Special Collections & Archives Blog

In the 'Rare Book of the Month' Category...

Clotelle, by William Wells Brown (1867)

Monday, August 26, 2013 2:59 pm

clotell illus2

Illustration from William Wells Brown’s Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine

When William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter appeared in London in 1853, it was the first novel ever published by an African-American author. Brown’s novel was reissued four times over the next fifteen years, and with each edition the author made changes to the characters and the narrative. ZSR Special Collections recently purchased a copy of the 1867 edition, titled Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine. This is the fourth and last version published and the only one in which the Civil War and its immediate aftermath are addressed.

clotelle tp1

William Wells Brown (1814-1884) was born in Kentucky to an enslaved woman named Elizabeth. His father was a white relative of his mother’s owner, Dr. John Young. The household soon relocated to St. Louis, and young William was put to work at various tasks. As was common practice, he was also rented out as temporary help to others, including a slave trader who regularly transported slaves down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. It was from one of these voyages that William managed to escape in 1834. As he later recounted in his 1847 memoir Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, he made his way through Ohio and finally to freedom in Canada. William took his surnames from an Ohio Quaker man who assisted his escape.

clotelle chapter6

From Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine

By the 1840s Brown was living in New York and was active in the American abolitionist movement. He became a popular lecturer at anti-slavery meetings and in 1849 undertook a lecture tour of England. Reluctant to return home after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Brown remained in England for several years. He had already published works of nonfiction, but the tremendous success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (serialized in 1851 and published as a novel in 1852) inspired him to try his hand at fiction. The result was Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States.

This original version, intended for an English audience, had as its starting point the persistent rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered the children of an enslaved Virginia woman. In this first Clotel Brown gives Jefferson two fictional daughters, both of whom are sold at the auction block. One of them is the Clotel of the title, who suffers various trials and eventually escapes her captors. But when Clotel returns to Virginia to rescue her still-enslaved daughter, she is set upon by slave-hunters. To avoid inevitable capture, she throws herself to her death in the Potomac River—just a few miles from where her indifferent father is absorbed in power and politics. As the book ends, however, Clotel’s daughter Mary manages to escape to freedom in France.

Brown’s narrative was not published in the U.S. until 1860, when it was serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine under the title Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon. In 1864 a third edition titled Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States appeared as part of abolitionist James Redpath’s Books for the Camp Fires series intended for Union soldiers. And finally in 1867 the last version, Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, was published as a novel by the mainstream Boston publishers Lee and Shepard.

redpath title1

Title page from James Redpath’s biography of John Brown, held by ZSR Special Collections. As the anonymous readers’ annotations suggest, Brown remained a controversial figure for many years after the Civil War.

The original Thomas Jefferson storyline is absent in all of the American editions. In the 1867 narrative, the title character Clotelle corresponds to the daughter Mary of the original novel. Clotelle is here the granddaughter of an enslaved woman who claimed that her father was an unnamed “American Senator.” Brown never made explicit the reason for this alteration in plot, but it is possible that he did not want the Jefferson controversy to overshadow his larger message, which was that slavery existed in large part because those men with the most power, influence, and moral credibility in U.S. society had refused to condemn it. As Brown states in his Preface to the first edition of Clotel,

 Were it not for persons in high places owning slaves, and thereby giving the system a reputation, and especially professed Christians, Slavery would long since have been abolished. The influence of the great “honours the corruption, and chastisement doth therefore hide his head.” The great aim of the true friends of the slave should be to lay bare the institution, so that the gaze of the world may be upon it, and cause the wise, the prudent, and the pious to withdraw their support from it, and leave it to its own fate. It does the cause of emancipation but little good to cry out in tones of execration against the traders, the kidnappers, the hireling overseers, and brutal drivers, so long as nothing is said to fasten the guilt on those who move in a higher circle.

The 1867 Clotelle is in effect the first Civil War novel by an African American, as Brown added four short chapters at the end which detail his characters’ experiences during and immediately after the war. When war breaks out in 1861, Clotelle and her husband Jerome, also a fugitive slave, are living happily in Europe. They return to the U.S. to assist in the war effort, and Jerome is almost immediately killed in battle (in a fictionalized version of the Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson). Grief-stricken Clotelle becomes a volunteer nurse for the Union prisoners at Andersonville and aids in the escape of 96 men. She is imprisoned as a Union sympathizer but escapes with the help of her captors’ slaves, and she flees to New Orleans to wait out the end of the war. The novel closes after the war with Clotelle returning to Mississippi and purchasing the plantation on which she was once a slave in order to open a school for freedmen.

clotelle chapter36

From Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine (1867)

The 1867 Clotelle, like the previous versions, stuck closely to the standard formula for a 19th century sentimental novel. The plot is full of melodrama and highly improbable coincidences, and the female characters are all virtuous, beautiful, and very light-skinned (the term quadroon referred to a person with one black and three white grandparents). Later critics accused Brown of promoting stereotypes and currying favor with his white readers by making his heroines nearly white and conventionally beautiful. But the mixed racial heritage of Brown’s female characters also serves to highlight the hypocrisy of 19th century racial distinctions. The opening paragraph of Clotelle satirizes the sentimental depictions of mixed-race women:

For many years the South has been noted for its beautiful Quadroon women. Bottles of ink, and reams of paper, have been used to portray the “finely-cut and well-moulded features,” the “silken curls,” the “dark and brilliant eyes,” the “splendid forms,” the “fascinating smiles,” and “accomplished manners” of these impassioned and voluptuous daughters of the two races, — the unlawful product of the crime of human bondage.

Notwithstanding the fact that Brown himself is often guilty of such breathless descriptions, he nevertheless reminds his readers that these visions of loveliness are the product of a corrupt society that condones adultery and the sexual exploitation of enslaved women.

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Opening chapter of Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine (1867)

Many of the incidents in Clotelle are based on Brown’s own experience of slavery. And, as with many abolitionist writers of the time, one of his main goals is to debunk the notion that chattel slavery could ever be a benign institution. When Clotelle tries to convince her white, slave-owning father to free his slaves, he argues that

I have always treated my slaves well… and my neighbors, too, are generally good men; for slavery in Virginia is not like slavery in the other States.

But Clotelle’s husband Jerome counters that

Their right to be free…is taken from them, and they have no security for their comfort, but the humanity and generosity of men, who have been trained to regard them not as brethren, but as mere property. Humanity and generosity are, at best, but poor guaranties for the protection of those who cannot assert their rights, and over whom the law throws no protection. [103]

All of Brown’s heroines are at some point under the protection of one kindly white man or another. But this protected position is never secure. When the women’s masters or lovers die, or leave, or suffer financial setbacks, the women and their children can suffer a slave’s worst fate. The sudden reversals of fortune common in sentimental novels here serve to illustrate Brown’s point.

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The frontispiece illustration from Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine depicts a white slave owner offering a young boy as payment for his gambling debts

The first three versions of Clotelle were abolitionist novels, written to win readers over to the anti-slavery cause. So why did Brown and his publishers feel the need to issue yet another edition in 1867, after the war had been won?

The last Clotelle hints at some of the issues that Brown knew would face African-Americans after the war. He recognized the urgent need for education of newly-freed slaves, and the continuing hostility of many white Americans toward them. And as a historian, Brown also understood the vital importance of telling the stories of African-Americans before, during, and after the war. The added chapters of the 1867 Clotelle also touch on the role of women in post-war society. Although Brown’s Clotelle is in many respects a typical heroine of the 19th century domestic novel, the last version of his book denies her the traditional happy ending of marriage and family. Instead she is forced to rely on her own resources to create a life of useful service for herself.

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Dedication page for Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine

Many other authors would go on to describe the African-American Civil War experience in works of fiction. But as the first of its kind, Brown’s novel in all its versions offers a fascinating glimpse into both the literary conventions and the political controversies of this pivotal era in American history.

____________________________

Selected Resources

Brown, William Wells and Robert S. Levine. Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Bedford Cultural Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Ann duCille.  “Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History.” American Literary History, Vol. 12, No. 3, (Autumn, 2000), pp. 443-462. http://www.jstor.org/stable/490213

Jennifer James “ ‘Civil’ War Wounds: William Wells Brown, Violence, and the Domestic Narrative.” African American Review , Vol. 39, No. 1/2 (Spring – Summer, 2005), pp. 39-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40033635

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)

Monday, June 10, 2013 1:06 pm

Frontispiece illustration from the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

On nearly any list of list of best American Novels you will find Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it might easily never have existed.  Twain nearly abandoned his project midway through its writing, and its publication was temporarily derailed by a practical joke.

Twain’s first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was published in the spring of 1876 to great popular success.

First edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (American Publishing Company, 1876)

In August 1876 Twain wrote to William Dean Howells that he had already started writing

 …another boys’ book—more to be at work than anything else. I have written 400 pages on it—therefore it is very nearly half done. It is Huck Finn’s Autobiography. I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got, & may possibly [pigeon-hole] or burn the MS when it is done.

Twain did indeed pigeon-hole his manuscript for several years, and he did not complete it until 1883. When the novel was finally finished, it was a very different book than the Tom Sawyer sequel that Twain had begun.  Huckleberry Finn takes on one aspect of Twain’s pre-Civil War childhood that Tom Sawyer did not: slavery.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Huckleberry Finn is a secondary character, a “romantic outcast” who lives on the fringes of civilized society.

Huckleberry Finn’s first appearance in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

In Huckleberry Finn Huck takes over as first-person narrator of his own story. The novel was Twain’s first attempt at writing an entire book in dialect, and he took pains to get his characters’ voices right. And without Huck’s distinctive voice and perspective, Twain could not have written the book that he did. In his introduction to a 1950 edition of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s fellow-Missourian T.S. Eliot observed that

 Huck has not imagination, in the sense in which Tom has it: he has, instead, vision. He sees the real world; and he does not judge it– he allows it to judge itself. . . . Mark Twain could not have written . . . with that economy and restraint, with just the right details and no more, and leaving to the reader to make his own moral reflections, unless he had been writing in the person of Huck. And the style of the book, which is the style of Huck, is what makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalist propaganda of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London: The Cresset Press, 1950) p.ix-x]

You Title page of the first American edition

The process of publishing Huckleberry Finn was also an arduous one. Twain prided himself on being a shrewd businessman and involved himself in all aspects of publishing and marketing his own books. As one might expect, this led to difficult relations with his publishers. As Huckleberry Finn was nearing completion in 1884, Twain was becoming dissatisfied with his current publisher, James R. Osgood (who was indeed bankrupt by 1885). So Twain formed his own publishing company in partnership with his nephew Charles L. Webster.

Twain, as usual, had opinions on everything from marketing to cover design. In February 1884, for example, he wrote to Webster suggesting that they offer a package deal for buyers purchasing Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and the new Huckleberry Finn– a fine idea, except that the previous titles were still under copyright to other publishers [Mark Twain's Letters to His Publishers, 172]. In April he exhorted Webster to enlist as many pre-publication subscribers as possible and to time the book’s release for the Christmas market:

Keep it diligently in mind that we don’t issue till we have made a big sale. . . . Get at your canvassing early, and drive it with all your might, with the intent and purpose of issuing on the 10th (or 15th) of next December (the best time in the year to tumble a big pile into the trade)– but if we haven’t got 40,000 orders then, we simply postpone publication till we’ve got them. It is a plain, simple policy, and would have saved both of my last books if it had been followed. There is not going to be any reason whatever, why this book should not succeed– and it shall and must. [173]

But the American edition of Huckleberry Finn was not published in time for the 1884 holiday season, due to circumstances beyond the control of its author and publisher. The first set of books went out to reviewers and subscribers in November as planned. But it was soon discovered that an unknown prankster had altered the printing plate for an illustration on page 283 so that Uncle Silas was shown in a state of indecent exposure.

Corrected version of the Uncle Silas illustration

Tom Sawyer would no doubt have approved of the prank; Mark Twain, on the other hand, was furious. He recalled nearly all of the copies and had the pages replaced with a corrected version.  (A few copies of the censored illustration remain in circulation and command a very high price from collectors. )

The British edition, published in London by Chatto & Windus, made it through the print shop unscathed and was published in December 1884.

Cover of the first British edition, published by Chatto & Windus, 1884

The American first edition would not appear until February of the next year. Twain had to settle for publishing a few chapters of Huckleberry Finn in the December 1884 and January 1885 Century Magazine.

Excerpt from Huckleberry Finn from the December 1884 Century Magazine

The 174 illustrations and the cover design for Huckleberry Finn were by E. W. Kemble, a 23-year-old magazine artist selected by Twain.

Twain understood well the importance of visual images to the overall reading experience, and he had definite ideas about what his characters should look like. He was especially concerned that Huck and the other principal characters look attractive enough to be sympathetic. The author occasionally took Kemble to task for submitting illustrations that veered too far toward the comic grotesque.

Except for a few copies in deluxe leather bindings, the first edition of Huckleberry Finn appeared in illustrated green or blue cloth.

The first edition of  Huckleberry Finn sold well and proved popular with readers, but it was controversial from the beginning. Its critical reception was mixed. Some immediately hailed the novel as brilliant satire. But others were put off by the rough language and general unpleasantness of many of the characters. In a famous incident, the book was banned from the Concord, Massachusetts public library, whose board of directors included author Louisa May Alcott. By the mid-20th century Huckleberry Finn was an acknowledged classic and a fixture on high school reading lists. But critics then began to object to the novel’s all too historically accurate depiction 19th century race relations and racial epithets. This controversy is by no means resolves, as reactions to a 2011 attempt to censor Huck’s offensive language demonstrate.

Mark Twain would no doubt be pleased that Huckleberry Finn is still the subject of impassioned debate.

Inscription by Mark Twain from a 1901 Harper & Brothers edition of Huckleberry Finn

ZSR Special Collections has several copies of the 1885 first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in various states. The collection also has the 1884 British edition and several later editions, including a 1901 edition inscribed by the author to Frank Willard. Willard wrote under the pseudonym Josiah Flynt the book Tramping with Tramps, a copy of which was in Mark Twain’s personal library.

Smiling Through the Apocalypse, edited by Harold Hayes (1969)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 3:51 pm

Dust jacket designed by George Lois with illustration by David Levine

Tom Hayes’s documentary film on the life of his father, Harold Hayes, is titled Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the Sixties. The film, which is currently showing at the River Run Film Festival, takes its name from a 1969 anthology of Esquire magazine pieces. Both works provide a view of the decade as chronicled by the iconic magazine and its remarkable editor.

From a typescript draft with notes by Harold Hayes

In November of 1969 Esquire magazine subscribers received a special offer from publisher Arnold Gingrich. The enclosed letter began, “You are just now escaping, by the skin of your teeth, the most incredible decade in this country’s history: the 1960′s.” It continued,

From Jack Kennedy’s brave cry, “Let us begin,” to the mad smile of Sirhan Sirhan . . . from the first jarring beats of rock music through the frightening chants of “Up Against the Wall,” you have in fact lived through the most interesting of times: a time of generation gaps, sex explosions, peacock revolutions, drug fads, pop art, war, madness, and super-cockeyed wackiness.

And so, welcome to the end of it all. The “cursed” decade is over, and frankly we are in a mood for celebration. To this end we have prepared the most ambitious project in Esquire‘s 36-year history — a book of the decade, our own special version of the sixties. It is a big, handsome, oversize volume of more than a thousand pages called

“Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties”

The anthology gathered some of the most memorable articles from Esquire’s most memorable decade. Wake Forest alumnus Harold Hayes had become managing editor in 1961 and chief editor in 1963, and as Frank DiGiacomo observed in a 2007 Vanity Fair article

Hayes’s Esquire would identify, analyze, and define the new decade’s violent energies, ideas, morals, and conflicts—though always with an ironic and, occasionally, sardonic detachment that kept the magazine cool as the 60s grew increasingly hot. Esquire would become the magazine of the New: “The New Art of Success,” “The New Seven Deadly Sins,” “The New Sophistication,” and, ultimately, the New Journalism, the fancy term given to nonfiction that’s written like a novel.

The Harold Hayes Papers, housed in ZSR’s Special Collections and Archives, shed light on  the creation and development of Smiling Through the Apocalypse. The project was important to Hayes, as it documented the eventful decade in the history of both the nation and the magazine. In a memo to Arnold Gingrich Hayes asked for complete editorial control of the project: “I hope you will not believe me to be challenging your authority or position with the magazine if I lean heavily on your forebearance [sic.] and request you to let me do this one alone.” (Gingrich’s response in a handwritten note: “I thought we had already reached that conclusion.”)

Materials in the Hayes Papers also show that the anthology’s (and the magazine’s) tone of casual irreverence was achieved through a great deal of creative brainstorming and meticulous planning by Hayes and his editorial staff. Below is one of Hayes’s many pages of notes on Smiling Through the Apocalypse. Here he listed possible titles for the book itself and for its sections.

Another page of notes listed categories with possible articles. A potential “section on Ladies” did not make it into the final book.

In order to have the anthology ready for sale by Christmas 1969, Esquire staffers had to meet some tight deadlines– as this memo to editor Byron Dobell made clear.

The volume led off with Norman Mailer’s famous article on John F. Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Its original publication in 1960 had sparked the first of many conflicts between Esquire and the contentious author, when Arnold Gingrich changed the title of the article without Mailer’s consent.

Although all of the articles in Smiling Through the Apocalypse had been published in Esquire, there were still issues of copyrights and royalties to be sorted out for the 50 authors collected in the anthology.

A typescript draft of another advertising flyer for the book is an artifact from a time when cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and tape. But the pasted-in quote from Harold Hayes provides his raison d’etre for the Esquire anthology:

The real history of the Sixties has already been written . . . by talented people who didn’t know (or care) they were writing history, because they were reporting what happened– as it happened. It’s all there — told like it was — in the pages of ten years of Esquire.

Harold Hayes’s introduction to Smiling Through the Apocalypse sums up Esquire‘s journey through the pivotal decade in American history. His take on Esquire began as a reaction against “the banality of the Fifties.” Hayes and his fellow editors and writers wanted to shake up the magazine world and bring a fresh perspective to American journalism:

[I]n words and/or pictures (curiously the pictures always provoked the greatest outrage, especially George Lois’s covers)  and occasionally with some loss of dignity, the idea was to suggest alternate possibilities to a monolithic view. . . . At Esquire our attitude took shape as we went along, stumbling past our traditional boundaries of fashion, leisure, entertainment and literature onto the more forbidding ground of politics, sociology, science and even, occasionally, religion. Any point of view was welcome as long as the writer was sufficiently skillful to carry it off, but we tended to avoid committing ourselves to doctrinaire programs even though advised on occasion that we might thereby better serve the interests of mankind.

As the decade wore on, the writing in Esquire reflected the increasing upheaval in the society around it:

Against the aridity of the national landscape of the late Fifties we offered to our readers in our better moments the promise of outright laughter; by the end of the Sixties the best we could provide was a bleak grin.

Hayes concludes his introduction with a reference to the “collective confusion” of Americans in 1969.

Harold Hayes continued as editor of Esquire until 1973, when a dispute with the management led to his resignation. Hayes went on to other projects, and Esquire became a very different sort of magazine. Nearly 50 years after its publication, Smiling Through the Apocalypse is a fitting monument to the editor and the magazine that best captured the Zeitgeist of the 1960s.

ZSR Special Collections’s copy of Smiling Through the Apocalypse was owned by Harold Hayes himself. It was part of the  large collection of books and manuscripts that Hayes bequeathed to his alma mater shortly before his death in 1989.

 

Manuscript commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, ca. 1240

Monday, March 25, 2013 2:18 pm

What’s the oldest book in your collection?

This is the question most frequently asked by visitors to ZSR’s Special Collections. Our oldest book is a manuscript codex dating from around 1240. Created two centuries before the invention of printing with moveable type, this book is a handwritten copy of a commentary on the Biblical gospel books of Matthew and John.

This volume has recently been the subject of study by medieval manuscript experts from some of our neighbor institutions, who have uncovered some interesting features.

Like the vast majority of medieval manuscripts, the text of this book is in Latin. However, physical features of the manuscript suggest that it was made in England. The text is a copy of a scholarly commentary on the gospels of Matthew and John, perhaps part of Hugh of St. Cher‘s Postillae in Universa Biblia juxta Quadruplicem Sensum.

The text has many features typical of manuscripts of this era. It is written on parchment (also called vellum), a specially prepared animal skin. The running heads in blue and red indicate the chapter title on facing pages. Here  MA THS  indicates that this part of the text is about the gospel of Matthew.

The commentaries on these two gospel books were bound together in their current form much later, probably in the 17th or 18th century. They appear to be pieces of a larger work, and some small notations in the manuscript suggest a reason for this.

This note at the bottom of one leaf includes the word “pecia” along with numbers (in Roman numeral form). The manuscript contains other such markings, which suggest that it might have been part of a 13th century system for copying books for Oxford University faculty and students. This pecia system was modeled after ones developed at Italian and Parisian universities.

Copying texts by hand was obviously a time-consuming process, and the rise of European universities in the 12th century created an increased demand for texts. The pecia system addressed this concern by lending out standard texts in parts (pecia is Latin for piece) to students or to the clergy who made up the university faculties. The borrower would copy the part of the text himself– or hire a professional scribe if he could afford it– and then return the piece to the university stationer (bookseller) for the next part. This system allowed for faster and more efficient production than the lending of lengthy texts in their entirety. Existence of a pecia system at Oxford is less well documented, but it is known that by the mid-13th century the local Dominican order had set up a proto-library of texts available for consultation and copying.

In the universities, the pecia system was also an attempt at quality control. Transmission of manuscript texts was a process prone to error: when texts circulated and copies were made from copies, the effect was like a game of telephone. Errors were transmitted and multiplied to the extent that it was sometimes impossible to determine the correct version of a text. In the Paris universities, the stationers were provided with exemplars– texts vetted by university officials for accuracy– which they lent to scholars for copying. With everyone copying from the same exemplar text, errors were at least reduced (though certainly not eliminated).

The page below shows one common form of correction in a manuscript text. The marginal notation on the left, outlined in red, is text that was accidentally omitted from the column next to it. A symbol in the main text indicates to the reader where the insertion should go.

The excerpt below shows the opposite type of error. In the last line of the left column, some words are crossed out in red and underlined with a series of dots. This indicates text inserted by mistake, which the reader should ignore.

ZSR’s manuscript appears to be an exemplar– a master copy  that was lent out for reproduction. The handwriting is skilled enough that it was likely produced by a professional scribe, or at least a skilled copyist. But it is not a deluxe manuscript. Decoration is minimal, and the parchment on which it is written is not high quality. The image below shows one large tear that would have occurred as the skin was prepared. The tear was once sewn up with thread (now disintegrated), as indicated by the tiny holes along the sides.

Smaller tears, holes, and discolorations exist throughout the text. Clearly this was a working textbook, not a luxury item.

Later owners’ marks in the text support the theory that the manuscript has English origins. Both probably date from the 16th or 17th century. One is by a Robart Emy.

The other is one Thomas How[e], who asserts that he “own[es] this booke.” Thomas, who one suspects was a rather young student, has used the margins of several other pages for doodling and practicing his penmanship.

We have little information on the provenance of this manuscript. There is no record of how it came to reside in ZSR’s collection, although a newspaper clipping in our files indicates that it was stolen in the 1970s by a part-time library employee and eventually resurfaced in the library at the College of William and Mary.

So our oldest book has led an exciting life. And it has many mysteries yet to be solved.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley (1773)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 5:14 pm

Frontispiece portrait from ZSR Library’s first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is the first published volume of poetry by an African-American author. This fact in itself would make the book significant, but Phillis Wheatley’s Poems has a complicated and fascinating history of its own.

Readers of the 1773 first edition would have been familiar with biographical details of Wheatley’s life. Born around 1754, the future poet was kidnapped from some part of Africa and transported to Boston aboard the slave ship Phillis in 1761. A frail child of not more than seven, she miraculously survived a transatlantic journey that killed nearly a quarter of her fellow-passengers (a figure slightly higher than average for slave ships of that time).

Most of the Phillis’s human cargo was sold in the Caribbean. Only those unfit for work on the plantations—women, children, the elderly, sick, or disabled—continued on to Boston to be sold as domestic servants. Slavery was legal in all of the British colonies in the mid-18th century, but African slaves were fairly uncommon in New England.

John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston merchant and devout Congregationalist, purchased the little girl as a companion for his wife, Susanna. She was named after the ship that brought her from Africa. Once in the Wheatley home, Phillis quickly displayed an aptitude for learning. Her education, likely undertaken by Susanna Wheatley and her 18-year-old daughter, Mary, was equivalent to that of the daughters of any well-off  New England family of the time. A prefatory note to the Poems describes Phillis’s early life and education:

Phillis Wheatley’s experience as a slave in 18th century Boston was highly unusual, in that she does appear to have been treated by Susanna Wheatley as a member of the family, or something close to it. Phillis herself wrote after Susanna’s death that “I was treated by her more like her child than her Servant; no opportunity was left unimprov’d, of giving me the best of advice…”.

Phillis Wheatley became a published author at the age of about 13, when her poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was printed in the Newport Mercury newspaper. In 1770 her elegy for the charismatic Rev. George Whitefield was widely printed as a broadside.

Phillis Wheatley’s elegy for George Whitefield as reprinted in her Poems

By 1772 Phillis had apparently amassed a considerable number of poems in manuscript, which had been widely circulated among the Wheatleys’ circle. Susanna (presumably with Phillis’s approval) decided to seek a wider audience by having a collection of 28 poems published. She advertised the Boston Censor magazine for subscribers for “A Collection of Poems, wrote at several times, and upon various occasions, by PHILLIS, a Negro Girl, from the strength of her own Genius.” The volume was to be an octavo of approximately 200 pages “handsomely bound and lettered.” The publisher, Ezekiel Russell, would begin printing copies as soon as 300 subscribers were committed to purchasing the book.

Publishing by subscription was a standard practice for an unknown author in the 18th century, especially in the colonies. Boston printers made their living from steady sellers like primers, almanacs, newspapers, and pamphlets. Then as now, a book of poetry was unlikely to turn much of a profit, so an aspiring author would be required to finance the publication herself.

Colonial printing in general was a very small enterprise compared to the large and established publishing industry in London. So it is not surprising that the majority of books for sale in the North American colonies were imported from England, nor that many American authors sought London publishers for their works. Even as Phillis waited for subscribers to sign up for her proposed Boston publication, she and the rest of the Wheatleys were using their connections to make inquiries in England.

Phillis had sent a copy of her elegy for George Whitefield to Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, whom Whitefield had served as personal chaplain. The Countess was involved in many of the same evangelical causes as were the Wheatleys, and in 1772 she agreed to finance the publication of Phillis’s poems by London printer Archibald Bell. Since subscribers for the Boston venture were not very forthcoming, and since publication in London was far more prestigious anyway, the Wheatleys quickly agreed.

Dedication page from Wheatley’s Poems

At the suggestion of the Countess of Huntingdon, the Wheatleys provided an engraved portrait of Phillis for the book’s frontispiece. The portrait may have been done by another African slave living in Boston, the artist Scipio Moorhead. Phillis included a poem to him in the published collection.

The portrait was a somewhat surprising addition to the volume, such frontispieces being common only in substantial tomes by famous (and often long-dead) authors. But the Countess told the Wheatleys’ agent that it would “contribute greatly to the Sale of the Book”. She likely assumed that the portrait would reinforce the novelty of a young, enslaved, African woman writing a book of poetry.

The marketing of the London volume focused almost entirely on this seeming incongruity. Anticipating that there might be skepticism about whether Phillis was actually the author of the poems, she and the Wheatleys recruited eighteen of New England’s most prominent religious and political leaders to sign a document attesting to the veracity of her authorship.

Phillis herself was well aware that her published volume of poetry was not just a reflection of her personal abilities. For Phillis, the rest of the Wheatleys, and their like-minded supporters, Poems on Various Subjects was a political and moral statement intended to incite controversy.

Debate about the moral and intellectual capacities of people of African descent was raging in the 18th century public sphere, and the abolitionist movement was beginning to organize itself in England.  The nation had invented, and was still the major participant in, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the horrors of the slave trade and the appalling conditions on Caribbean plantations in particular had begun to turn English public opinion against the institution of slavery.

Supporters of the system of chattel slavery argued that these early abolitionists were naïve about the nature of enslaved Africans. Branches of 18th century science put forth the idea that the African races had evolved separately from the European and were essentially subhuman, incapable of true moral sensibility or artistic creativity. Therefore their use as slave labor was no more immoral than the keeping of domesticated animals. Opponents of this view put forth both religious and scientific arguments to counter it. Of course, there were many gradations on this spectrum of belief. Many people who were convinced of the overall inferiority of Africans (Thomas Jefferson, for example) still strongly objected to the inhumane treatment of slaves. And some, like John and Susanna Wheatley, who argued for the inherent equality of the races, nonetheless owned slaves themselves. But the argument itself was basic to the debate over whether slavery could exist in a civilized society.

As the publication of Phillis’s poems was being arranged, it was decided that she should make what was essentially a publicity tour to England. John and Susanna Wheatley’s son Nathaniel had planned a business trip to London in the spring of 1773, and Phillis accompanied him. Publicity for the book was meticulously planned by Susanna, Phillis, and their friends. Phillis’s poem “A Farewel to America” was published in New England papers upon her departure and was also sent ahead to London for publication there.

In the poem Phillis expresses regret at parting with Susanna (who was quite ill), but also eagerly anticipates her visit to the intellectual and cultural center of British society. The visit of an enslaved person to England at this point in time had other implications, which would have been well known to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The Somerset Decision had recently ruled that enslaved Africans visiting England could not be forced by their purported masters to return to the Americas. If Phillis had chosen to stay in England in the summer of 1773, Nathaniel could not have compelled her return to Boston.

And it appears that Phillis thoroughly enjoyed her time in London. Although she did not meet her patron the Countess of Huntingdon (who was in Wales at the time), she visited many well-known figures and was toured around the cultural high points of London. Her visit was cut short, however, by news of Susanna Wheatley’s rapidly failing health. Phillis chose to return to Boston to be with Susanna during her last days, leaving London a month before her volume of poetry was published.

Title page from ZSR’s first edition

When Poems on Various Subjects appeared in September 1773, it was reviewed in at least eight London magazines. Reviewers invariably remarked on the unusual circumstance of an African slave writing serious literature, and several specifically pointed out the implications for the slavery debate. The Critical Review (September 1773) remarked that

The Negroes of Africa are generally treated as a dull, ignorant, and ignoble race of men, fit only to be slaves, and incapable of any considerable attainments in the liberal arts and sciences. A poet or a poetess amongst them, of any tolerable genius, would be a prodigy in literature.–Phillis Wheatley, the author of these poems, is that literary phaenomenon…. The author appears to be of a serious, and religious turn of mind.

Copies were sold in Boston too, and the book garnered as much attention and fueled as much debate in America as in England.

This historical context is important to an understanding of Wheatley’s poetry. In the 18th century, the highest form of artistic expression was poetry in the classical mode. Phillis’s formal language and classical allusions may sound stilted to modern readers, but it was vital that she prove her ability to write in this style. No one could argue that an author who could approximate the poetry of Homer and Ovid (or at least Milton and Pope) was possessed of a subhuman intellect.

Phillis’s religious sensibility is also an important aspect of the Poems. She was by all appearances genuinely devout in the Calvinist, evangelical Christianity of her Boston community. This too gave the lie to assertions that Africans lacked moral sensibility, and it lent support to evangelicals’ arguments that slaves should be taught to read the Bible and participate fully in religious life.

Most of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry cannot really be understood outside of its religious context. Particularly important is the Calvinist idea of Providence, and especially God’s ability to use even sinful acts of humans to achieve his purposes. The brief verse that Henry Louis Gates called “the most reviled poem in African-American literature” depends entirely on this idea.

For the poet, an act of profound evil—her kidnapping from Africa—was used by God for a good end—her introduction to Christianity. An 18th century Congregationalist would understand that this in no way excuses the sinful act itself (although some proponents of slavery in the 19th century would use religious ends-justify-means arguments for continuing the slave system). And no one who has read Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and letters would believe that this is her intent, in this poem or in others on the subject.

The publication of Poems on Various Subjects may have been politically motivated, but the voice of the young poet also comes through strongly, despite what may seem to us an antiquated style and theology. Phillis Wheatley’s poems contain many conventional self-deprecating references to her lowly status, but in fact she had little hesitation in addressing the grandest personages, from King George to General Washington. In one poem she offers advice to the graduating class of Harvard:

Phillis’s independence of mind is also evident in the little we know about her later life. John Wheatley granted her freedom (perhaps under some pressure from her English supporters), and Susanna Wheatley died shortly after Phillis’s return from England in 1773. Phillis seems to have remained with John Wheatley and later with Mary and her husband during first years of the Revolution. But both John and Mary died in 1778, and Nathaniel had married and remained in England. Against the wishes of members of the extended Wheatley family, Phillis married a free black man, John Peters, in 1778.

Later biographers depicted Peters as a lazy con man, unworthy of the refined Phillis’s attentions. But this is probably unfair. In truth, Peters seems to have been  intelligent, handsome, and ambitious. But the remaining Wheatleys disliked him, and Phillis seems to have had little contact with the family after her marriage.

John Peters advertised a planned second volume of Phillis’s poems in 1779, but it was never published. Peters, like many others, found himself in dire financial straits during the disastrous economic depression that followed the Revolution. He was likely interred in debtors’ prison more than once, leaving Phillis in difficult circumstances. The Peterses may have had as many as three children, but all apparently died in infancy.

Phillis, who had always suffered from respiratory ailments and an “asthmatic condition,” died in December 1784, probably while her husband was in prison. The manuscript of her second volume of poetry has never been found. We are left to remember this remarkable author only by her Poems on Various Subjects.

ZSR Library’s first edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was purchased in 1994 with funds from the Oscar T. Smith endowment.


Selected sources

Vincent Carretta. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

 

Mukhtar Ali Isani. “The British Reception of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects” The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 66, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 144-149.

 

Walt Nott. From “Uncultivated Barbarian” to “Poetical Genius”: The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley”. MELUS , Vol. 18, No. 3, Poetry and Poetics (Autumn, 1993), pp. 21-32

 

Kirstin Wilcox. “The Body into Print: Marketing Phillis Wheatley.” American Literature , Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 1-29

 


Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 12:12 pm

On 29 January 1813 Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote to her sister Cassandra with exciting news: “I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London.” The “darling child” was a copy of her newly published book Pride and Prejudice.

Half-title page from ZSR’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice

On this the 200th anniversary of its publication Pride and Prejudice is an undisputed literary classic, as popular with readers today as it was in 1813. But the novel’s path to publication was a long one.

Jane Austen began writing novels while still a teenager. The second youngest of seven children, Austen had the good fortune to be born into a family of literary enthusiasts. Her parents, brothers, and sister all had a lively interest in the popular books of the day, and they encouraged Jane’s literary efforts. Like the rest of her family, Jane was an avid reader. A favorite author was Frances Burney, one of the most popular and successful novelists of the late 18th century. That Jane Austen was a devoted fan is evident from the fact that she is listed as a subscriber in Burney’s 1795 novel Camilla.

She appears in the subscriber list as “Miss J. Austen, Steventon.”  It was the only time that Jane Austen’s name appeared in print during her lifetime.

The novel that would become Pride and Prejudice was probably written in 1796 and originally titled First Impressions. Jane’s father thought highly enough of his 22-year-old daughter’s work that he wrote to Fanny Burney’s publisher to inquire whether he would be interested in  “a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. About the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina.”

The publisher, Thomas Cadell, Jr., declined even to read the manuscript.

Title page of ZSR’s copy of Camilla

Meanwhile, Jane kept writing. Her novels and stories were circulated in manuscript among friends and family. And in 1803 she sold a novel called Susan to the publisher Benjamin Crosby for £10. For this sum Austen relinquished all copyright to Crosby, who was then free to do with the manuscript as he wished. And what he did was nothing. The book remained unpublished, much to Austen’s frustration. She eventually had to purchase the manuscript back from the publisher. It was published as Northanger Abbey after her death.

Austen had better luck with a novel called Sense and Sensibility. In 1810 the publisher Thomas Egerton accepted the book on commission. Egerton would finance the publication and receive 10% of all profits from the sales, but Austen would be responsible for repaying any losses should the book prove a failure. Fortunately for her, it was not a failure. Sense and Sensibility: A Novel in Three Volumes, appeard in 1811 and proved quite popular with readers. As was common with novels of the 18th and early 19th century, the author was not identified by name. The title page only allowed that the book was written “By a Lady.”

When Austen offered the revised manuscript of First Impressions, now called Pride and Prejudice (the new title was likely a reference to the ending of Frances Burney’s Cecilia), Egerton purchased the copyright for £110. It was hurried into print and was available for sale in London by January 1813.

Title page from ZSR’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice

In her January 29 letter to Cassandra, Jane seems quite pleased with the book:

I must confess that I think [Elizabeth Bennet] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know. There are a few typical errors; and a ” said he,” or a “said she,” would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.

Austen’s contemporary readers agreed with her assessment that Pride and Prejudice was better than the average work of popular fiction. The Critical Review published a favorable account of the novel in March 1813, praising in particular Austen’s skill at characterization.

Elizabeth’s sense and conduct are of a superior order to those of the common heroines of novels. For her independence of character, which is kept within the proper line of decorum, and her well-timed sprightliness, she teaches the man of Family-Pride to know himself.

The Critical Review also approved of the lessons that young, female readers were likely to take away from Pride and Prejudice. Lydia’s story, for example, showed “the folly of letting young girls have their own way” and the danger of consorting with military officers. And the line that the author “draws. . . between the prudent and the mercenary in matrimonial concerns” was deemed potentially “useful to our fair readers.” The reviewer concluded with the assertion that

[T]his performance. . . rises very superior to any novel we have lately met with in the delineation of domestic scenes. Nor is there one character which appears flat, or obtrudes itself upon the notice of the reader with troublesome impertinence. There is not one person in the drama with whom we could readily dispense;– they all have their proper places; and fill their several stations, with great credit to themselves, and much satisfaction to the reader.

The opening lines of Pride and Prejudice are some of the most famous in English literature

William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review, echoed the general sentiment that Pride and Prejudice  was an improvement over the many overblown and sensational novels of the day:

I have for the first time looked into ‘Pride and Prejudice’; and it is really a very pretty thing. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger– things that should now be left to ladies’ maids and sentimental washerwomen.” [Gilson 27]

The first printing of Pride and Prejudice likely consisted of about 1000-1200 copies– a typical first run for a novel at that time. And like most novels, it was published in a small duodecimo format (the large printed sheet folded to form twelve pages) in three volumes.

ZSR’s copy of the 1813 first edition of Pride and Prejudice, with marbled paper and leather binding likely dating from the late 19th century

The three-volume novel was becoming the standard form for popular fiction in the early 19th century. Even for books like Pride and Prejudice that were not so long as to be unwieldy in one volume, multiple volumes were the preferred format. This was largely due to the demands of private circulating libraries, which were by 1800 the largest purchaser of works of fiction.

English circulating libraries had their beginnings in the late 17th century, when some booksellers hit on the idea of offering books for rent as well as for sale. By the mid-18th century private lending libraries were a widespread phenomenon. After paying an annual subscription fee, a member was entitled to borrow books from the library’s collection. Most libraries had a sliding scale for fees: a higher subscription rate allowed one to borrow more books at one time. For such libraries the advantage of multi-volume works was that more than one borrower could have access to the book simultaneously, each reading one volume and returning it for the next.

Jane Austen herself was an enthusiastic patron of various circulating libraries. Books, reading, and libraries figure constantly in her novels and her letters.

Early in the novel Elizabeth Bennet assumes that she and Mr. Darcy are incompatible in their reading preferences (and in everything else).

Pride and Prejudice proved even more popular with readers than Sense and Sensibility. Anne Isabella Milbanke (soon to be Lady Byron) wrote to her mother early in 1813 that Pride and Prejudice was “at present the fashionable novel” among the well-to-do at the London social season. There was much speculation about the book’s authorship. In May Milbanke wrote that “I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work . . . . I wish much to know who is the author or ess as I am told.” [Gilson 25].

Although Jane Austen’s name did not appear on the title pages of any of her novels during her lifetime, the popularity of Pride and Prejudice in the small world of the English leisure classes ensured that her identity was soon widely known. Writing to her brother Frank in September 1813 Austen noted that

The truth is that the Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now — & that I believe whenever the 3d appears, I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it.– I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it.

As an unmarried woman in her thirties with no inheritance, Jane Austen had good reason to hope that her books would make money.  She was otherwise entirely dependent on her brothers’ charity. Pride and Prejudice was successful enough that a second edition was printed in October 1813, and her third novel, Mansfield Park, was published the next year.

By the time Emma was ready for publication in 1816, Jane Austen had become famous enough that the Prince Regent requested that she dedicate it to him . Austen was no great admirer of the profligate Prince, but she complied. She had also acquired a more prestigious publisher, John Murray, who published the book for a ten percent commission.

Title page from ZSR’s first edition of Emma

Jane Austen did not live to see her last two novels (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) in print. She died in 1817 at the age of 42.

Interest in her books, however, shows no sign of waning nearly 200 years later. Pride and Prejudice has not been out of print since the 19th century and has been subjected to stage, television, and film adaptations, sequels, prequels, fan fiction, and permutations that Jane Austen could hardly have imagined. But readers who find their way back to the original will likely agree with Sir Walter Scott that “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings, and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with” [Gilson 475].

Pride and Prejudice, Volume 3, Chapter 1

 

ZSR Library received the first edition of Pride and Prejudice as part of the library of Charles Babcock. The volume also has the bookplate of another former owner, Robert Hoe,  a 19th century book collector and manufacturer of printing machinery who was  the first president of the Grolier Club.

 

Recommended reading

Bautz, Annika.  The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott. London: Continuum, 2007.

Erickson, Lee. “The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 . 30. 4 (Autumn, 1990):   573-590. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/450560 .

Gilson, David. A Bibliography of Jane Austen. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 1997.
Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009.

Ethiopian Psalter, 18th or 19th Century

Thursday, December 13, 2012 2:10 pm

Illustration from an Ethiopian manuscript psalter, depicting King David with a harp

Ethiopia, the oldest independent nation in Africa, has a unique Christian tradition dating back to the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church developed largely in isolation after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 640′s. But Christianity remained the official state religion for many centuries, and the Ethiopian imperial family claimed to be descended directly from the Biblical King Solomon.

The Ethiopian Bible is unique, containing several apocryphal books that are preserved nowhere else. The Ethiopian Church maintained a strong tradition of manuscript Bibles and other religious texts, and illuminated Bibles were very popular from at least the 12th century onward. The 15th century was a golden age of artistic achievement in Ethiopian illuminated Bibles, and many later manuscripts contain copies of illustrations from this period. Ethiopian iconography, although it shows some influence of European and especially Byzantine artistic traditions, is as distinctive as the religious tradition from which it stems.

The Ethiopian manuscript in ZSR’s Special Collections is a psalter (a collection of the Psalms of David from the Christian Old Testament) probably dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. The printing press was not widely used in most of Africa until the mid-19th century, so a strong manuscript tradition persisted much longer that it had in Europe. The psalter is written in Ge’ez, a syllabic script traditionally used for Ethiopian liturgical texts, in red and black ink on vellum pages. Some pages, like the one pictured above, have decorative headpieces.

The psalter also has five full-page illustrations with iconography very typical of Ethiopian religious texts. The colors are bright and saturated, and the figures are outlined in black and are depicted in full face with wide eyes (in the Ethiopian as in many other African artistic traditions, only enemies are depicted in profile).

In addition to King David pictured above, there is a crucifixion scene.

Mary’s halo and the tears on her face and St. John’s were added in pencil by a later owner of the book.

Illustrations of St. George slaying a dragon and of the Madonna and child are featured on facing pages:

Both the St. George legend and the cult of the Virgin Mary were extremely important in the Ethiopian religious tradition. Illustrations of St. George slaying the dragon to rescue a north African princess were common in Ethiopian Bibles. And since the saint was also supposed to be the protector and frequent companion of Mary, depictions of George were often juxtaposed with  illustrations of the Virgin and the infant Christ.

The final illustration is a figure of an aristocratic Ethiopian man in contemporary dress holding a small book.

This is almost certainly a depiction of the patron who commissioned the psalter. The volume in his hand looks very similar to the manuscript book in the ZSR collection.

The library’s manuscript psalter is also a small book bound in dark red leather over wooden boards.

The book also has a leather cover and carrying case. This type of case, called a mahedar, is very typical of Ethiopian Bibles from this time period.

Small books like this one were intended for personal use, in contrast to larger volumes for church or ceremonial uses. The portability and personalized iconography of this psalter suggest that it was an object of private devotion and study. There is also much evidence of use by a later owner in the book itself. There are pencil notes throughout the book and extensive notes and sketches on the endpapers. At least one of the book’s owners apparently had an artistic bent:

Ethiopian manuscript texts like this one are found in libraries and private collections throughout the world. Many were dispersed in 1868 after British troops defeated the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros and looted the churches and monasteries of Maqdala. The exact origins of the ZSR manuscript psalter are unknown; it was acquired as a gift in the 1940′s as part of the personal collection of Oscar T. Smith.

Divina Commedia, by Dante Alighieri (Aldine Press, 1502)

Monday, November 12, 2012 1:33 pm

From the title page verso of the 1502 first edition

The Renaissance scholar Aldus Manutius (ca. 1451-1515) began his career in typical fashion, as a tutor to an aristocratic Roman family. We don’t know what prompted him in 1490 to move to Venice and try his hand at a business venture involving the exciting new technology that was spreading across Europe: printing with moveable type. But over the next 25 years Aldus became the most important scholar/printer of the Italian Renaissance.

The Aldine Press, as it became known, began by printing editions of Latin and Greek classics that were in demand by scholars. But Aldus also published works in the Italian vernacular, and in 1502 he undertook an edition of the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Title page from the Aldine Dante

Dante wrote his epic poem between 1308 and 1321. There are no surviving manuscripts in Dante’s own hand, but the work was widely copied  and over 400 manuscript copies from the 14th century are known to exist. Dante’s popularity continued unabated into the 15th century, and several Italian printers issued editions of the Divine Comedy between 1472 and 1500. Most of these early editions included the extensive commentary by Florentine scholar Cristoforo Landino. In many of them the commentary almost overwhelmed the text, and little attention was given to accurate editing of the poem itself.

In this page from a 15th century edition of Vergil's works, seven lines of text from the Aeneid are surrounded by extensive commentary. The Dante editions with Landino commentary would have looked similar.

Aldus’s edition, by contrast, dispensed with all commentary and presented the unadorned text of the poem in a small octavo format.

First text page of the Aldine Dante

The text itself was a new version edited by Aldus’s friend and frequent collaborator, Pietro Bembo. Its origin was an early manuscript version of the Divine Comedy from the library of Bembo’s father (though it was not, as Bembo claimed, in Dante’s own hand).

Bembo was a Renaissance humanist and an accomplished scholar. Rather than writing a lengthy gloss on the poem, as Landino had done, he concentrated on making the text itself understandable for his 16th century Italian readers. After the publication of Aldus’s 1502 edition, Bembo’s version became the standard Dante text until well into the 19th century.

Title page from Bembo's History of Venice, 1551

One of Aldus’s and Bembo’s major innovations was the liberal use of punctuation, a feature often missing from manuscripts and earlier printed texts.

First page of the Purgatorio section

The Aldine Press Dante was typical of many of Aldus’s imprints in that it was a small octavo volume, affordable and easily portable. Many 15th century editions of the classics were large folio volumes, impressive but unwieldy and extremely expensive, with text often buried under centuries of accumulated notes. Aldus realized that there was a market in the scholarly community for well-edited and reasonably priced texts. His Dante is one of many small volumes, printed in his trademark italic font. Aldus was an innovator in typeface design, and his italic type was based on the handwriting of two highly accomplished Italian scribes.

Detail from a page of the Paradisio section

The 1502 Divine Comedy was the first book in which Aldus Manutius used his famous dolphin and anchor printer’s device. The emblem was taken from a Roman medal given to Aldus by Pietro Bembo. The swift dolphin and the immovable anchor are a visual representation of the motto “festina lente” or “make haste slowly.” This quote from Emperor Augustus was an appropriate motto for Aldus, whose painstaking scholarship and editing underpinned his prolific output as a printer.

An example of the dolphin and anchor printer's device from a 1563 Aldine Press edition of Cicero

However, not all copies of the 1502 Dante have the Aldine device. The engraved illustration was apparently not ready when the first copies of the Divine Comedy went to press, so the earliest issues (of which ZSR’s copy is one) do not have the device.

Colophon (printer's statement at end of text) of ZSR's 1502 Dante, without the printer's device

ZSR Library’s copy of the Aldine Press Divina Commedia contains bookplates from three former owners. One of these was famous in his own right: the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin (1823-1900).

Ruskin was one of the most influential writers on art and society in 19th century England,  and he was a great admirer of Dante. In his Stones of Venice Ruskin wrote

I think that the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties, all at their highest, is Dante.

Ruskin made his first visit to Italy in 1845, spending time in Venice and Florence.  It is  possible that he acquired the Aldine Press volume during this trip. It is also possible that Ruskin was responsible for having the volume rebound in blue velvet, with yellow silk endpapers and gauffred edges.

The blue velvet binding on the ZSR copy was added by a later owner.

The edges of the ZSR volume are gilded and decorated.

In any case, it is clear that this copy of the Aldine Press Dante has been a treasured possession of many owners over the past 500 years. ZSR Library purchased the book from bookseller William Salloch in 1986. All of the images above are from volumes in the ZSR Rare Books Collection.

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White (1952)

Thursday, September 20, 2012 1:44 pm

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century, was first published 60 years ago this month.

Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) had a long career as a contributor and an editorial staff member at The New Yorker. He wrote poetry and novels for adults and was perhaps best known for his nonfiction essays. White had a lifelong affinity for animals and love of the natural world. He married New Yorker editor Katherine Angell in 1929 and soon after bought a farm in Maine. White’s keen observations on farm life in Charlotte’s Web and other writings were informed by his firsthand experience of life in the barnyard.

 

Title page from ZSR Library’s copy of the 1952 first edition of Charlotte’s Web

White wrote three children’s books: Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970).

Ursula Nordstrom was chief editor of the children’s book division at Harper and Brothers when E.B. White submitted the manuscript for Stuart Little. White was already well known by then for his pieces in The New Yorker and other literary magazines, and Nordrstrom later recalled that

Only another children’s book editor can know the emotions one has on hearing that a famous writer of adult books is going to send a book for children to the house, for talent in the former does not always carry over to the latter. And so it was with a certain relief that I read the manuscript and found that I adored it.

Stuart Little was published in 1945 to widespread (if not universal) acclaim. Some years later White delivered another manuscript to Nordstrom:

One day in the early spring of 1952 I was sitting in my Harper office and the receptionist came in to tell me E. B. White was outside. I went out to the elevator and greeted him, and he said, “I’ve brought you a new manuscript.” I hadn’t known he was even close to finishing a second book and I was overwhelmed. Thinking immediately that it was already pretty late to get it illustrated and printed and bound in time for the fall list, I said, “Have you given me a carbon copy too, so I can rush it off to Garth [Williams]?”

“No,” he said, “this is the only copy; I didn’t make a carbon copy.” And he gave me the only copy in existence of “Charlotte’s Web,” got back on the elevator and left.

An editor seldom has the luxury of enough time in the office to read manuscripts, but I decided I would have to give myself just that luxury that afternoon. There were no Xerox machines in 1952, and I didn’t dare take a chance on losing the manuscript on the train home, or whatever. So I sat down and began to read.

By the time she finished reading, Nordstrom recalled, “I knew that this was one of the great ones.”

Dust jacket description from the first edition

Part of the enduring appeal of Charlotte’s Web is White’s loving but entirely unsentimental depiction of farm life. The idea for the book grew out of White’s experiences on his own farm, in particular his attempt to save a dying pig, which he wrote about in a 1948 essay. The talking animals in Charlotte’s Web are funny and charming, but they exist in a real world where children grow up, friends die, and animals (including humans) kill and eat other animals to survive.

White was fascinated by spiders and thoroughly researched the lives and habits of American arachnids while writing his book. At one point he brought an egg sac from the Maine farm back to the family’s Manhattan apartment. A few weeks later he was delighted to find hundreds of baby spiderlets swarming the top of his bedroom dresser. One suspects that the kindly Dr. Dorian is speaking for the author of Charlotte’s Web when he observes that

I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.

Charlotte’s Web was a popular and critical success when it appeared in the fall of 1952. In a review in the New York Times (October 15, 1952) Eudora Welty praised White’s melding of the whimsical and the profound.

What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done. What it all proves — in the words of the minister in the story which he hands down to his congregation after Charlotte writes ”Some Pig” in her web — is ”that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.”

Interviewed by George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther in the Paris Review (Fall 1969), White shared his thoughts on writing for children:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

The first edition of Charlotte’s Web featured 46 illustrations by Garth Williams. Williams had also illustrated White’s first children’s book Stuart Little. An aspiring but unsuccessful New Yorker cartoonist at the time, Williams had been offered the Stuart Little assignment by Ursula Nordstrom after several other illustrators turned it down. But Williams’s precise line drawings proved a good match for E. B. White’s prose, and he was Nordstrom’s immediate choice for Charlotte’s Web. Williams went on to illustrate nearly 100 children’s books, including titles by Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, George Selden, and the 1960s reissue of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s complete Little House series.

Williams is said to have used his oldest daughter, Fiona, as the model for Fern Arable.

ZSR Library’s first edition of Charlotte’s Web is one of many E. B. White titles from the Lynwood Giacomini collection of 20th century American literature. The Giacomini collection was purchased by the library in 1976.

Life in the West of Ireland, by Jack Butler Yeats (1912)

Friday, August 3, 2012 4:04 pm

Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) is considered by many to be the most important Irish artist of the 20th century. Like his brother, the poet William Butler Yeats , Jack Yeats was a key figure in the Celtic Revival movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jack Yeats is best known for his long and prolific career in the visual arts, but he also wrote novels, essays, and plays.  A profound attachment to the land and people of Ireland is evident in all of his work.

1912 first edition of Life in the West of Ireland

Jack was the youngest child of Irish artist John Butler Yeats and his wife Susan Pollexfen. The Yeats family were Anglo-Irish Protestants from County Sligo, Ireland, but Jack Yeats was born in London, where his father had moved the family after giving up a law practice to pursue his artistic ambitions. John Yeats had some success as a portrait artist, but the family suffered chronic financial difficulties. When Jack was eight years old he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Sligo on the northwest coast of Ireland, where he remained for the next eleven years. When he returned to London in 1887, Jack entered art school and began his career as a professional artist and illustrator.

Frontispiece illustration for Life in the West of Ireland

Jack began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist for popular English magazines and newspapers. He also provided artwork for cards and publications of his sister Elizabeth Yeats’s Cuala Press. In 1910 Jack and his wife moved back to Ireland and settled there permanently.

Jack Yeats once remarked to Thomas MacGreevy that “No one creates… the artist assembles memories.” Yeats’s memories of the Sligo of his childhood are the subject of Life in the West of Ireland, a volume of line drawings, watercolors, and reproductions of oil paintings  published in 1912.

Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections holds two copies of the first edition of Life in the West of Ireland. One is a presentation copy from Jack Yeats to Augusta, Lady Gregory.

Inscription by Jack Yeats

Lady Gregory was a folklorist, playwright, and monumental figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance. She advised and encouraged many of the most important Irish writers and artists of the time, including both William and Jack Yeats.  Jack sent her a copy of Life in the West of Ireland in December 1912 as she was embarking on a tour of the United States.

Manuscript note from Jack Yeats laid into the ZSR copy of Life in the West of Ireland

Life in the West of Ireland is an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of a way of life that was disappearing in the early 20th century. Yeats’s illustrations document the everyday life of inhabitants of towns like Sligo.

From an early age Jack Yeats had an interest in theater and spectacle. Many of the illustrations in Life in the West of Ireland depict popular entertainments– circuses, fairs, and stage melodramas.

Later in his career Jack Yeats turned more to oil painting. Several of his paintings are reproduced as black and white plates in Life in the West of Ireland.

The first edition of Life in the West of Ireland included 150 copies of a special limited edition.

Limited edition (left) and regular first edition (right), both published by Maunsel & Co.

ZSR Special Collections holds copy 30 of the limited edition, with an original color sketch of a circus clown.

Sketch by Jack Yeats for the limited edition of Life in the West of Ireland

Wake Forest’s copies of the inscribed first edition and the limited edition were purchased by the library in 1972 and 1974 respectively. They are part of the extensive collection of Irish Literary Renaissance materials in ZSR Library’s Special Collections. This collection includes most of Jack Yeats’s published works, along with near-complete collections of the works of W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and many other important Irish writers. ZSR Special Collections also holds the archives of Liam Miller and his Dolmen Press, which was the successor to the Cuala Press and publisher of many important works of Irish literature in the second half of the 20th century.


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