Sunday, August 22, 2010

Over One-Hundred Years on the Shelf

Just off the road from a trip down to New Jersey to visit my brother, doctor-in-law, and their beautiful baby girl, I’m going to have to keep this week’s post brief. Here’s a short write-up on a beautiful early twentieth-century book that was part of my haul at the estate auction that we attended last month.

The book is a nearly mint-condition copy of Emerson: Poet and Thinker, written by famed New York art and literature critic Elisabeth Luther Cary (1867-1936). Her biography and literary study of Emerson was part of a series of well-received similar books she wrote on Tennyson (1898), Browning (1899), the Rossettis (1900), William Morris (1902), and Henry James (1905). In 1905 the prolific Cary began to focus more on art criticism and scholarship, eventually attracting the attention of Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, who hired her as a critic and columnist for the paper. Over the nearly three-decades that she wrote for the paper, she gained a reputation in the New York art scene and beyond for fairness, diplomacy, extremely good taste in art, and a keen eye for both talent and dross.

Cary finished writing Emerson in early October 1904 and the book was published in November 1904 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York and printed by the Knickerbocker Press (at its founding in 1874, Knickerbocker was an office of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, but it split off as its own independent business in 1889 and moved out of New York City to the landmark Knickerbocker Building in New Rochelle). It retailed for the substantial sum of $3.50 (about $85 in today's currency). In advertising the book, G. P. Putnam's Sons indicated that

[t]he author has endeavored to present Emerson as he appears to the generation following his own, and to connect his writings with his mental and spiritual characteristics and the quiet round of his direct interests. The book is addressed not to the student but to the general reader.

The book is bound in pebbled green leather with decorative marbling on the front and back boards and six compartments on the spine, with gilded titling (the spine is slightly faded in comparison to the boards, indicating that it was kept on a shelf exposed to sunlight for a long period of time). I suspect that this is a rebinding; according to most dealers’ listings of the book, it was originally sold in blue cloth boards with a grape-and-leaf pattern (and included four pages of ads, which my copy lacks). The top edge of the leaves is gilt and a white satin book ribbon marks a page that it appears to have been holding for many, many years now (the start of Chapter Two, at page 18).

The pages are 16.5cm x 24cm and are of a very firm, machined stock, bearing decoratively ragged fore-edges (known as “deckling”). It was printed in royal octavo format, comprising 18 gatherings of eight leaves (with the exception of the final gathering, which has only six).

The book includes twenty black-and-white illustrative plates, from a variety of engravings, drawings, photographs, and prints, printed on sturdy art stock (oddly, most other copies listed online only indicate the presence of nineteen plates); intact tissue bearing a descriptive caption in red ink protects each plate from any acid in the facing page of text. (Neither the tissue sheets nor the plates they protect are integral to the gatherings in which they occur.) In addition to this art, the printer has included some beautiful decorative ornaments at the top and tail of each chapter and uses a gothic font for the running titles that causes them to really pop off the page.

The contents of the preliminaries run as follows: blue and gold marbled pastedown conjugate to marbled front flyleaf; two blanks; frontispiece plate of an older Emerson from a drawing by George T. Tobin and accompanying tissue; title-page on glossy stock, with maroon decorations and with copyright on verso; dedication (to Cary’s father), [i]; preface, iii-iv; contents, v; illustrations, vii-viii; half-title.

The book’s main contents include thirteen chapters tracing Emerson’s life and career, as well as an appendix of the tables of contents for The Dial, a transcendentalist publication Emerson co-founded with Margaret Fuller, assigning authorship to all of the anonymous pieces published in the journal for its first four years (1840-1844). The main contents run 284 pages (including the index); two blanks conclude the book, along with another marbled flyleaf and pastedown.

There is no marginalia or readers’ marks (with the exception of a couple of dealer’s pencil marks in the corners of a few of the blanks); the spine is tight and there is no chipping, bumping, pulling, foxing, tearing, folding, or any of the other usual signs of wear typically found on or in a book that’s over 100 years old.

The pristine condition, combined with the beautiful binding that some owner evidently had made for the book, makes me suspect that this copy of Cary’s Emerson was a show-piece. That is, it was displayed on a prominent bookshelf as a piece of decoration, meant to show off the erudition and taste of its owner. Suspicion of this fact tempts me to end its streak of “un-readness” and, on this brisk and windy New England summer evening, crack it open and enjoy the company of Emerson, Thoreau, Carlyle and the rest of that tribe...but I’d be afraid to damage its near mint condition.

Ah, the sad ironies of beautiful books!

1 comment:

  1. What is the point of books that go unread? They are like Christmas trees that are cut down then never decorated. Or a song composed and never sung. I say read it.