Friday, December 30, 2011

An Atlantean Mystery In Civil War Packaging

It’s a truism of studies of books from the hand-press period (roughly up to 1850) that no two copies of any book are alike – even if the two come from the same print-run. The nature of inking and pulling, the slippage of type and “furniture”, and of course the practice of proof-correcting sheets in the middle of a run without discarding the previous (erroneous) sheets meant that the permutations of variance between copies are legion.

And yet it would be a mistake to assume that the advent of the machine press rectified these kinds of problems. A small subset of Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase now includes several modern books that serve as peculiar reminders of how technology can go awry, resulting in the production of unique or at least highly rare copies of what would seem – on the surface – unremarkable books.

The title on the spine of this week’s book is They Met at Gettysburg, a popular account of the events leading up to and including the famed Civil War battle. The book was written by General Edward Stackpole (founder of Stackpole Books in Harrisburg, PA) and was first published by Stackpole in 1956; it even inspired a board game version from Spearhead Games in 1996. Beneath the title on the spine is the publisher’s name: Bonanza. According to WorldCat, the New York firm Bonanza published their reprint of Stackpole’s third edition of 1982 in 1984. The binding itself consists of blue cloth boards (some dealers describe them as green) bearing some slight discoloration from moisture but otherwise in good condition. It was originally sold in a dust-jacket, but my copy is without.

When the cover of my copy is opened, however, They Met at Gettysburg is not to be found. Instead, the reader is greeted with the following title-page:

The contents of the book are the “Modern Revised Edition” of Ignatius Donnelly’s 1882 classic Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, as edited by Egerton Sykes and published by Gramercy Publishing of New York (a division of Harper & Row Publishers). Donnelly (1831-1901) was a Minnesota populist congressman, best-selling writer, and futurist/conspiracy theorist widely known today as “The Prince of Cranks”. In his 2005 article on Donnelly in the magazine The Believer, J. M. Tyree notes, “Donnelly represents the paranoiac streak in the country, the Conspiracy Theorist, the Buff of Secret Theories that Explain Everything. Donnelly was probably the greatest crackpot that ever lived.” His book on Atlantis -- filled with fantastic contortions of geography, linguistics, archaeology, and logic -- is the source of many of today’s popular myths about the supposedly lost continent and apparently also influenced the filmmakers of the 2009 blockbuster 2012. Many editions followed the book’s first appearance in 1882.

The modern edition’s editor, British diplomat and intelligence officer Sykes (1894-1983), was also a conspiracy theorist with a particular expertise (so to speak) in “Atlantology”. In addition to his foreword and commentary (which takes the form of italicized passages inserted directly into the text of the book following whatever text of Donnelly’s they comment upon), the Gramercy edition includes twelve photographic plates (following page 170), an “Appreciation of Donnelly” by conspiracy theorist H. S. Bellamy, and a biography of Donnelly by Scottish folklorist, poet, and occultist Lewis Spence. This prefatory material is paginated [i]-xix beginning with the half-title before the full title-page; the remainder is paginated 1-355, with the 8 pages of illustrations after p. 170 unnumbered. A blue-green endpaper is used for the front and rear flyleaves. There is some slight water-staining on the bottom of these flyleaves, but otherwise the interior is clean and undamaged. A dealer has penciled a price ($3) and a note (“Wrong Binding!”) on the recto of the front flyleaf. Above this there is an owner’s sticker: “F. B. Stevens / R.D. 1 / New Woodstock, NY 13122”. I’ve had no luck figuring out who this is, though I did purchase the book from a dealer in central New York.

The Gramercy edition was published in 1949 and, according to the printer’s code on the verso of the title-page, my copy is likely of the eighteenth printing of that edition. While this speaks to the popularity of the book, it was not again published in the U.S. until 1976 by Dover. Despite my best efforts, I can’t work out how it came to be that the binder of the 1984 Bonanza edition of Stackpole’s They Met at Gettysburg accidentally inserted the full textblock of the 1949 edition of Atlantis. What was Donnelly’s book doing lying around in the binder’s shop? How many more of these are there? Why did F. B. Stevens buy the book? Hoping for They Met at Gettysburg? If so, what was his or her reaction when he or she opened the book? It seems some real mysteries truly do lie hidden with Atlantis…just not quite the mysteries that Donnelly and Sykes thought.

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