Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Eighteenth-Century Book in the Midst of a Twentieth-Century War

As a humanist, a student of literature and book history, and as a book-collector, I am morally, intellectually, and personally opposed to the destruction of books. I find the idea of any agent of authority self-importantly imposing themselves between an author and a reader repugnant. But recent doings in the world of publishing present an ethical quandary to my absolutism: is it permissible for the state to suppress the publication of a book if that book might cost people their lives or security? Under what conditions would the state have the right to make that judgment? The recent incident involving Operation Dark Heart, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer’s memoir about his involvement with a black-ops team in Afghanistan, brings this question to the fore.

The Department of Defense -- after failing to suppress the book in its manuscript form -- purchased the entire 10,000 copies of the “first printing” of Shaffer’s book (making it, technically, a sell-out bestseller its first day on the market) and then, on September 20, destroyed 9,500 of them (ironically ensuring that the remaining 500 copies will become extremely desired collectors’ items and ensuring that the second printing -- though heavily redacted -- will sell like mad; of course, if Shaffer’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is business-savvy, they’ll keep publishing the uncensored version, thus guaranteeing perpetual sales to the DoD). Was this just censorship (if there is such a thing)? And how are we to know? If the censor of a book claims that there is material in it that warrants censorship, readers must -- by the very nature of anticipatory censorship -- simply take the censor at its word. It’s a catch-22 of Orwellian -- nay, Torquemadean proportions.

When the military crosses paths with the printed word, the ramifications are often troubling. Roger Clarke famously suggested that “information wants to be free”, but the objective of any military intelligence entity is to limit as much as possible who has access to what information. The two aren’t really reconcilable in a free society.

This week’s book does not, itself, offer up state secrets. However, a telling owner’s inscription does take us back to one of the most brutal conflicts of the last century.

The book is the second edition of Coutumes Generales de la Ville de Verdun (The General Customs of the City of Verdun), revised by jurist, archaeologist, and royal advisor Nicolas-François Lançon (1694-1767). It was published in Lançon’s home city of Metz (located in the northeast Lorraine region of France) by François Antoine in 1747. The first edition (an anonymous book) had appeared in three issues in 1678, but it was substantively rewritten per royal order of February 1741. It took Lançon several years to finish the work, but it was finally licensed for publication on September 30, 1747. The firm of Nancy, Thomas & Sons published a third edition in 1762, though this was largely unchanged from Antoine’s 1747 edition.

The book is a highly detailed guide to the “general customs” of the French city of Verdun and the surrounding county, including, for example, its properties, institutions of law and public order, nobility and gentry, and (in keeping with Lançon’s interest in legal studies) accounts of trials from 1741 up to the date of publication.

It is bound in brown leather, with six compartments on the spine bearing gilt decorations and a red leather title label. It is in fair condition, with some bumping, chipping, and spotting, but not egregious damage or wear. The pages measure 9.5cm x 16.25cm and bear 2.5cm vertical chain-lines, with no watermark. The paper is generally firm (though a slightly flimsier stock was used for some of the later sheets) and in remarkably good condition, with very little foxing and no tears or bends (though one page -- p. 123 -- was at one point dog-eared by a reader). The page edges have all be sprinkled with a dull red dye.

It may be expressed collationally as 8o: [#3] A8-L3. There are no errors in the running titles. Catchwords are used only across gatherings and are without error. There are slight changes in font styles and sizes between the different sections of the book, but nothing to suggest that Antoine changed printers or divided up the job between different print shops. Very often sections are headed and ended with devices; some are whole images, others were assembled by the compositor by putting together various pieces of decorative type or pointing. The contents are: blank flyleaf; title page; table of contents; the sixteen chapters (paginated without error, 1-164); blank flyleaf at the end. It was a generally sound printing job; the type is well-arranged, though in some places -- particularly around ornaments -- it has slipped a bit. The inking on a few pages is uneven -- slightly light in some places and, in others, so heavy that bits of the “furniture” around pieces of type and ornaments can be seen.

The only evidence of readership (beside the once dog-eared page noted above) are two owner’s inscriptions. The first, located on the verso of the front flyleaf, is in a mix of French and English and is written in an elegant cursive hand using brown ink:

Donné par M. Cieche, by M. <>appy < > 10 Mai 1866.

Haubeug < >

I’m not entirely confident in my transcription of this inscription and I welcome those of my readers with a better eye for nineteenth-century French handwriting to correct me if they have alternative readings.

But it’s the second inscription to which I'm particularly drawn. The recto of the front flyleaf bears a pencil inscription reading:

Stanley Dell, Sept. 26, 1916. Verdun.

The date of September 26, 1916 puts Dell in Verdun in the middle of the Battle of Verdun at the precise moment the town was being bombarded by German artillery. Dell was an American, but the Battle of Verdun was a battle in which American forces were not involved.

Born blind in one eye, Dell could not serve in the U.S. military, and so, eager to be involved in the war effort, he enlisted in the French ambulance service. Following the war he returned the United States and married Marion Cleveland, one of former President Grover Cleveland's daughters, and gained fame for his English translations of the work of Carl Jung.

Why -- in the midst of one of the most ferocious artillery barrages of the war -- did he stop to acquire an antiquarian book about local politics, culture, and law trials in early eighteenth-century Verdun? Dell's granddaughter -- my own step-grandmother -- describes him as "intellectual and learned". Perhaps, as the shells were bursting about him and buildings were crumbling to dust, Dell -- learned enough to understand the importance of preserving books from unwarranted destruction -- saw the chance to save a small piece of history from the terrible ravages of war.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wedding Shower

No post from Tarquin Tar's Bookcase this week, since Sunday is my wedding shower! Don't panic if you haven't yet got us a gift: there's still time before the wedding and, of course, lots of good options...

See you next week!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Piece of Celebrity Culture from the Golden Age of Radio

I featured an actual scrapbook last week, so I'm going to continue in the scrapbook theme and look at a published version that takes us back to the golden age of radio. When I was in middle school, I had a fascination with 1930s and 1940s radio shows; for a long time, before I started really collecting books, I would collect cassette tapes of my favorite shows -- Abbott and Costello, the Mercury Theater on the Air, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Duffy’s Tavern, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and a number of others. I loved the personal intimacy of the medium.

Somehow the comedy, the drama, the suspense, and the action seemed more vivid and alive to me when I heard it than when I saw it on TV, because it was happening in my imagination and I was able to make it personal to my own vision of the story. Today there are few comparable radio shows on the air; NPR has Prairie Home Companion and a few other creative shows, but their roster is filled mostly with news and nonfiction productions. Interestingly, however, with the rise of podcasting, it seems that audio drama is beginning to make
a gradual return via the Internet.

This week’s book was written -- or, rather, assembled -- by an early radio personality with whom I was previously unfamiliar. He seems to have been, however, quite the celebrity on CBS in the 1920s, ’30s, and into the ’40s.

The book is
Tony’s Scrap Book, 1942-43 Edition, by Anthony Wons (1891-1965). It was published by The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago. It is bound in blue cloth with black decorative titling on the front and spine; the pages measure 14cm x 21cm and are of a firm, machined stock that has been deckled (perhaps to give the book a more homemade, scrapbook-like feel). A decorative black-and-white illustration of various scrapbooking materials adorns the running titles on the top of each page. The contents run as follows: blank flyleaf; half title; illustrated frontispiece (photograph of Tony Wons); title page, with copyright on verso; two-sentence foreword; the content of the book (runs 111 pages); two blanks at the end. The pagination is rather peculiar: in the outside corner, at the bottom of each page, the numbering is written out in full words (for example, “Page One Hundred and Fourteen”, “Page One Hundred and Fifteen”).

I’ve never seen such a cumbersome style of pagination before and I can’t imagine why it struck the publisher as a good idea. Also, oddly, the main content begins with “Page Thirteen”, even though -- if all of the preliminary content were included (and frontispieces and half-titles are rarely included in page counts) -- it is actually the eleventh page. I suspect, therefore, that my copy is a second issue (there was no second edition of the book) and that the preceding version had an additional page of preliminary content; the publisher, for some reason, omitted that page in this issue, but did not bother to alter the cumbersome pagination.

The main content of the book consists of collected anecdotes, jokes, poems, aphorisms, news stories, and quotations around a wide range of eclectic topics. As one dealer puts it, the book is “jam packed with little snippets of classic literature mixed with folksy wisdom”. As a product of their time, they can often veer towards the sexist and even racist -- particularly in regards to material that is "folksy", rather than from "classic literature". The general focus is on humor and morality, but there is no real organization or system to the order in which the material is assembled; most, but not all, have headings and nearly all are attributed. The content was all read by Wons on the air for his much-loved Depression/WWII-era radio show, which was underwritten (not surprisingly) by Hallmark Cards (sadly, apparently only two episodes were recorded and are
still available).

The story behind Wons’s scrapbooking appeared in the February 8, 1932 issue of Time magazine:

U. S. publishers last year brought out 10,307 new books, more than in any previous year, Publishers' Weekly announced last week. In most cases publishers are happy to count their sales in thousands of copies. One volume, however, called Tony's Scrap Book had sold 225,000 copies, was still going fairly strong last month when Publishers Reilly & Lee issued Tony's Scrap Book No. 2. These, along with another published last November with the title 'R' You Listenin'?, are the product of Anthony ("Tony") Wons, a radio performer who has broken all records of Columbia Broadcasting System for sustained fan mail (2,000 letters a week). Self-styled a "peptomist," Wons is regarded by a shuddering minority as the most offensive broadcaster on the air. To his enormous radio following, principally in rural regions, he is a comforter of rare understanding who drops in for a friendly chat. To his critics he is an intruder who slithers out of the loudspeaker, puts his arm across his listener's shoulder and assures him that "all is well."

Broadcaster Wons' books are collections of odds & ends which he recites alternate mornings in the "Tony's Scrap Book" period, and every evening on the Camel Quarter Hour between Morton Downey's ballads. The two called Tony's Scrap Books are anthologies of noble thoughts, snatches of homely humor, tributes to beauty, diligence, nature, perseverance, motherhood, home, etc. Some are from Edgar Albert Guest, Dr. Frank Crane, Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Many, of unknown origin, are favorites of listeners who send them in. Here and there are a few lines from Shelley, Browning, Whitman, A. E. Housman. Wons puts them through a microphone in a voice hushed, saponaceous, insinuatingly folksy, with an ingratiating "Are yuh listenin'?" or "Isn't that pretty?" 'R' You Listenin'? is a book of extracts from "Tony's Own Philosophy," sermonets which he sometimes broadcasts.

Typical excerpt: ". . . But at night when you come Home, you are King to those kids of yours and to the little wife, and they would not trade you for any other Dad on earth."

Anthony Wons, whose last name is Polish for "whiskers," became a scrapbookman while in a hospital for two years convalescing from War wounds. He spent his time in reading inspirational essays and verse and pasting up his favorite items. Also he continued an early hobby of memorizing Shakespeare's plays. Seven years ago he persuaded Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s WLS in Chicago to let him broadcast some of the plays, taking all parts himself. The broadcasts were popular and next year he began radio readings from his scrapbooks. That was a far greater success. Listeners everywhere began sending in bits they wanted "Tony" to read, even their own scrapbooks. (He has more than 200. The one which he currently uses is 27 in. thick.) Also over WLS he conducted a period of nondenominational devotions called "The Little Brown Church in the Vale." After a short career with Cincinnati's WLW, Wons joined Columbia in Manhattan. His income, including book royalties, is estimated near $2,000 per week.

While his normal speech is less ghostly than his microphone manner. "Tony" is the "
peptomist" outside the studio as well as in. He looks much younger than his 40 years, lives with his wife (childhood sweetheart) and 11-year-old daughter in a Long Island apartment, has a summer cottage in Wisconsin near his birthplace.

I find this story compelling. A World War I veteran, resting in hospital after the war, begins to assemble bits of inspirational wisdom. Eventually, he’s able to translate that hobby into a celebrated career on the radio and in print. I’m also drawn to the role Shakespeare played in his career. The semester has just begun at my university and I’m currently a teaching assistant on the Shakespeare course; and, of course, those of you who know me know how important Shakespeare is in my life. The course has begun with
The Merchant of Venice and so, too, did Wons’s work on the radio; in a 2004 article in the magazine Radio Recall, a member of Wons’s extended family recalls Wons’s own version of how he began in radio:

“It was 10 years ago. There were no chain programs when I wandered into WLS with a book of Shakespeare under my arm.
“I would like to broadcast,” I said to the program manager, Edgar Bill. “I can read Shakespeare.”
“Well, how much time do you want to do Shakespeare on the radio?” he asked.
“Give me an hour and I’ll be satisfied, and so will you when I get through.” I told him confidently.
"I’ll give you 45 minutes. See what you can do in that time.”
So the program was arranged. The time came, and I found myself standing before a microphone for the first time in my life, with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and an organist to play background music. Trembling, I stood, knowing that upon this one program depended my success or failure in radio.
(When the show was over) an assistant came rushing in, saying: “Hey, the big boss wants to talk to you on the phone.” I went to the phone (and heard): “That was great. Can you come in once a week with other plays by Shakespeare?” Since those days at WLS I have spent much time in radio stations over the country, but WLS is the home where I had my birth.

Wons issued his scrapbooks in published form beginning in the late 1920s, at first self-publishing them from Cincinnati in the form of little stapled paper pamphlets. His intent was “to create greater living poets and writers, as well as to keep fresh the memory of those who are gone.” It reminds me, in a way, of Garrison Keillor’s
Writer’s Almanac. Subsequent issues appeared every year or two throughout the 1930s and 1940s and became major sellers, as the Time story explains.

There is no marginalia in my copy, though one page (17) has been dog-eared. Inside the front cover there is a stamped name, “Elizabeth J. Morris”, along with an ex libris bookplate with Morris’s name and the year 1944 handwritten in. The design of the bookplate includes a musical note; someone -- perhaps Morris -- has hand-colored the plate in pink and green. The name, alas, is too common to make it possible for me to discern precisely who the previous owner was; clearly, though, from the dating, she was most likely the book’s first owner.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Memories Collected and Memories Lost

I usually try to do my blogging on Sunday mornings -- a quiet time of rest and relaxation after a long week of work. This week's was written a few days ago, though, since this weekend has been mostly spent up in beautiful Vermont attending a beautiful wedding.

Leisurely Sunday activities that were both enjoyable but also informative also figured into the life of the American writer Samuel Clemens, or “Mark Twain”. Through most of his life, every Sunday Twain would collect, sort, add, and organize material in a vast library of scrapbooks -- blank books into which he pasted notes, news clippings, photos, letters, postcards, envelopes, checks, book reviews and other materials (often about his life and career), and indexed in the front for quick and easy reference.

Mark Twain was many things -- humorist, publisher, author, entrepreneur, pseudo-Shakespeare scholar -- but one of his great passions was science and inventing. He was good friends with Nikola Tesla and acquaintances with Thomas Edison. Twain himself patented three inventions: the first was “An Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (meant to replace suspenders -- the idea never caught on), the second was a history trivia game (it did not sell well), and the third was “An Improvement in Scrap-Books”. This last was the only invention off which Twain made any money.

Twain applied for a U.S. patent for his scrapbook on May 7, 1873 and secured it on June 24 that year. However, he delayed hiring a firm to manufacture the book until after he had obtained a U.K. patent on May 16th, 1877 and a patent in France two days later. In 1877, Twain hired his friend, the New York printer Daniel Slote (the wisecracking and mischievous “Dan” of Twain’s Innocents Abroad), to produce and sell the scrapbook. Between August and December 1877, Slote sold over 26,000 units, grossing Twain an astonishing $1,072 (approximately $22,250 in modern currency).

Thus convinced that his invention was a success, on April 23, 1878, Twain trademarked the name “Mark Twain’s Scrap Book”. Slote’s business, however, was on the brink of failure and the publisher had to obtain a $5,000 loan from Twain to keep up production of the scrapbook; Twain, a few years later, spent another $20,000 to buy 800 of the 1,000 shares that Slote made available to the public to stay in business (on this affair, see Ron Powers’s Mark Twain: A Life, pp. 435-6). Slote took out a sizable advertisement in The Publisher’s Weekly Christmas edition of 1878, promoting the scrapbook as “The Holiday Gift for 1878”. The editors of Publisher’s Weekly concurred: “A scrap-book is a first-rate Christmas present,” they offer, “particularly in the present rage for scrap-book pictures. And Mark Twain’s Scrap-Books, ready gummed for any purposes of a scrap-book, as manufactured by Daniel Slote & Co., are said to be ‘first-ratest’ of all” (xiv:687).

The Dial for November 1883 lauded the book as “a universal favorite” that “bids fair to supersede all other Scrap Books” (177):

It is a combination of everything desirable in a Scrap Book. The convenience of the ready-gummed page, and the simplicity of the arrangement for pasting, are such that those who once use this Scrap Book never return to the old style.

To travellers [sic] and tourists it is particularly desirable, being Scrap Book and Paste Pot combined. In using the old-fashioned Scrap Book, travellers have hitherto been compelled to carry a bottle of mucilage, the breaking of which among one’s baggage is far from pleasant. This disagreeable task is avoided by the use of Mark Twain’s Scrap Book.

The ungummed page Scrap Book is at times of no service whatever, if paste or mucilage be not at hand when wanted. With a Mark Twain no such vexatious difficulty can possibly occur.

The “Editor’s Literary Record” in Harper’s Monthly (June 1877) also praised the product:

Mark Twain’s Scrap-Book is what Burnand would call a “happy thought.” It saves sticky fingers and ruffled pictures of scraps. It is simply the application to a scrap-book of the principle long in vogue in the self-sealing envelopes. The pages are prepared with gum, and are prevented from adhering by tissue-paper between the sheets. As the scrap-book is used, the tissue-paper is taken out, the page has simply to be moistened, and the scrap or picture pressed on. Neither paste nor gum-arabic is required by the user. It is a capital invention, especially for children, to whom the ordinary scrap-book is a never-ending source of delight. [55:149]

Some other reviews, though favorable, strike a rather odd tone. The Norristown Herald, for example, urged that “No library is complete without a copy of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain’s Scrap Book.” The Danbury News ran a particularly peculiar favorable review:

It is a valuable book for purifying the domestic atmosphere, and, being self-acting, saves the employment of an assistant. It contains nothing that the most fastidious person could object to, and is, to be frank and manly [?], the best thing of any age -- mucilage particularly.

Why praising "mucilage" is considered "manly" is a mystery to me.

But not all reviewers were delighted with the scrapbook. “Mark Twain’s latest joke is a scrap-book of his own invention, gummed, ready for use,” sneers the English quarterly Westminster Review (January 1879), “A very good joke it is” (New Series, 55:297).

Mockery from across the pond notwithstanding, by 1901 Twain had developed nearly sixty different styles and types of his popular scrapbook and new versions were still being sold at least as late as 1912 (despite the success of the scrapbook, Slote & Company -- in the hands of Dan’s widow, Sarah, after his death -- dissolved in bankruptcy in 1889 and Twain shopped out the manufacture of his scrapbook to other firms). According to some commentators, Twain may have made more money off this one invention than his prolific writings, though Harriet Smith and Lin Salamo, in Mark Twain’s Letters, suggest it merely provided “a modest but steady income” (v:145). Estimates put Twain’s total lifetime earnings from the sale of his scrapbooks at around $50,000 -- or around $891,500 in modern currency.

My copy of the Twain scrapbook was, as with all authorized Twain scrapbooks, published by Daniel Slote & Company, makers of blank books and journals based at 119-121 William Street, New York. As an avid scrapbooker himself, Twain knew what features would make the best possible scrapbook: two columns of gummed adhesive on each page of heavy, gray stock (“Use but a little moisture,” read the instructions, “and only on the gummed lines. Press the scrap on without wetting it.”); four perforated pages of tissue interleaved between the numbered pages prevented the gummed surfaces from sticking to each other; four pages of blank lines with alphabetical headings for the index at the front (including, for some indiscernible reason, three sections labeled “M”); a folding envelope pasted on the inside back cover (facing in toward the gutter) for the quick accumulation of items before organizing them and pasting them into the book. The binding is blue cloth over boards, with ornate black tooling and gilded decorations. Each gummed page bears a page number in blue ink stamped in the upper outside corner; there are one hundred pages, not including the four for the index, plus one blank flyleaf.

The scrapbook has seen use: several pages (most early in the book, a few scattered later, and several at the end) have newspaper clippings that seem to span quite a long period of time (the earliest seems to be from the nineteenth century and the latest from the 1950s).

The remaining scraps are remarkably eclectic, ranging from a story about a fatal shipwreck in a blizzard off the east coast to the capture of a “mermaid” off Camden, New Jersey, to the restoration of an old blast furnace in Trenton, New Jersey. Most of the clippings are from New Jersey papers, though it seems a few are from New York and some from Massachusetts. The person who collected them seemed to have a slightly morbid interest in death and the afterlife, and there are also a fair number of religious pieces.

The only handwritten marginalia is a note in blue pen on the scrap of the story about the blast furnace, labeling it as from the Newark Evening News on January 27, 1958.

Though only a few pages bear scraps, all of the tissue pages have been removed and some of the gummed lines have scraps and scars from where clippings were once adhered. Why someone would pull out most, but not all, of the collected scraps is a mystery. Perhaps they intended merely to clean out the book and reuse it for their own purposes. Or perhaps a more personal reason underlies their decision to expunge nearly one-hundred pages of collected memories and history.