Monday, May 9, 2016

Featured Item VII: Wilmarth Lewis Presentation to a Thirteen-Year Old Compatriot

Wilmarth Lewis’ classic autobiographical account Collector’s Progress is well represented in my library in multiple association copies, many important, but none as charming as this example.  I purchased the book recently on Ebay for a nominal sum using Ebay “bucks” – in effect rewards credit for other purchases—that was about to expire.  Use it or lose it.  The recipient was not noted by the seller but the price so tempting I ordered it on a whim and let the dice roll. . . .

Wilmarth Lewis.  COLLECTOR’S PROGRESS. London: Constable & Co Ltd., [1952].  xxiii 245 p.  Plates.  8vo.  Blue cloth, spine stamped in gilt.  Notes:  First UK edition, with a preface for the English reader (pp. vii-ix) not found in the American edition.

Inscribed, “To John Thorpe (who came to all three of my Sandars Lectures) with every good wish for his collecting, Wilmarth Lewis, Room 4, Mill Lane, May 9th, 1957.”

            Lewis writes in One Man’s Education, “In 1957 [Lewis] became the Sandars Reader in Bibliography at Cambridge, the second American to be elected to the Readership since its establishment in 1895.  A liberal interpretation of ‘bibliography’ was necessary to make him eligible, but he felt safe in his subject, ‘Horace Walpole’s Library.’  The Reader spent six months on each of the three lectures, which were given on successive days at five following tea, the ideal hour for lectures in England when the audience is cheered but not inebriated. . . The audience got to nearly sixty each day; very good, the Reader was told, for a Sandars Lecture.
            “There were no undergraduates, but there was a boy in the middle of the third row wearing a school blazer, his cap over one knee.  Lewis could not imagine an American boy going to such a lecture.  He was in the same seat the second day, leaning forward eagerly.  Lewis asked Creswick later who he was and learned that his name was John Thorpe, that he was an ardent book collector who did the best he could on his allowance of a shilling a week, and that his father was at Cambridge on sabbatical leave from Princeton.  After the third lecture John walked with the Lewises to a sherry party given for them by the Vice-Chancellor in the Old Library.  Creswick kindly pushed his bike along the King’s Parade so that he could talk about his collection to Mr. Lewis.  At the party the latter learned what it is like to be proud of a thirteen-year old compatriot.  John was exactly right, not embarrassed, not precocious.  He had a question for Annie Burr.  ‘Mrs. Lewis, do you mind Mr. Lewis collecting books?’  ‘No, John, I don’t.  Do you think it would make any difference if I did?’  ‘No, ma’am, I do not.’”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Full Immersion -- A Book Hunter's Trip to New York City

Meetings are often necessary evils but this one I am eager to attend.   I sit at an expansive table with Bill Allison, my friend and co-founder of the Book Hunters Club of Houston in, appropriately, the Founder’s Room at the Grolier Club, New York City.   The room is well-paneled and solidly-booked with shelves of bibliographic publications.  Certainly the ghosts of great bookmen of the past are in attendance as well.  We are seated with approximately fifteen trustees of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (FABS).  It is their annual meeting and our club is being officially accepted into the organization.  Bookish congeniality fills the air and also curiosity at the two Texans who have saddled up for the ride.  Being newbies, Bill and I remain fairly quiet as the meeting progresses.  Incoming FABS president, Michael Thompson of Boreas Fine Art in Evanston, Illinois, sits to my right.  Much to my surprise, he suggests a FABS trip to Texas for 2017.  (One of the primary FABS benefits being an annual book trip to a host city.)  This is not a spur of the moment idea but something he’s been thinking about long before the meeting.  “We’ve never taken a trip to Texas before,” he says. 
            I casually suggest that I could provide input for such a trip and would be glad to help, as in assist, informally.  Murmurs of delight echo in the chamber.  Information comes fast and heavy after that—planning, past trips, etc.  By the time the meeting is over, I appear to be a co-chair of the venture:  new guy with apparent enthusiasm thrown into the fire.  It will be fun, I say to myself and Bill.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“Yours Bibliographically—and for Vegetarianism”

A SELECTION OF FIRST EDITIONS OF OVER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY REPRESENTATIVE AMERICAN AUTHORS FROM THE LIBRARY OF CHARLES A. MONTGOMERY, BROOKLYN, N.Y.  New York: Bangs & Co., May 16-17, 1895.  Introduction by Montgomery.  603 lots. Prices realized laid in.  8vo. Printed wrappers. 

Charles Alexander Montgomery (1857-1933) of Brooklyn, New York, was one of the early collectors of American literature.  His strong focus on original condition was ahead of its time.  He compiled this auction catalogue himself providing more bibliographic detail than usually encountered and included extensive notes about the condition of the books and their contents.  The notable collector, Charles B. Foote (1837-1900), another pioneer of American literature collecting, seems to have been a role model and “rival” as Montgomery cited Foote’s copies often—Montgomery’s examples usually in better condition. 
Montgomery was an impecunious collector. The expensive, already sought-after rarities by Poe and Hawthorne were not present in his library. Only a handful of the volumes reached more than five dollars at the auction.  A Whittier item Incidental Poems (1828) in original boards garnered the high price of the sale at $35 (lot 540).  However, his assemblage of secondary authors, periodical appearances and ephemera, showed true bibliographic acumen.  The Whittier description provides an example of Montgomery’s enthusiastic use of commentary.  He wrote, “This Volume was procured after a long search through New England; and is believed to be the only perfect copy offered for sale, anywhere, ‘in the past twenty-years!’ A well-known bookman, who has attended every sale of Libraries at Messrs. Libby’s Auction Rooms, in Boston, ‘since 1882,’ writes me that he has watched very carefully for a perfect copy since that date, and that he has advertised extensively for one, but without result!  I know of but one other perfect copy (or, which I suppose is perfect)—in the Harris Collection of American Poetry . . . “
            Montgomery outlined his approach to the catalogue and his collecting philosophy in the introduction:  “To All Who Love Books:  In compiling this Catalogue of some of my books, I have endeavored, in the first place, to secure accuracy; but no one who has not attempted similar work can fully realize the truth of what Mr. Henry Stevens (‘of Vermont’) says in his ‘My English Library’: ‘If you are troubled with a price of accuracy, and would have it completely taken out of you, print a catalogue’”!
            “In some respects—perhaps many—this Catalogue will be found both original and unique!  Every book has been measured by the standard scale of sizes adopted by the American Library Association—the result being a certain uniformity of description which is usually lacking; though in some cases the sizes seem rather arbitrary, and I have guided more by the height, than by the width of the books.  Another exceptional point---all titles have been given in full; unnecessary, but more satisfactory, on the whole—especially to the printer! . . .
            “Every volume included in this Catalogue is, or is believed to be, a ‘First Edition,’ except where otherwise noted as being the First Revised Edition or the First Illustrated Edition; or an edition in which new and additional matter appears. . . when it is then become properly classed as a ‘First.’
            “The bindings, where not otherwise specified, are those in which the volumes were originally bound; very few have been rebound—and none of them by me.  While tastes differ, and each individual has a right to preserve in the original, or replace in a new binding, the volumes he possesses, yet I hope those into whose hands these and other ‘first editions’ come, will, if they desire uniformity on their shelves, or a more credible appearance than some of ‘th’ embattled volumes’ present, have cloth cases made for them, rather than mutilate them by rebinding!. . . I do not want my rare Shakespeare Folio, of 1623 (when I get it) dressed in the finest binding of to-day!  My Greek vases will not be ‘ornamented’ by ‘The Decorative Sisters’ (if I can help it!); nor my ancient coins ‘gilded o’er’!  And it seems to me that the same principle applies to ‘First Editions,” whether of Shakespeare or of Stoddard!  And so I appeal ‘to all those who love books’ to have cloth cases made for their rare ‘first editions’; and not to mutilate them by rebinding.”
            Montgomery then signs off, “Yours Bibliographically—and for Vegetarianism.” 
That certainly was a surprise ending.  His blend of bibliography and vegetarianism deserved a closer look.  Who was this pioneering book collector who was also a trailblazing vegetarian? 
            Biographical information about Montgomery is scant online: only a few threads here and there to weave a story.  Born in Brooklyn in 1857, Montgomery died in Brooklyn in 1933, apparently a life-long resident.  He had an advertising agency in New York City and was a publisher of sorts operating as C. A. Montgomery & Co.  The October 1, 1887 issue of Literary World noted, “C. A. Montgomery & Co., a young New York firm, are to make house and home books their specialty, and will shortly be ready with a number of tasteful and helpful little manuals instructive in the joint arts of house-keeping and home-making.”
A few examples of his publications include the following.  All are scarce to rare now:  Goodholme’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information (1885), Perfect Bread: Its Preparation and Use (1886), and The New York Cake Book: Fifty Recipes by a famous New York Chef. (1904).
Adolph Growoll, publisher of Publisher’s Weekly and indefatigable recorder of book trade history, wrote in Book-Trade Bibliography in the United States in the XIXth Century (1898) that Montgomery was a member of the Dibdin Club and that he owned one of three known copies of the earliest book-trade catalogue issued in the United States (Boston: 1804).  Montgomery’s copy was reproduced in Growoll’s book.
Growoll also mentioned Montgomery in American Book Clubs (1898) and noted that the Dibdin Club was “formed in New York, in May, 1897, by half a dozen persons interested in publishing bibliographical material for which a publisher might not readily be found.”
Two other auctions of Montgomery’s books are recorded by McKay in American Book Auction Catalogues, 1713-1934 :  May 11, 1896 (4528) and May 22, 1907 (6335).  This last auction, Some Bibliography. Including the Most Complete and Perfect Catalogue of American Publications, 1774-1900. . . (344 lots) was also catalogued by Montgomery and showed his deep interest in book trade and bibliographic history.  Montgomery’s copy of the 1804 book trade catalogue was sold in this sale for $50.
Montgomery’s enthusiasm for vegetarianism was reflected in his position in 1895 as treasurer of The New York Vegetarian Society and later in 1902 as secretary of the Society.  Montgomery’s avocation is glimpsed throughout 1902 in various references.  A December 3, 1902, New York Times article with the wistful headline, “To Annex Mars and Make Meals on Air,” quoted Montgomery, “Vegetarianism meant temperance, anti-vaccination, anti-vivisection, cremation, anti-war and universal peace.”  This certainly covers a lot of ground and firmly classifies Montgomery as a free-thinker of sorts. 
According to The Vegetarian Magazine, Vol. 6, Issue 9 (1902), “The largest meeting at which vegetarianism has been brought forward recently was one held in the Grand Opera House, New York, on Sunday evening, June 1.  There were about 3,000 people present.  Charles A. Montgomery, Secretary of the New York Vegetarian Society, delivered an address on ‘Superiority of Vegetarian Diet for Developing Strength and Endurance.’”
The proactive Montgomery was certainly not shy about mixing his vegetables and books.  Growoll recorded  in The Bookseller’s League: A History of Its Formation and Ten Years of Its Work  (1905), “On the evening of May 8 [1902], the Entertainment Committee, at the suggestion of Mr. Charles A. Montgomery, secretary of the Vegetarian Society, provided for the League a strictly vegetarian dinner.  About fifty members were present to entertain their special guests, Ernest H. Crosby, president of the Vegetarian Society of New York, an enthusiastic vegetarian, and James Clarence Harvey.”
“The menu was printed in green ink on vegetable-colored sheet of blotting paper.  It was as follows:

Cream of Asparagus
Olives  Celery  Radishes
Braised Celery, Cream Sauce
Spinach Patties
Lintel and Rice Croquettes, Tomato Sauce
Pineapple Sherbet
Cauliflower Hollandaise
Cream Bermuda Potatoes, Parsley Sauce
Chicory Salad
Frozen Sago and Strawberries
Assorted Cakes

“Mr. Crosby made a happy speech on ‘Why Bookmen Should be Vegetarians.’  He claimed that all domestic animals were more or less unhealthy, and must breed disease in those who consumed them.” 
            After 1907, I can find little reference to Mr. Montgomery and wonder how he occupied the last twenty-five years of his life.  I’ll bring this brief glimpse to a close, fascinated but unmoved by his bookish vegetarianism.   It is time to head outside and smoke a prime cut of brisket in my pit.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Paramours of Print: Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett

As my very fine 2015 book collecting campaign comes to a close this New Year’s Eve and the champagne awaits, I’m taking a few moments to reflect on my latest acquisition —three Christopher Morley titles inscribed to Vincent Starrett.  Morley (1890-1957) and Starrett (1886-1974) were two of the most prominent biblio-writers of their time and still remain in the upper echelons of the pantheon.  The men were also close friends, Sherlock Holmes aficionados, book hunting partners, and drinking buddies.
Ex Libris Carissimis (1932) is the most important title for my biblio-collection.  These bookish essays were issued as a publication of the Rosenbach Fellowship in Bibliography.  The second title, Hasta la Vista, or, Postcard from Peru (1935), is an entertaining travelogue, and the last is Thorofare (1942), an under-appreciated late novel.  The three books reflect the diversity of Morley’s writings.  All retain their original dust jackets and have Starrett’s ownership signature in addition to the inscriptions.  As an added bonus, the books were later in the collection of pre-eminent Morley collector, Herman Abromson, with his bookplate in each.  Vincent Starrett specifically cites below that both Ex Libris Carissimis and Hasta la Vista were two of his favorite Morley titles.   
Christopher Morley. Ex Libris Carissimis "from his friend and fellow-paramour of print"
Starrett provides a magnificent, lengthy homage to Morley in his autobiography Born in a Bookshop, pp. 268-272He writes, in part, “Among the American men of letters whom I have known, Christopher Morley stands first.  I knew him longer and better than any other professional writing man of my acquaintance. . .  And I was drawn to him more warmly than to most others by the peculiar correspondence of our interests.  Whenever I am inspired to write a gay little piece of bibliofoolishness, or shout my appreciation of a forgotten story-classic, I always wonder if I am not repeating something already uttered by Morley. . .
            “I don’t remember when I first met Christopher Morley. . . I have no clear recollection of one particular time or place: the experience, as a memory picture, is a montage of jovial alarums and discursions, of wistful flashbacks and exhilarating close-ups, of 221B culture and three-star Hennessy.  We had been in correspondence for some years before we met.  I had reviewed his enchanting fable, Where the Blue Begins, for Llewellyn Jones when it was first published, and he had written to thank me for a notice that he found ‘graceful, generous, and perspicacious,’ that is to say, a notice highly favorable to the book.  Obviously this was a good beginning for a literary friendship, and that is really how it all began.
            “Ultimately, when he began to visit Chicago several times a year. . . we saw a great deal of each other and one us at least found the association stimulating. . .  Sometimes we just rambled about Old Loopy, his name for Chicago, sampling books and Bourbon here and there and talking torrents of nonsense; and if occasionally we missed a barroom we never missed a bookshop. . .  Suffice it to say that, whenever Christopher Morley came to Chicago, his friends had a lively time. . .
            “Morley’s services to me over the years were numerous and helpful.  He contributed entertainingly to several of my books and anthologies.  He compiled an index for Books Alive (1940) that was so amusing it had to be moved from the back of the book to the front. . .  My file of Morley letters is a bulky one; it is difficult to single out any one or two for special attention.  They are literary letters in the best sense, crowded with references to his reading, his thinking, his drinking, his wrestlings with the muse, his opinions of the nuisances who interrupt writers at their work; the sort of chit-chat and gossip that bookmen love to read in the letters of Lamb and Fitzgerald. . . .
            “I have several shelves of Morley’s books, of course, all suitably inscribed.  I don’t like them all equally well. . . On the whole, I think I like certain of his essays best, such essays as one finds in Ex Libris Carissimis, Hasta la Vista, Letters of Askance, and Streamlines, more especially those concerning Sherlock Holmes and days and nights in Baker Street.” 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Tasty New Classic: Rebecca Rego Barry's RARE BOOKS UNCOVERED

Rebecca Rego Barry’s Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places (2015) is one of the finest books about books ever written (and I’m not just saying that because one of my stories is featured within).  This book is a genre busting mix of Nicholas Basbanes style biblio-journalism, John Carter-esque  ABC of Book Collectors, Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers, and the irresistible details found in classic bookseller and collector accounts authored by the likes of A. Edward Newton, Charles Everitt, and David Randall.  Heady company.  I can think of no other book that is a better introduction to the culture of book collecting, nor one that so concisely captures the wide range of book hunting and the associated enthusiasm which enraptures the participants.  The book’s primary focus is on the adventures of fifty-two individuals.   But intertwined amongst their stories is a multi-layered view of book hunting that exemplifies the breadth of the field.
            Barry writes in the introduction, “The oldest [story] occurred in 1976, the latest in 2014.  This is not a historical review of literary discoveries, for that would take several volumes.  Instead, it is a collection of tales from living booksellers, collectors, librarians, and other seekers about their best find in a surprising place—‘best’ and ‘surprising’ being rather subjective terms.  I allowed for items with artistic, financial, or sentimental value found outside the ritzy galleries and major auction houses where rarities like this typically surface for sale.  That said, a handful of the items profiled within did indeed crop up at country auctions, in cluttered bookshops, and at book or paper fairs, not in themselves unusual places, but points were given for stories rich in serendipity and sleuthing.  And because rare and antiquarian books cohabitate with manuscripts and historical documents on collectors’ shelves and in dealers’ catalogs and showrooms, I welcomed them here too.”
I anticipated a good read—which it certainly is—but about a third of the way through the book I felt a growing sense of excitement akin to discovering a favorite dish for the first time.  Barry is a master chef seasoning the stories with information about the items, providing background and context, and she digs deep into a number of the controversial stories with first-hand interviews, revealing new facts, and shows a penchant for behind-the-scenes details (including prices paid) that are rarely encountered.  Some examples of this digging are her chapters on Eric Caren and the deaccessioning of New York Public Library material (Ch. 32) and the discovery of the Richard Greener papers (Ch. 43).
            While Barry is accomplishing this, she is also threading throughout her book tapestry the varied approaches taken by book hunters.  We see an insider’s glimpse at negotiating and reselling techniques used by scouts and dealers, the sometimes wily ways of determined collectors, and plenty of advice from advanced bibliophiles.  She even morphs into the aforementioned John Carter at times, defining book terms separately within the essays.  And did I mention enthusiasm? The passionate pursuit, the rush, the thrill of discovery--whether physical or factual—is amply represented here.  This critical element is often downplayed by those of too serious a bent, but in truth, it underlies every great bookish endeavor.  The whole eco-system of the wonderfully peculiar book world is revealed by Barry.
            No less an achievement is the accessibility of the book to a variety of readers. A general reader with a literary inclination will find it entertaining;  a book hunter who is frustrated that relatives, friends, or co-workers think him or her a bit nutty can offer this book in self-defense; a beginning collector will learn much in taste and technique and draw inspiration; and an advanced book hunter will enjoy not only the details involving current players in the field but also the armchair chance to step out of one’s focused circle of interest -- perhaps sparking new avenues of pursuit. 
            Do I have any quibbles with this newly minted classic?  Only a few and they don’t spoil the dish.  There is some repetitiveness that is naturally going to occur in a work compiling fifty-two stories within the same general theme.  The order of the stories occasionally appears haphazard but then again how does one group such an exercise?   One final quibble, mentioned because of my distinct focus on the books about books genre, is a wish that the selected reading list was meatier and not so random.  That, however, could be an easy fix for the next printing.  All these points pale in comparison to one major “Thank God” kudos – the inclusion of a detailed index that allows easy access to the book as a reference work.
Barry’s position as editor of Fine Books and Collections magazine has her fully immersed in the book hunting world on a grand scale.  If not a unique perch, it is certainly a rare vista, and we should all be grateful that she found the time and enthusiasm to write this book.  And patience, too, as I would guess dealing with all these book hunters and their stories must have been akin to the proverbial herding of cats.

Rebecca Rego Barry.  Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places.  Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2015.  Foreword by Nicholas A. Basbanes.  $25.

For anyone interested in further biblio-reading see my article, “Armchair Adventures: Ten Classic Accounts of American Book Collecting,“ in Fine Books & Collections, November / December 2007.  I highlight ten books to read and provide a brief essay on each.  The authors include Nicholas Basbanes, Edwin Wolf & John Fleming, Henry Stevens, David Randall, Wilmarth Lewis, Charles Everitt, Matthew Bruccoli, Lawrence Clark Powell, A. Edward Newton and Margaret Stillwell. Many other books are mentioned in the essays and the magazine put additional information from my article online.  The article is due for an update which I plan to publish on my blog early next year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gunnar Hansen, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Legend and Bookman

Gunnar Hansen (1947-2015), famed for his portrayal of the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in the classic horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), died last week of cancer.  His agent called the character, “one of the most iconic evil figures in the history of cinema.”   Yet Hansen in real life –all 6 - 4 and 300 pounds of him – was a writer and poet at heart—and a bookman.
While in graduate school at the University of Texas, Hansen took a bibliography course from William B. Todd (1919-2011), one of the most noted American bibliographers whose wide-ranging interests spanned Richard Nixon's Watergate transcripts to literary forgeries.  Hansen and a couple of fellow students, inspired by Todd’s enthusiasm, decided to play a little biblio-trick on him.  Douglas Adams, collector of literary forgery material, was the first to identify the item that linked Leatherface to Bill Todd and the rich bookdom of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.  I’ll let Douglas (and Gunnar) tell the story from here.