfield of 59 Bromfield Street in Boston, MA. In addition to retailing books, Butterfield was a publisher from 1904 until at least 1919, specializing in literature (particularly Shakespeare and works related to the Bacon-Shakespeare lunacy) and the arts, nature, and local history. As a large majority of the epitaphs recorded in Kippax’s book are from the northeastern United States -- and New England in particular -- it would presumably have fit rather well into the store’s stock in the early years of the twentieth century.

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