Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Bookman's Holiday with Vincent Starrett

Vincent Starrett

 My first trip to Chicago recently and lo and behold I find myself in a bookstore—Powell’s on Lincoln Ave to be exact.  It is chilly outside and overcast.  Wife Nicole is reclining comfortably with a book on the window ledge cushion at the front of the store--best window model I’ve ever seen but even this distraction doesn’t last long.  The books about books section is pleasingly expansive and irresistible.  I browse slowly savoring real books on real shelves instead of the usual internet searching.  I pull a jacketed copy of Vincent Starrett’s Bookman’s Holiday: the Private Satisfactions of an Incurable Collector (1942). This collection of engagingly readable essays is one of a number of such bibliophilic works written by Starrett.  The flyleaf is inscribed, “For Abel Berland in the fellowship of books, Vincent Starrett.”  The volume has Berland’s bookplate and notes.  Berland (1915-2010) a Chicago real estate magnate with deep pockets and an equally deep love of books and literature would assemble a high spot collection of literary rarities including the Four Folios of Shakespeare.  When he sold his collection at Christie’s in 2001 it brought $14,391,678.
      Vincent Starrett (1886-1974), also made Chicago home most of his life but had no such book budget.  Restless and creative, he never finished high school and doggedly pursued a varied career as a writer, journalist, poet, bibliographer and essayist. Starrett collected books expertly on an erratic income derived from his writings, constantly facing financial demons and occasionally succumbing to them.  He was forced to sell a number of collections during his life.  The most famous was his first library of Sherlock Holmes material parted with in the early 1940s via Scribners and David Randall. However, bookmen are not stratified by income and Abel Berland’s thorough perusal of Starrett’s book indicates influence and a common bond.  Berland would be one of many collectors of various stature inspired by Starrett and his writings.
      Starrett has been the subject of a number of essays and tributes, notably focusing on his reputation as a Sherlockian par excellence, foundational member of the Baker Street Irregulars, and as a respected mystery writer.  He also authored an autobiography that I highly recommend, Born in a Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence (1965).  My particular focus on Starrett centers on his bibliophilic writings and book collecting. I’ve gathered a number of fine association items highlighting these key areas of his life.
      My earliest exposure to Starrett came in college when I read his first collection of bookish essays, Penny Wise and Book Foolish (1929).  It wasn’t long after I read the book that I serendipitously discovered Starrett’s own annotated copy in Detering Book Gallery in Houston.
Starrett's own annotated copy

     The work contains the first book appearance of Starrett’s famous essay, “Have You a ‘Tamerlane’ in Your Attic?”  Starrett tells the story in his autobiography, “My first contribution to the [Chicago Saturday Evening] Post made a considerable stir in the nation. . . In those days Tamerlane [Poe’s first book] was the outstanding rarity in the light of which all other rarities were appraised.  I had been looking for a copy for a long time without success, naturally enough, since there were then only four copies known to exist in the world.  It occurred to me that what was needed to call the elusive item out of hiding was plenty of publicity, so I tried the provocative piece on the Post first and it sold the first time out.  It may be found in my Penny Wise and Book Foolish (1929) precisely as it appeared before the Post’s enormous public.  To say that it attracted attention is putting it mildly.  The editors of the Post forwarded me literally hundreds of letters from excited householders who had turned out their attics in quest of the book.  This interest did not, of course, represent anybody’s interest in Poe’s second-rate poem, but in something worth ten thousand dollars, the figure I had named as standing for the book’s collector value. . .
      “My scheme for turning up the rare little book by publicity was justified.  A copy did actually turn up in an attic in Worcester, Massachusetts, and its delirious possessor wrote to ask me how to dispose of it.  As luck would have it, her letter came one weekend when I was out of town and I had no opportunity to answer it for several days.  Then I wrote in hot haste, assuming that she would hold the book until she heard from me.  I should have known better.  No woman with an old pamphlet worth ten thousand dollars would wait a moment longer than necessary.  When she failed to hear from me by return of post, Mrs. Ada Dodd hurried off with her treasure to the public librarian at Worcester, who urged her to communicate at once with Charles Goodspeed, the well-known Boston bookseller.  Mr. Goodspeed wasted no time either.  He took the next train to Worcester and acquired the book, which he subsequently sold for Mrs. Dodd [to Owen D. Young] at a figure considerably larger than the one I had named.  He tells the story very fairly (and with a certain sympathy for me) in his entertaining book, Yankee Bookseller.”
      Starrett’s collections of essays and long running newspaper book columns didn’t simply spring afresh from his fertile imagination—they were seasoned by his extensive book experiences.   He was born a bookman, or almost so, his earliest memories imbedded with images of his grandfather’s bookstore in Toronto. He was always an omnivorous reader.  His father, a bookkeeper by trade and amateur boxer in his youth, moved the family to Chicago when Starrett was four years old. From his earliest days Starrett was addicted to used and rare bookshops and in the first couple of decades of the 20th century Chicago offered many opportunities for a fix.   
      Starrett writes in his autobiography, “In my early enthusiasm for first editions, I was carried past all my own danger signals—if, indeed, I ever erected any danger signals.  For a time I was collecting along twenty-six lines at once, a situation that kept me perennially broke; even so, I felt that I had begun my book collecting in Chicago too late. Every collector feels that the period just before his own was a ‘golden age’ when he listens to the stories told by older collectors of their miraculous finds a generation before.  In Eugene Field’s time in Chicago, for example, which preceded my own by a quarter of a century, American first editions could be picked up very inexpensively. . . . [Eugene] and his cronies had a fine field in Chicago.  Listening to the stories told about them, I always envied them; and Frank Morris, who had been Field’s favorite bookseller, was full of such stories.”
Starrett's copy with bookplate and ownership signature
      Starrett’s mention of bookseller Frank Morris deserves special attention.  Morris (1857-1925), established his Chicago store about 1885.  Donald Dickinson writes in Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers, “By all reports Morris was the most congenial of hosts.  He never pressed customers to buy and, in fact, encouraged them to browse at their leisure. . . Morris created what a friend called a ‘little stronghold of culture.’  There were autograph letters, engravings, color-plate books, early European printings, private press books, presentation copies, books bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe and books on angling, genealogy, natural history and Shakespeare.  To promote his wares Morris issued a series of sales catalogs, several with introductory essays by the noted Chicago journalist Vincent Starrett.”
     Starrett himself writes, “Much of my monthly check from [work] was royally invested at Walter Hill’s and Frank Morris’s alluring bookshops.  Collecting was now a disease with me, albeit a pleasant one, as imperative as the drink habit.  The booksellers made it very easy for me; I owed all of them money without shame.  Eugene Field had always been in Morris’s debt, Frank said, so why not I?  In point of fact, the handsome old gentleman liked to have me around and finally gave me desk space in his back room just to have somebody to talk to.  I returned this kindness by writing introductions for his catalogues, a service that I performed also for Walter Hill.”
     So, with this knowledge filed away in my head I was particularly excited to find Starrett’s first book, Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1918), inscribed to Morris!
"With the cordial regard of his friend and perennial debtor"

     You will note that the book is published by the other prominent bookseller mentioned, Walter M. Hill (1868-1952).  He also published additional works by Starrett including the bibliography of Ambrose Bierce (1920), Rhymes for Collectors (1921), Banners in the Dawn (1922), and numerous privately printed editions of Christmas mementos.  Hill was Chicago’s preeminent rare book dealer, ranking with George D. Smith, A. S. W. Rosenbach, Gabriel Wells and a handful of others during the early part of the 20th century. 

     Starrett records, “[Hill] was an Englishman who had lived in America for many years and, when I knew him, was already one of the famous booksellers of America.  A dozen millionaires were among his regular customers, and his attractive quarters were bursting with such rarities as millionaire collectors like to acquire. He was a courtly, handsome man, white-haired and dignified, who in moments of enthusiasm lapsed into pure Cockney.  It was in his wonderful establishment that I first saw and handled the great books of the world in their costliest form, in the editions in which they first had made their appearance among men.  He was a generous man, and what I learned from him about books is beyond my ability to assess.  As already noted, he was my first publisher; and for years afterward he continued to bring out little books of mine in limited editions, usually at Christmas, when we could dispose of the volumes among our friends without pain or profit to anybody. 
      “My introduction to his catalogues, incidentally, almost got me a job in New York which, if I had accepted it, might have changed the course of what I like to call my career.  Mitchell Kennerley was then head of the great Anderson Galleries, and it was he who offered me the position one day while visiting at Hill’s.  My duties would have included the preparation of the gallery’s catalogues and would undoubtedly have been pleasing.  I declined the dazzling offer, however, and stuck to journalism and story writing.”
     This relationship is represented by another wonderful Starrett book I acquired, Persons from Porlock and Other Interruptions (1938), a collection of bookish essays featuring his popular title story, “Persons from Porlock” referring to the anonymous strangers who infamously interrupted Coleridge’s writing of “Kubla Khan.”

"My first publisher and one of my oldest friends"

     Starrett’s network of book and literary contacts in Chicago spread like a spider web over the city.  Two friends were William “Billy” McGee and Pascal Covici.  The men opened a small bookshop in Chicago that soon became a literary mecca for writers and bookmen.  Both were regulars along with Starrett at the famous literary Round Table luncheons at Scholgl’s restaurant starting around 1920.  They published a number of books under the Covici-McGee imprint including three by Starrett.
     Starrett writes in Born in a Bookshop, “Pascal Covici, I have no hesitation in saying, was one of the most important figures of the Chicago movement during the nineteen-twenties. . . Covici published Ben Hecht, Wallace Smith, and a string of peculiarly twentyish figures, including Maxwell Bodenheim, Stanislaus Szukalski, and an ambitious young rebel or reactionary (he never knew which) named Vincent Starrett.
     “He and William F. (Billy) McGee, a former Roman Catholic priest, had opened a small shop. . . Almost at once it became the headquarters of many of the bright young men of the movement . . .  for some years the small, somewhat disorderly bookshop was the liveliest den of literature in the city.  Not to be secret about it, I did a lot of unnecessary hanging out there myself. . . .
     “Poor Billy McGee, who had a bad heart, sometimes enlivened the conversations that constantly went forward in the shop by collapsing and having to be carried downstairs to a couch in the basement.  He was a lovable fellow and everybody’s friend, a sort of father-confessor to all who knew him.  I never learned why he gave up the priesthood to become a bookseller—he wrote a small pamphlet about it that I didn’t read—but I’m sure he was a good priest while he worked at it.  After the shop had changed hands a number of times he became a traveling salesman in books and I have heard that he was a Unitarian clergyman when he died in California.  I remember him with affection.”
     The most significant book of Starrett’s published by Covici and McGee was Buried Caesars (1923), a collection of insightful and at times prescient essays about then neglected literary figures including Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, James Branch Cabell, Anna Sewell, and others.  Here is the inscription in the copy I found just in the last year.

Presentation to Billy McGee

     Another friend in the Chicago book world was dealer Ben Abramson (1898-1955) of the Argus Book Shop.  Starrett records in his autobiography, “In 1923 Ben Abramson and Jerrold Nedwick had opened a small shop . . . that attracted all the impecunious collectors of the city.  Small and dark as was their first establishment, some attractive finds were made there, and some of the choicer spirits of the ‘renascence’—among them Lee Masters—were frequently to be seen among the researchers. . . [Their partnership dissolved] and Abramson went onward and upward, in the Alger tradition, until he became proprietor of the famous Argus Book Shop, with wide rooms overlooking the lake in Michigan Avenue, where on good days one might encounter . . . Somerset Maugham, Henry Miller, Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck, Louis Zara, and Christopher Morley [and Vincent Starrett].”
     I have an autograph letter dated October 15, 1937, from Starrett to Abramson that reads: “Dear Ben, Here is the ‘Desert Island’ skit I mentioned.  If after reading it, you think Chris [Morley] might in any way be hurt by it, don’t use it; send it back to me.  Of course, it’s all just a bit of Lewis Carroll amusement but there is a flavor of irony that might be misinterpreted. “Looking over R[eading] and C[ollecting] I noted that you were offering for sale—some time ago—the MS of Chamber’s The Rake and the Hussy.  That, as I recall it, is my MS, left with you for sale, when I went away.  Was it ever sold?  And did I leave anything else?  Good wishes!  Sincerely, Vincent Starrett.”
     The story referred to in the letter was published by Abramson in the February-March 1938 issue of Reading and Collecting, his short-lived collecting magazine, under the title, “Conversation on a Desert Island.”  The main character and his great aunt are stranded on a desert island and discuss in humorous fashion what books they would have brought along with them, given the chance.  Morley is gently poked fun at when defining an example of a “man of letters.”  Abramson would later publish Starrett’s collection of essays, Books and Bipeds (1947).
     All this general bookish activity by Starrett played second string in the public’s eye to his activities and fame in the field of Sherlockian Studies.  As mentioned briefly above, Starrett’s early collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlockiana was exceptional and painfully parted with.  He writes in his autobiography, “I was pretty sick about this catastrophe and, for a time, I thought I would never collect books again.  Then a beautiful thing happened. . . . Inspired by my enthusiasm, [Dr. Logan] Clendening had been making a Sherlock collection of his own; and one day I received a letter from him. . . ‘My dear boy,’ it said in effect, ‘I find that I am not getting as much fun out of my Holmes collection as I had anticipated. . . I hear that you have just parted with your own collection, and I think you ought to start another.  Why not start with mine?  It is small but goodish. . . .’  It is unnecessary to underscore the generosity of the gift or of the doctor’s fellow feeling.  I suppose no finer thing ever was done for one collector by another.  The box contained some twenty of the most desirable items in the field, including the desperately rare first printing of A Study in Scarlet.  It was the nucleus of a new collection, and touched and overwhelmed by the gift, I began upon it at once.”
     The most famous product of his interest in the field was his witty biography of the great detective, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933).  Starrett explains, “Between 1930 and 1933 I contributed half a dozen essays to various American magazines, which became the foundation stones of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, published by Macmillan in 1933, and in a revised and enlarged edition by the University of Chicago Press in 1960.  This work, my best known book, gave me for the first time an international audience and made me a decent reputation in England.  British reviewers expressed polite surprise that the first biography of Holmes should have come from America.”
     The book is represented in my collection by two appealing copies.  The first is the original 1933 edition in jacket inscribed to fellow writer Frederick Irving Anderson.

"To the best American writer of detective stories since Poe"

     Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947) is best known for his stories featuring the detective Deputy Parr first published in The Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and collected as The Book of Murder (1930). The book is a Queen’s Quorum title, a distinction shared with Starrett’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Unique Hamlet (1920).
     Howard Haycraft writes in Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), “Because of his small output between permanent covers, Frederick Irving Anderson has escaped the attention of many devotees of the form; yet it is no exaggeration to say that he has shown perhaps the greatest mastery of the American short detective story of any writer since Melville Davison Post.”
     The second example is Starrett’s own copy of the first English edition, 1934, with his bookplate, signature, and scattered annotations.  A mighty association copy indeed and a particular treasure to me.  The U.S. edition precedes but the first English edition carries a special cache because of the subject.

Bookplate in Starrett's copy of the UK edition of Private Life

      Throughout I have quoted liberally from Starrett’s fine autobiography Born in a Bookshop.  I have a well used reference copy but found it difficult to locate an interesting association example, something that irritated me, frankly, and redoubled my efforts.  You can’t force such things, however, so I fished patiently and not long ago landed a worthy catch.  This example is inscribed to Nathan L. Bengis.
"Sherlockian and Droodist"

     Bengis (1906-1979) was long-time friend of Starrett, collector, bibliographer and prominent fellow Baker Street Irregular.  The Starrett archive at the University of Minnesota records correspondence between the two spanning five decades, 1925-1966.  Bengis’s Doyle collection was acquired by the Toronto Public Library to supplement their extensive Arthur Conan Doyle holdings.
     If you have made it this far, you’ve been submerged in the book world of Starrett and the glorious book days of old Chicago for quite some time.  You may surface now--hopefully your tank didn’t run out of air—and I encourage you to pursue further independent expeditions.
     For me, I am back at Powell’s Book Store, Nicole remains seated comfortably on the window ledge reading, I’m getting hungry for deep dish pizza, but I’m still scouting the books about books section pretty hard.  Hosanna!  I find a second Starrett book inscribed to Abel Berland. . . . The day evolves into a memorable one and the friendly ghosts of bookmen past mingle about me as I reach for another volume.
A patient soul

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