Special Collections & Archives Blog

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

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.

The American Star, 1817

Thursday, June 28, 2012 3:11 pm

Two hundred years ago this month, the War of 1812 began. This three-year conflict with Britain was, as one recent commentator observed, “the Jan Brady of American conflicts for good reason: not only was it book-ended by two vastly more significant wars, but its causes weren’t sexy, its conclusions were muddy, and its most famous battle took place after peace was declared.”

But one thing historians agree on is that the War of 1812 was instrumental in forging a national identity for the still-new United States. Public enthusiasm for the music and poetry of the war persisted long after ratification of the Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict in 1815. So when Richmond bookseller and publisher Peter Cottom brought out a second edition of his popular American Star songster in 1817, the small volume, subtitled A Choice Collection of the Most Approved Patriotic & Other Songs, contained a large number of songs celebrating American victories in the recent war.

The most famous of these is found on page 4

Francis Scott Key wrote the text of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in September 1814 while witnessing the British attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. Shortly thereafter it was published as a broadside, set to the music of the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven“. The 1817 edition of The American Star is one of the earliest appearances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a collection of songs.

Many lesser-known songs from the War of 1812 are included in The American Star. Several of them, like the “Song” pictured above, are set to the same tune as Key’s lyrics.

Over half of the songs in the volume have nationalistic themes. Some celebrate specific battles or war heroes:

General William Hull is actually best known for his embarrassing surrender of Detroit to the British in August 1812.

The British navy’s unprovoked attack on the USS Chesapeake in 1807 was one of the events that led the U.S. to declare war.

The battle of Lake Erie, fought in September 1813, was one of the largest naval engagements of the war and an important victory for the U.S.

U.S. forces led by Andrew Jackson defended the newly acquired Louisiana territory from a British invasion in the battle of New Orleans, the last major battle of the war.

Other songs in the collection are more generally patriotic. This one, by poet Samuel Woodworth, celebrates the role of the printing press in a democratic society:

The rest of the songs are largely popular ballads of the time, many from the musical theater. The subtitle of one called “Nobody Coming to Marry Me” asserts that it was “sang [sic.] by Mrs. Poe, with unbounded applause, at the New-York Theatre.”

Mrs. Poe was the young actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe. Deserted by her husband, she attempted to support her three small children by a career onstage before her very early death. Her second son, Edgar, became one of the most important American authors of the 19th century.

ZSR Library’s copy of The American Star was donated to the Wake Forest College Library sometime in the 19th century. It remained in the circulating collection until 2011.  The book has been heavily used and inexpertly repaired, and it is missing its title page.

Even as a new book, the small volume would not have been visually impressive. The second edition of The American Star was printed on poor quality paper and cheaply bound, an inexpensive book intended for a wide audience. Its publisher, Peter Cottom, traded mostly in almanacs, practical handbooks, and a few legal documents (he is known to have supplied Thomas Jefferson with reading material). The American Star was popular entertainment for citizens of the still evolving United States. It may not be pretty, but it is a valuable artifact from the nation’s formative years.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 2:52 pm

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a man of many talents and many interests, but he is best known as the creator of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle published his first story in 1879, while he was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh. After completing his studies, Conan Doyle made repeated attempts to establish a medical practice. He was not a great success as a doctor, which had the benefit of giving him plenty of spare time to continue his writing career. By 1891 he had given up medicine entirely and was supporting his family (a wife and two small children) solely by his writing.

Detective fiction was a fairly new genre when Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in “A Study in Scarlet,” published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. A second Holmes story, “The Sign of the Four,” appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890. Both stories were also published as individual volumes.

But it was the July 1891 publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia” in The Strand magazine that made Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle household names.

The Strand, July 1891

The Strand, a new venture from publisher and entrepreneur George Newnes, was a popular magazine aimed at a middle-class family readership. Its issues included a variety of fiction and nonfiction pieces.

From the first issue of The Strand

Conan Doyle observed that the “disconnected stories” common in magazines of the time did not particularly inspire reader loyalty. But an ongoing serial story presented problems of its own: readers who missed one issue might lose the plot and become uninterested. Conan Doyle posited that

Clearly the ideal compromise was a character which carried through, and yet instalments [sic.] which were each complete in themselves, so that the purchaser was always sure that he could relish the whole contents of the magazine. I believe that I was the first to realize this, and “The Strand Magazine” the first to put it into practice. . . . Looking round for my central character I felt that Sherlock Holmes, whom I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories. [Memories and Adventures, 90]

Strand editor Greenhough Smith agreed, and he requested a series of six Sherlock Holmes stories. They were hugely popular and were a major factor in the new magazine’s becoming highly successful. The stories were published in The Strand between July 1891 and June 1892. Immediately thereafter they were reprinted as a separate volume entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The book was a large volume, bound in bright blue with prominent gold lettering and an illustration that was a facsimile of a Strand Magazine cover. It was clearly intended to catch the eye of a potential buyer scanning a bookseller’s stalls, and to reinforce the connection with the magazine.

First edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The book version included the illustrations created by Sidney Paget for the magazine installments. Conan Doyle approved of the illustrations, although he initially thought that Paget had made Sherlock Holmes a bit too handsome. It was Paget who created the now-iconic image of Holmes in his long coat and deerstalker hat.

Illustration by Sidney Paget from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The publication of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes established Conan Doyle as an author of note. In an interview in The Bookman (May 1892) he was asked “how on earth he had evolved, apparently out of his inner consciousness, such an extraordinary person as his detective Sherlock Holmes.” Conan Doyle replied that

[I]f you please, he is not evolved out of any one’s inner consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment. . . of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University [Dr. Joesph Bell], who would sit in the patients’ waiting-room. . . and diagnose the people as they came in, before they had even opened their mouths. He would tell them their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives, and he would hardly ever make a mistake. ["A Talk with Dr. Conan Doyle", 50]

Dedication page from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Bell himself, the model for Sherlock Holmes, reviewed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for The Bookman (December 1892). Bell praised Conan Doyle’s skill as an author and confirmed the link between the diagnostician and the detective:

The precise and intelligent recognition and appreciation of minor differences is the real essential factor in all successful medical diagnosis. Carried into ordinary life, granted the presence of an insatiable curiosity and fairly acute senses, you have Sherlock Holmes as he astonishes his somewhat dense friend Watson; carried out in a specialised training, you have Sherlock Holmes the skilled detective. [79]

Bell also noted that the stories had been collected in a “handsome volume,” but he observed that “Had the handsome volume been divided into two, it would not have been so heavy to hold.” [81]

Bell was not the only reviewer to remark on the physical appearance of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A less sympathetic writer for the National Observer and British Review (29 October 1892) published an “interview” with Sherlock Holmes himself, in which the fictional detective is highly critical of his creator. Conan Doyle in this account is a money-grubbing hack, “a man of few scruples. . . striving, like all his class, to make ‘copy’ where he can.” And Holmes deduces this from looking at a copy of The Adventures:

You see this book is large and expensively brought out; moreover it is issued by a publisher who caters for the million. Hence it is clear that a very large sale is anticipated. Why? Because the book is supposed to contain a popular element, and that popular element is myself. Now, it follows that Dr. Doyle must have heard of me, through Watson or the police; that he saw I should suit his game (which was money); and having invented spurious stories about me that he hit upon a publisher similarly unscrupulous. [606-607]

The huge popularity of the Sherlock Holmes books provoked something of a backlash from critics like the one from the National Observer. The late 19th century saw a deluge of books and magazines like The Strand which were aimed at a middle and working-class readership who had more leisure time and disposable income than previous generations. The literary elite was alarmed by this incursion of commerce into the realm of art. And Arthur Conan Doyle himself was not immune to this view. Although he was entirely unapologetic about writing for a popular audience, he also had no illusions about the Sherlock Holmes stories being taken seriously as literature. Conan Doyle was far more invested in his works of historical fiction (and later nonfiction histories), telling his Bookman interviewer “That is the only work I really fancy.”

Two of Conan Doyle’s many works of historical fiction

After the great success of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle wrote a second series of Holmes stories for The Strand. Twelve stories appeared between December 1892 and December 1893. The were collected into a volume called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in January 1894.

Conan Doyle intended this to be Sherlock Holmes’s last outing. In the last story, “The Final Problem,” Holmes and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty plunge to their apparent deaths over the Reichenbach Falls (Conan Doyle got the idea during a family holiday in the Alps).

Sherlock Holmes fans were outraged. “They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead,” Conan Doyle later observed, “and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends.” [Memories and Adventures, 94]

Conan Doyle eventually relented, publishing “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (which supposedly took place before Holmes’s death) in 1901, and finally bringing Holmes back to life (apparently he had faked his fatal plunge over the falls) in 1903. Conan Doyle published more than 30 additional Sherlock Holmes stories before his own death in 1930.

Over a century later, Sherlock Holmes is still the most famous detective in the world. The audience for the original stories and for new adaptations is as enthusiastic today as it was in the 19th century. It would appear that Sherlock Holmes really is immortal.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections copies of the first editions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are from the library of Charles Babcock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590), by Theodor deBry, Thomas Hariot, and John White

Monday, April 30, 2012 8:15 pm

Secotan priest

Secotan priest

In 1590 the Frankfurt printer and engraver Theodor deBry published a folio edition of Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia with engraved illustrations based on John White’s watercolor paintings. DeBry’s engravings were the first images of indigenous North Americans that most 16th century Europeans had ever seen.

debry8

Thomas Hariot, a scientist, and John White, an artist and cartographer, had journeyed to North America in 1585 as part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt to found an English colony in the new world. Hariot and White were charged with providing an accurate description, in words and images, of the geography, native peoples, and natural resources of the new world.

Raleigh and his associates wanted to encourage settlement in the Virginia colony in order to stake an English claim to compete with the Spanish and French conquests of much of North and South America. Accordingly, Hariot’s account emphasizes the abundant resources and generally friendly Indians that he encountered in Virginia.

debry3

John White created the first accurate map of the Virginia coast.He also painted watercolor images of the Indians he encountered, documenting their clothing and tools, religious and social rituals, agricultural methods, buildings, ships, and weapons.

Village of Secotan

Village of Secotan

Hariot and White returned to England in 1586 and delivered their accounts to the colony’s backers. In 1587 another group of English colonists set out for Roanoke, with John White as appointed governor of the colony. Also in this group were White’s daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, future parents of Virginia Dare. The settlement did not fare well: food supplies ran low, and White was sent back to England for provisions the next autumn. When he finally returned in 1590 the Roanoke settlement had been abandoned and the colonists had disappeared.

Meanwhile in England Thomas Hariot’s account of his experiences, titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, had been published as an individual quarto and as part of Richard Hakluyt’s extremely popular compendium of travel literature, Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589). Hakluyt’s book contained no illustations, however, and in 1590 he contracted with Theodor deBry, a skilled engraver and printer, to publish a deluxe volume of Hariot’s work along with illustrations based on White’s paintings.

DeBry’s edition was the first volume in a series of travel narratives –Collectiones Peregrinationum in Indiam Orientalem et Indiam Occidentalem (1590-1634)– for which he became famous. Accounts of European exploration and conquest of the Americas, Africa, and Asia were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. And DeBry’s Briefe and True Report has many features typical of the genre. Although ZSR’s copy is in Latin, DeBry also published editions in Hariot’s original English as well as Dutch, German, and French. Latin was still the language of international scholarship in 16th century Europe– but travel accounts were written by soldiers and adventurers, not academics. At the beginning of the century, nearly all printed material was in Latin; by 1600 a shift was underway toward publishing in the vernacular languages.

Title page from the 1588 London quarto edition of Hariot's Briefe and True Report (openlibrary.org)

Title page from the 1588 London quarto edition of Hariot’s Briefe and True Report (openlibrary.org)

The 16th century also saw the beginnings of an empirical approach to science and history. Instead of relying on classical and church authority, naturalists and explorers recorded their first hand observations of the new lands and cultures they encountered. Thus the early modern travel narrative set itself in opposition to classical works of cosmography.

In many ways Thomas Hariot’s narrative and John White’s images typify this new approach. And deBry from his very title page makes it obvious that he is charting new territory. Instead of the classical figures who usually inhabited the ornate architecture on such pages, DeBry’s book features White’s Algonquian Indians. The new world literally replaces the old on the book’s first page.

debry1

Despite the flood of firsthand travel narratives, 16th century Europeans were still influenced by the ideas of classical authors. In particular, images based on Pliny the Elder’s descriptions of the monstrous races from lands beyond the known world held firm sway over the imaginations of many Europeans.

Monstrous inhabitants of lands beyond Christendom (from the ZSR copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1498)

Monstrous inhabitants of lands beyond Christendom (from the ZSR copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1498)

John White and Theodor deBry’s Indians– exotic but dignified and definitely human– provided one of the first correctives to these mythical images.

A chief woman of Pomeiooc and a young girl (Hariot identifies the girl's doll and rattle as gifts of the English)

A chief woman of Pomeiooc and a young girl (Hariot identifies the girl’s doll and rattle as gifts of the English)

DeBry’s engravings reproduce White’s paintings with reasonable accuracy. But a comparison of the paintings and engravings makes clear that deBry felt free to make some alterations. He added multiple perspectives to the depictions of several figures. He also filled in White’s spare backgrounds, and he altered the human figures, giving them more European facial features and the defined musculature typical of figural illustrations of the time.

John White’s original drawing “The Flyer” (from the British Museum)

debry7

Theodor deBry’s version of “The Flyer”

DeBry also includes some additional images at the end of the volume–John White’s rather fanciful depiction of ancient Picts. For readers steeped in classical learning these images had obvious connotations: they were a reminder that for the Greek and Roman authors, the ancestors of deBry’s European readers were the barbarian races.

debry10

A Pictish warrior. White’s original painting is even more striking, since the figure is covered in bright blue body paint.

The 1590 first edition of this volume is part of the ZSR Special Collections Americana collection. These materials were purchased between 1938 and 1943 with matching funds from the Wake Forest College Board of Trustees and the Tracy W. MacGregor fund.


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