Barton Wood Currie (1877-1962) best captured the spirit of the 1920s Golden Age of book collecting in his witty and insightful Fishers of Books (1931). Currie transcended much of the bibliophilic genre with this highly personal account of his development from naive enthusiast to seasoned veteran.
Currie, an editor and reporter by trade, freely admitted in Fishers to an unbridled passion for book collecting but managed to retain a healthy skepticism and modicum of objectivity as he recounted his collecting adventures. In the heat of his passion, Currie bought great books and manuscripts at large prices from the top dealers. He did not have the finances of a Huntington or Henry Folger but much like his friend and inspiration, A. Edward Newton, was able to compete at the highest levels for well-known works. Unlike Newton, Currie’s ardor for collecting expensive material cooled after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Financial issues played a part but Currie’s growing aversion to book trade practices and over-hyped salesmanship was a significant cause of this change of focus. However, he never gave up his passion for books and “rode his hobby” to the end. Let’s first background the man himself before we take a closer look at the contents of Fishers of Books.
Currie started out as a reporter in ca. 1905 for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World working under the notorious “editor-tyrant” Charles E. Chapin. James Morris records in his book The Rose Man of Sing Sing (2003), “At the heart of Chapin’s news-gathering operation remained his prize rewrite team. Barton Currie was his star. ‘He could take a bare handful of semi-statistical notes and turn them, on demand, either into a tensely dramatic or roaringly funny column story,’ said [Albert Payson] Terhune.”
A 1907 Currie article published in Harper’s Weekly is still frequently cited for its historical value depicting the early movie theatres. Titled, “The Nickel Madness” it gives a flavor of his reporting style. (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/nickel_madness.cfm)
Currie moved up the professional ranks, wrote for Good Housekeeping (1909-1911) and assumed editorship of Ladies Home Journal. He later became editor of Country Gentlemen. The popularity of these magazines in the 1920s was reflected in a monthly circulation in the hundreds of thousands. In 1928 he joined Doubleday Doran as the editor of their business magazine World’s Work. During this time, he continued to write numerous articles on a huge variety of topics. One offbeat book stemming from his editorship of the Country Gentleman was The Tractor and Its Influence Upon the Agricultural Implement Industry (1916). I found a copy in the rare jacket long ago.
Currie’s leadership role at the magazines gave him a strong background in advertising and marketing. This experience spilled over into his book commentary found in Fishers of Books. He was well-read, funny, and opinionated. He knew lots of the movers and shakers of his time and had plenty of stories to tell. Currie would have been a great dinner guest. I find little information about his wife, Florence, but judging by the famous frontispiece of Fishers of Books, she must have been a patient soul who appreciated his passions and sense of humor.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Fishers of Books. Currie covered a lot of ground and covered it well. The early chapters, “The Beginning Urge,” and “How Collections Happen,” explored the mysterious process by which a book reader becomes a collector. Currie wrote, “[The collecting bug] happens to you and you have it. You are unaware of its approach. The germ is even more cunning and stealthy than the love germ. With love you have warnings and a tingling awareness, and the early symptoms are exalting. The first symptom of bibliomania, however, is much more subtle than love. It anesthetizes. It manifests itself by producing a form of somnambulism. You come out of a bookshop carrying a first edition of something or other. You cannot explain how or why you got it, or what you paid for it. But you have it; and when you arrive home with it you creep off to some secluded room and examine it. Then occurs the first little burning exaltation. Just a little glow to begin with, then by infinite gradations a consuming fire.”
|Trade edition. The J. K. Lilly, Jr. - David Randall copy annotated by Lilly|
In the next chapter entitled “Happy-Go-Lucky Collecting,” Currie’s early shotgun approach was reflected upon. He focused on Dickens at first and then quickly began a haphazard buying spree chasing high spots of literature such as Gray’s An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard and Gulliver’s Travels. He took great pride in securing the manuscript of Sheridan’s A School for Scandal. Not long after, a first in English of Cervantes’ Don Quixote followed, as did a stray fifteenth-century antiphonary, various works by Jane Austen, and a huge gathering of Anthony Trollope. Because of this drain on pocketbook and lack of focus Currie recognized the need of a collecting plan. Chapters on “Highways and Byways of the One-Author Plan,” and “Collecting by Lists,” illuminated the benefits and drawbacks of various strategies. His own efforts often fell short, “Just now the plan is the thing. Never having followed one conscientiously and with success, I am much better qualified to advise than the fellow who has done so.”
Currie did learn to follow his own path if not a strict plan. A number of authors he enjoyed, Joseph Conrad being a good example, were out of favor among the collectors during the 1920s. Nonetheless, he built an exceptional Conrad collection complete with a number of manuscripts pried loose from Rosenbach who had acquired them at the John Quinn sale in 1924. Currie wrote of his disappointment when three friends and eminent bookmen visited his collection– Morris L. Parrish, A. Edward Newton and Chauncey Tinker—and all shrugged at his Conrad holdings. He recorded, “Diversity of tastes is the greatest of all boons to collecting. Hence, when you get down to the task of choosing for yourself the ten, the hundred, the five hundred, or the ten thousand books you desire to collect, you are bound to derive vastly more satisfaction than if you were to be guided by the recommendations of some individual who judgment is sound, but whose taste may be at complete variance with your own.”
Currie had much to say about the inflation in rare book prices during the 1920s and the subsequent shake-up following the Wall Street crash of 1929. His general observations about over-exuberance, greed, and shenanigans in the financial markets eerily mirror our recent Great Recession. In terms of the book trade, Currie held little back in his discussion of dealers, mentioning prominent figures such as Rosenbach, Gabriel Wells, Arthur Swann, Quaritch, Maggs, and Walter Spencer. His chapters “When the Bulls Boom Books,” and “Dealers and Dealer Psychology,” were balanced, insightful, and at times cutting. Currie’s dissection of Rosenbach’s unique bookselling skills was a masterful portrayal.
Currie’s interaction and friendship with dozens of top book people was also highlighted throughout Fishers of Books. A chapter was devoted to A. Edward Newton and his influence. He wrote about collectors William T. H. Howe, Carroll A. Wilson, Jerome Kern, and Michael Sadleir to name a few. The books and authors most in demand were detailed. The auction world was examined closely and first-hand with a critical eye. Currie had much to say about the Jerome Kern sale of 1929. He also had a chapter on the 1924 Stephen H. Wakeman sale of American literature and how, famous as the sale would become in retrospect, its importance was overlooked by the major dealers of the day. This allowed collector William T.H. Howe to pick up fantastic items at bargain prices. This lead him to write a chapter on “The Neglected Americans.” The breadth of Currie’s immersion in the book world of the time makes Fishers of Books a unique record of one of the most exciting eras of book collecting.
I recently acquired a Currie letter written on March 9, 1935, to an admirer, “Mr. Smith.” Currie’s reflection upon the book trade and his Fishers of Books a few years after publication is particularly revealing. I think he exaggerates a bit for effect but the feelings are clear. By the date of this letter, Currie’s collecting career had come full circle. At first, he was a rookie enthusiast chasing expensive books that were “must haves” according to the pundits. From the beginning however an independent streak lay within. His background in reporting and marketing eventually led him to recognize he was pursuing a contrived path. The resulting inner struggle and the global financial crash caused him to reevaluate his passion. This reevaluation played out in public in Fishers of Books. Then, in the end he found redemption and a new collecting satisfaction.
He writes in the letter, “As I look back at that foolish opus of mine it seems so horribly outdated that it cannot contain anything but drivel. Except for the general truths that the so-called antiquarian book-sellers (definition of the same being a dealer who can charge $1,000 for a ten-dollar item and make you feel that he has done you a favor) hate to ponder on these days, its prognostics were certainly cock-eyed.
“But I can tell you honestly and fairly that I have stuck to the plan I promised myself in the next to the last chapter [of Fishers]—I have collected only American things and juvenilia since I began learning to live along without an income. I have acquired a cottage along the ocean front at Chatham, Mass. where I am moving all my American books (Tarkington, Howells, Alfred Henry Lewis, Frederick Remington, Harry Leon Wilson, Jack London, Henry James, Margaret Deland, and so on and so on up as far as Thomas Wolfe and back as far as Cooper and the author of NICK OF THE WOODS.)
“So you see I continue to specialize in such a manner that I can become more and more diverse and diffused, but it takes me completely out of the hands of the antiquarian book-sellers and allows me to pick up bits here and there in the second hand book shops and furniture auctions. Another and still better thing it enables me to concentrate five thousand percent on books and authors I have really liked and that without forcing or faking.”
So what became of Currie’s books? David Randall records in Dukedom Large Enough (1969) that Currie sold a number of his best items privately through Scribner’s in the 1940s and 50s. His much loved Sheridan manuscript of A School for Scandal went to Robert H. Taylor and later to Princeton with Taylor’s collection. After Currie’s death in 1962, the remains of his collection was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, May 7 and 8th, 1963. In the auction catalogue are many of the books he writes about in Fishers of Books. The Conrad material drew particular attention – a post mortem vindication of Currie’s interest. Books from his collection continue to surface at irregular intervals within the trade. I’ve been fortunate to acquire some tasty bibliographic association items pictured below.
|Fishers of Books. Limited edition. Inscribed to Carroll A. Wilson|
|Fishers of Books. Limited edition. Inscribed to Arthur Swann|
|Newton. Amenities of Book Collecting. 1918. First edition in d.j. The George H. Sargent--Barton Currie copy, inscribed by Newton with correspondence laid in.|
|Catalogue of an Exhibition of the Works of Charles Dickens. The Grolier Club, 1913. The Beverly Chew-Jerome Kern-Barton Currie copy, annotated. Three of the great Dickens collectors! Currie cites this as a primary reference in Fishers of Books.|