I got a good book in today and it was pretty darn thrilling. Not thrilling in the sense of taking your first sky dive or watching your team win the Super Bowl – but more of an internal rush without the involuntary exclamations or high-fives. It’s a feeling difficult to share with others unless they are of a biblio-bent. So that’s why I’m sharing it with you, because if you are reading this you’re either a bibliophile or a relative.
The book that thrilled me is the first American edition of Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon, A Treatise on the Love of Books (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1861). The book was published in an edition of 230 copies (30 on large paper) by the noted printer Munsell for Samuel Hand who edited the volume. This intriguing example is one of the 200 regular copies and is inscribed by Hand to a “Mr. Porter.” There is also a bookplate of a “Johann S. Lawrence.” I had heard of none of these gentlemen when I reeled in the book with little resistance on Ebay. It is the only presentation copy I’ve encountered. And those of you who follow me know of my utter incapability to resist a potentially interesting association item.
But before the book comes the author. Richard de Bury (1287-1345), also known as Richard Aungerville, was an old-school bookman in a literal sense. Born an Englishman, he lived in a time when actual knights roamed the land; when kings, queens, countries and the Church were roiled in violent turmoil; when the average life expectancy was about 32 years of age; and when all books were in manuscript form and the printing press was over one hundred years in the future.
De Bury wrote the Philobiblon in Latin in 1345. Various early manuscripts exist that preserve this enthusiastic ode to books, book collecting, and librarianship. The work was first printed in Latin in Cologne in 1473. In 1832 the first edition in English was published in London with translation and notes by John B. Inglis.
De Bury was by all accounts a sharp, witty, and capable man, one who rose to political power under Edward III and understood the tricky nuances of medieval politics where one wrong move could result in the loss of your head. He was also unabashedly a book hunter, using the leverage of his government positions to opportunize the gathering of books for his collection. He searched for them far and wide, in England and Europe, in humble backwaters and mighty metropolises of the time (Paris being his favorite), and among the general population and the elite. He would rather have books than money and let this be widely known, fostering a network of scouts. Once a book was acquired he read them and appreciated their contents. He was fastidious about their care and maintenance as well. All this and more he shares with us in the Philobiblon.
De Bury, like many collectors who would follow, wished to immortalize and preserve his book collection by placing it in an institution of higher learning. He planned to establish a library at Durham College, Oxford with his books. However, he died in poverty after a lengthy illness, his dream unrealized, his funds exhausted, with a heavy debt remaining. His collection of approximately 1,500 volumes was dispersed soon after. Of his mighty library only two examples are known to have survived. Such are the travails of history. I am certain though he would feel a measure of consolation that his Philobiblon lives on today.
Now to the thrilling book at hand with pun intended. For our story shifts to an examination of Samuel Hand’s edition, revealing a forgotten American bibliophile worthy of resurrection.
Hand in his preface to this first American edition explains that he considered doing a new translation of the work from the Latin but decided ”that of Inglis, which appeared in 1832, and though objected to by some critics as generally clumsy and in places spiritless, is on the whole honest and close to the sense of the original. . . Wherever it materially varies from it, I have endeavored to point out the discrepancy in the notes, and refer to the different reading of the original from which the translation is made.” Hand also draws heavily upon the notes and information found in the 1856 French edition edited by M. Chocheris.
Hand writes, “Chocheris prefaced his edition with an introduction consisting of three distinct parts; biographical, bibliographical and critical. These prefaces, illustrated with notes, are all spirited, and exhibit much learning and research. Believing that they would add much to its value and interest, I have translated and prefixed them to this edition. The French translation itself was copiously annotated. Translations of all of these notes, believed to be important or interesting, have been made are to be found in the following pages.
“That of the French edition has been adopted with a translation of the very full notes made by the French editor, exhibiting the various readings. The manuscripts and editions to which he had access and with which he collated it, are enumerated in the bibliographical preface. I have endeavored to follow that text carefully and accurately, and I believe few errors will be found.
“Original notes of my own I have also inserted in the book occasionally, though sparingly. The notes of Inglis to his English translation have also been nearly all preserved.”
Hand concludes, “It is hoped this humble attempt to bring to the knowledge of American readers, a quaint and beautiful little treatise upon a subject so interesting, written so many centuries ago, and by a man who played so distinguished a part in his time, as a prelate, a statesman, and a scholar, will commend itself to our reading men. . . I shall have accomplished my highest wish in regard to the book, if I in any degree succeed in rescuing from comparative forgetfulness in these modern times, a performance so truly excellent and in its day so wonderful.”
I had now become very much interested in Samuel Hand. I began to dig, both in print sources and by excavating large masses of virtual material, sifting through pages of online dross for shiny nuggets. And I found a few, enough to flesh out our subject and recover a forgotten American book collector.
Samuel Hand (1833-1886) was an accomplished lawyer in Albany, NY, and served as Associate Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. A brief biography of Hand discovered in Landmarks of Albany County, New York (1897) records in part, “Mr. Hand was a man of good scholarly and literary attainments, in this respect a distinct exception to many lawyers who attain high eminence at the bar. He accumulated a large private library, containing some books of rarity and beauty, which was particularly strong in history and biography. He delighted especially in fine engravings and good editions, of which he acquired a number, and at one time he edited De Bury's Philobiblon, a little work in which his own tastes gave him a ready sympathy. His conversation was varied and showed humane learning, certainly without any pedantry. Particularly obnoxious to him was the loose and careless use of language, as for example in the form of ‘slang,’ and perhaps in his endeavor to use language with a nice taste and conscientious intelligence did he show most that real culture which is seldom a characteristic of men of affairs. He took great pleasure also in music and had fine discrimination for that which was excellent. It may well be doubted whether at the time of his death there was in his city a man who excelled Mr. Hand at once in his professional success and his culture.”
This informative sketch is supplemented by writings originating from Samuel Hand’s son, Learned Hand (Learned being the maiden name of Samuel’s wife, Lydia). Learned (1872-1961) lived up to the billing and became a famous judge, presiding over the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. A biographical note records that Learned Hand “has been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.”
For our purposes we can thank Gerald Gunther, a law professor who wrote a highly regarded biography entitled Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge (1994). Drawing upon Learned Hand’s extensive papers at Harvard, Gunther provides a much more intimate portrayal of the father Samuel Hand as a bibliophile and person:
“Samuel Hand’s capacity to combine professional success with public affairs, remarkable as it seemed to his son, was not unusual among nineteenth-century lawyers. What made Samuel Hand truly atypical were his interests and talents beyond those spheres. Learned viewed his father as a true ‘egghead’ – inquisitive about ideas, a bibliophile, a voracious reader of classical and contemporary literature, and an occasional essayist to boot. In a biographical sketch, Learned Hand referred to his father’s lifelong ‘wide and careful reading. . . coupled with a natural bent to reflection and speculation,’ a bent that ‘had given his mind a breadth and a humane sympathy which made him preeminent not only as a distinguished advocate, but as a cultured gentleman,’ which was, Hand added, ‘unusual among men.’
“Samuel Hand began collecting books even while striving to support his family in his law practice. His library, which grew to three thousand volumes, became one of the finest private collections in Albany, ‘the most complete and valuable’ in French literature. He was a ‘great collector of books; that was his great extravagance,’ an enthusiasm he demonstrated soon after he moved to Albany, when in 1861 he published. . . De Bury’s Philobiblon. . . .
“From personal experience, Learned Hand could sympathize with the description of his father as ‘sensitive’ and ‘by nature of melancholic disposition.’ Yet for most of his life, blinded by his deeply ingrained family perception of Samuel as an intellectual giant of unmatchable talents, he could not acknowledge his father’s flaws, and only in old age could he concede that some of these flaws imposed substantial costs on the family. Belatedly, these perceptions brought him closer to his father than he had ever been during those fearful associations of his youth or the many years of distant awe. Finally he was able to say that his father had been ‘too dependent on what people thought’; unlike himself, he ‘did not have many friends,’ for he ‘didn’t give out enough.’ And he recalled the dark side of his father’s bookishness: ‘In the evening, he was just buried in books. . . . He was a selfish man, I think, in a way, and of course he was encouraged to be so by his adoring wife, who venerated him.’ Hand acknowledged as well that his father ‘didn’t have much gift with people’ and his hard-won self control precluded warmth and engagement. Recalling his mother’s saying that her husband had believed ‘that if he could always feel [as] he did when he had two or three drinks under his belt, his whole life would have been different,’ Hand added, ‘I understand that, because I often feel that way.’”
Samuel Hand died a premature death from mouth cancer at age 53 at the height of his professional career and bibliophilic avocation. The exact fate of his general library is unknown to me as yet. The Learned Hand papers record a gift in 1903 of 1,420 law books from Hand’s library to Harvard. The papers also record a gift of rare books in 1958-1959 to the New York Public Library.
|John K Porter
The recipient of Hand’s Philobiblon is almost certainly his law partner and mentor, John K. Porter (1819-1892), a prominent lawyer on the court of appeals most remembered for prosecuting President Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau.
The book then passed to a relative of the Porter family, John Strachan Lawrence (1849-1924), Michigan attorney and politician. Lawrence was a member of the Grand Rapids Library Commission and president of the Grand Rapids Historical Association. He authored a family history Descendants of Moses and Sarah Kilham Porter (1911). A search of Lawrence’s ex-libris in WorldCat revealed a handful of 17th and 18th century books in Latin including Elzevir editions and a 1721 book on astronomy by John Keill. I have found no other references to his collecting.
|John S. Lawrence bookplate
Richard de Bury expresses in the prologue that writing the Philobiblon is essentially a form of catharsis and he wishes to justify his book collecting in a variety of ways. There is an underlying tone of self-defense present that even today sporadically causes discomfort within the most fortified bibliophile. He writes, referring to himself in the plural form:
“The bent of our compassion has peculiarly predisposed us to offer our pious aid; and not only to provide them [humble scholars] with necessary food, but, what is more, with the most useful books for study. For this purpose, most acceptable to the Lord, our unwearied attention hath already been long upon the watch. The ecstatic love hath indeed so powerfully seized upon us, that, discharging all other earthly pursuits from our mind, we have alone ardently desired the acquisition of books. That the motive of our object, therefore, may be manifest as well to posterity as to our contemporaries, and that we may, in so far as it concerns ourselves, forever close the perverse mouths of talkers, we have drawn up a little treatise, in the lightest style indeed of the moderns (for it is ridiculous in rhetoricians to write pompously when the subject is trifling), which treatise will purge the love we have had for books from excess, will advance the purpose of our intense devotion, and will narrate in the clearest manner all the circumstances of our undertaking, dividing them into twenty chapters. But because it principally treats of the love of books, it hath pleased us, after the fashion of the ancient Latins, fondly to name it by the Greek word, Philobiblon.”
The chapter headings from the 1861 edition will give one a sense of the work:
A link to a scanned copy of the first American edition can be found here Philobiblon 1861
There are numerous resources to consult if you'd like to read more about Richard de Bury. There are also a number of later editions in English of the Philobiblon that are more accurately translated and edited. A quick online search will get you started.