Special Collections & Archives Blog

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent (1941)

Thursday, December 5, 2013 4:34 pm

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent, was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

A Northern Christmas by Rockwell Kent was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

American artist Rockwell Kent spent Christmas 1918 in a small cabin on an island off the south coast of Alaska. More than twenty years later he recalled the experience in words and woodcut illustrations in a holiday gift book titled A Northern Christmas.

Title page from A Northern Christmas

Title page from A Northern Christmas

The small book was published by the American Artists Group, an organization founded in 1935 for the purpose of providing art for the masses and, in the process, creating a market for artists to earn a living during the difficult years of the Depression. Many prominent artists were members, including Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Max Weber, and Eugene Speicher. The American Artists Group published small monographs and offered unsigned engravings, lithographs, and woodcut prints for sale at very affordable prices. But the group was perhaps best  known for its yearly offerings of Christmas cards designed by its artists. In 1941 they also began a series of small holiday gift books, of which A Northern Christmas was the first.

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Let it snow or rain and grow dark at midday! The better shall be our good Christmas cheer within. This is the true Christmas land. The day should be dark, the house further overshadowed by the woods, tall and black. And there in the midst of that somber, dreadful gloom the Christmas tree should blaze in glory unrivaled by moon or sun or star.

Rockwell Kent, A Northern Christmas

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was born and educated in New York. His first art teacher was William Merritt Chase; later he studied with Abbott Handerson Thayer, Robert Henri, and Kenneth Hayes Miller.  Kent also trained as an architectural draftsman and was an accomplished carpenter. He worked in a variety of artistic media, but he is best known for his prints and for his many illustrations for classic literary works like Candide, Leaves of Grass, The Canterbury Tales, and, perhaps most famously, Moby Dick.

Rockwell Kent's famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Rockwell Kent’s famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Kent also wrote and illustrated several of his own books, many of them memoirs of his extensive travels. He often sought out remote areas of untouched wilderness for artistic inspiration. In 1918-19 he spent several months in Alaska with his young son (also named Rockwell).  The resulting book, called Wilderness, was published by G. P. Putnam in 1920.

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent's Wilderness (1920)

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness (1920)

The south coast of the mainland of Alaska is a wilderness of spruce-clad mountains whose outlying, isolated peaks are islands. On one of these we lived, a father and his eight-year-old son. . . . the man in pursuit of his profession, the boy in pursuit of what of education lay in doing things, and both in that pursuit of happiness which, with whatever right, is still what every living creature wants. . . .

Of the fullness of the days–fullness of work and thought, of play, of little happenings, of uneventful peace–we kept record. That record is a book: its name is WILDERNESS. From WILDERNESS these notes about a happy Christmas in the north are drawn.

A Northern Christmas

The Rockwell Kent Papers in the Archives of American Art include extensive correspondence between Kent and Samuel Golden of the American Artists Group. In the 1941 correspondence they discuss all aspects of the production of A Northern Christmas, beginning with the necessity of getting permission from G. P. Putnam for the use of excerpts and illustrations from Wilderness. The publisher at first demanded a rather steep fee but became more reasonable after a “sharply worded letter” from Kent. In the end, Kent insisted that Putnam’s cooperation should be acknowledged in the colophon of A Northern Christmas.

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

A Northern Christmas  consisted mostly of excerpts from Wilderness, along with an introduction and a few new illustrations.

From A Northern Christmas

From A Northern Christmas

For Rockwell Kent, the wilderness idyll was a welcome respite from the materialism of the modern world. In the excerpts chosen for A Northern Christmas, Kent describes, in words and pictures, the spare and simple Christmas that he and his son celebrated with their landlord, an old Swedish homesteader named Olson.  The presents are few– young Rockwell receives a pocket knife, some old National Geographic magazines, and a broken fountain pen, but he “sits on the bed looking at the things as if they were the most wonderful gifts.” The holiday proves all the more memorable for its minimalism.

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

The food is good and plentiful, the night is long, only the Christmas candles are short-lived and we extinguish them to save them for another time. Finally, as the night deepens, Olson leaves us amid mutual expressions of delight in one another’s friendship, and Rockwell and I tumble into bed.

A Northern Christmas

Rockwell Kent wrote and illustrated a very different gift book for the American Artists Group the next year. The 1942 book, called On Earth Peace, is a rather bleak wartime fable about a Jazz Age princess humbled by loss and privation.

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent's gift book for 1942

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent’s gift book for 1942

Kent’s popularity as an artist waned somewhat after the war. His style fell out of fashion in the age of abstract expressionism, and his ongoing involvement in  socialist causes aroused suspicion in the Red-baiting 1950s. At one point Kent’s passport was revoked, and he sued to have it reinstated. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, a landmark decision that made it more difficult for the government to curtail a citizen’s right to travel.  Kent continued to work for progressive causes and tried to promote improved relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

The items pictured here are all held by ZSR Library’s Special Collections. The library has a sizeable collection of Rockwell Kent books, most of them previously owned by publisher Lynwood Giacomini, whose collection of American literature was purchased by the library in 1976. Giacomini kept up a friendly correspondence with many authors, and his collection includes a few typed letters from Rockwell Kent.

Rare Book of the Month: The Chimes: A Goblin Story, by Charles Dickens

Wednesday, December 8, 2010 10:07 am

Of the five Christmas books that Charles Dickens published in the 1840s, the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), is by far the most famous. The following year Dickens came out with The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.

Although the book sold well in 1844, it suffered the fate of many sequels in that it was criticized for being both similar to and different from its predecessor. In The Chimes Dickens once again takes up the cause of the underprivileged classes’ struggle for survival in a rapidly industrializing society. But The Chimes is a darker book than A Christmas Carol, its social criticisms more pointed and specific and its happy ending less certain.

Dickens’s protagonist is Toby Veck, a “ticket-porter” or messenger-for-hire who plies his trade on the steps of an old church, whose tower houses the Chimes of the title. Toby, his beautiful and virtuous daughter Meg, Meg’s fiance Richard, and Will Fern, an agricultural laborer newly arrived in the city, personify the struggles of the urban poor. On New Year’s Eve they suffer unpleasant encounters with a Member of Parliament, an Alderman, and a rich young gentleman. And Toby is further discouraged by newspaper depictions of the lower classes as inevitably prone to evil. When Toby reads an account (based on a notorious true story) of a desperate young woman who drowned herself and her illegitimate child, he succumbs to cynicism and despair: “None but people who were bad at heart: born bad: who had no business on the earth could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re Bad!”


Toby then hears the Chimes in the church tower calling his name. He finds the bell tower “swarming with dwarf phantoms,spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells.” The Goblin of the Great Bell tells Toby that “Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as Vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from Good. . . does wrong to Heaven and Man, to Time and to Eternity.”

The Goblin informs Toby that he has died and shows him a vision of his daughter Meg’s unhappy future life. Through a combination of misfortune and malicious interference by the rich and powerful, Meg too is reduced to contemplating suicide with her infant child. Toby then understands that the unfortunate people he reads about in the papers are not bad by nature, but are driven to desperate acts by an uncaring world. The “spirit of the Chimes” has taught him that “we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the Good in one another.”

Toby then wakes in his own rooms to find Meg and Richard happily planning their wedding for the next day. A crowd of jolly neighbors soon join them to celebrate the new year and the upcoming nuptials, and one of the revelers proves to be a long-lost friend for whom Will Fern was searching.

Dickens leaves his readers with an admonition to “bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere. . . endeavor to correct, improve, and soften them. . . . So may each Year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.”

ZSR Library’s copy of The Chimes is a first edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1844. It was purchased by the library in 1970.


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