Sunday, March 8, 2020

In the Midst of It: A Book Hunter Down the Cataloging Rabbit Hole

The story begins with a drowning, includes a fratricide, a sensational trial, and has no ending yet.  But let us start anyhow.
Prominent book collector C. Fiske Harris and his wife are both recovering from illness in 1881.  They decide to take a recuperative canoe ride with their servant Hedges on Moosehead Lake in Maine.  The canoe capsizes in rough water “and for a time the Harrises clung to the craft.  Hedges heard Mrs. Harris say, ‘If Mr. Harris goes, I will go also.’  She succumbed first, however, and Harris followed her.”  Thus quoted from Roger Stoddard’s authoritative essay, “C. Fiske Harris, Collector of American Poetry and Plays” (1963). 
            This abrupt and tragic demise of a notable collector is not yet on my mind as I prowl the aisles of the recent ABAA Book Show in Pasadena, California.  I am nearing the end of my Saturday all-day scout, my eyes strained and the need for food urgent.  Serendipity comes into play as I browse the booth of Holly Segar and Jeffrey Rovenpor of Caroliniana Books, Aiken, South Carolina.
            Propped up on a shelf in a sleeve is a modest looking pamphlet, plain original wrappers, with a neat ownership signature on the cover.  I almost miss it, but I don’t.  Holly & Jeffrey’s description reads, in part: “Index to American Poetry and Plays in the Collection of C. Fiske Harris.  Providence, RI: Printed for Private Distribution, 1874. . . Finely printed pamphlet listing the major American poetry and play collection belonging to C. Fiske Harris.  The collection today resides at Brown University. . . This copy with the ownership inscription to front wrapper of R. A. Guild.”

            Neither Holly nor Jeffrey is available to chat, so I continue to other booths, but I remain intrigued, the biblio-wheels spinning slowly then building up speed as the importance of the item soaks in.  I return a short time later and buy the Index from Holly.  I ask her where they found this elusive item.  She doesn’t recall off-hand, but Jeffrey will be returning to the booth soon.  And he does.  He and I haven’t met before, but he knows me through my blog.
            “Reading your blog posts inspired me to buy this at the Papermania show in Hartford.”
            I am momentarily flummoxed.  (I like that word.)
            He continues, “This is the first time we’ve had it out on display and in the back of my mind I thought by chance if you were here you might want it.”
            Well, Mr. Rovenpor, the Book Gods certainly put us together in one of those unexplainable instances that happens occasionally to dedicated collectors.  But next time, let’s not tempt fate and just quote me directly.
            New friends made, I carry my prize off to show to a few other book people who would appreciate it, including Joe Fay & Nick Aretakis of Reese Co. and Bill Butts of Main Street Books.  For what fun is it if one can’t share with others?
            I have big plans for a blog post about Harris’ Index.  Upon reviewing Stoddard’s essay on Harris, I realize much of the heavy lifting has already been done.  A shorter excursion is very much in order though.  During the journey, I’m buffeted by a deluge of unexpected discoveries and find myself gloriously deep in uncharted territory and I push on wondering where it will all lead.  Come with me.
            The importance of Harris’ Index is summarized by Stoddard, “In March of 1875 there was issued privately in Providence a small pamphlet which was without precedent in the annals of American bibliography. . .  it credited Mr. Harris with 4,129 volumes in a field almost totally unexplored by scholar or collector.  Harris’s contemporaries in the book world were historians and collectors in the field of American history, and it would be another decade before successors with Harris’s inclination toward his native literature could appreciate his foresight and achievement.”
C. Fiske Harris

            C. Fiske Harris (1818-1881) is certainly a biblio over-achiever.  He attends Brown University but pursues a business opportunity and doesn’t graduate, goes to New York City in 1837, makes his fortune, and returns to Providence, Rhode Island twenty years later, settling into an expansive home with his wife near the Brown campus.  His home is filled with books in almost every room.  Horatio Rogers writes in Private Libraries of Providence (1878), “Go where you will in Mr. Harris’ house, you will find books.  They long ago overflowed the library proper, which holds but a small portion. . .  They stand upon shelves: they are stacked in piles: they are packed in trunks and boxes: they are shut up in closets: they are bundled up in paper; and they are huddled on the floor.  The owner has no idea of their number, and the writer estimates that there are, at least, 8,000 volumes and 5,000 pamphlets.”  It is surprising to me that Harris remains married.
            Harris forms three major collections:  Early English literature, poetry, and drama including the Four Folios of Shakespeare and over 600 quarto plays up to the time of Dryden.   This is sold at auction in 1883 after his death.  He gathers over 8,000 items pertaining the American Civil War, a remarkable assemblage covering virtually every aspect of the conflict.  This collection remains intact and is now a gem of the Providence Public Library.  His third collection of American Poetry breaks new ground.
            Stoddard writes, “To Americanists, Harris’s collection of American poetry and plays is most important of all.  Its influence still continues to be felt in collecting, bibliography, and scholarship.  John Russell Bartlett wrote for The Providence Journal in 1875: ‘ Mr. Harris, who has always had a taste for English literature, and formed a very good library of the best writers, both English and American, conceived the idea a few years ago to make his collection of American poetry and dramatic literature as complete as possible, and having once made this a specialty, has pursued it with a zeal unsurpassed by any [other] American collector in this department.  To form so large a collection would ordinarily be the work of one’s life, but Mr. Harris has accomplished his work mainly within the last fifteen years.’”
            Zeal is not the only factor involved.  Harris is fortunate and astute enough to buy a large portion of Albert Gorton Greene’s collection.  Greene (1802-1868), a distant cousin of Harris, also lives in Providence and attended Brown.  Greene’s home is a meeting place for local writers and visiting authors.  Greene himself is a minor poet celebrated for his once much published and parodied poem “Old Grimes.”  Stoddard writes, “Greene’s interest in American poetry is noteworthy in the history of American book collecting.  He was the first collector to specialize in American poetry and, indeed, in any branch of American literature.”
            Greene’s library is sold at Bangs’ auction house in New York in March of 1869.  Contemporary bookseller William Gowans comments, “It was presumptuously catalogued in 6,742 lots; for over 2,000 of the lots sold for less than the cost of printing their descriptions; and the total realized less than $8,000.  Attendance never exceeded twenty-five and sometimes dropped below a dozen spectators.”
            Such can be the case when one is ahead of their time.  C. Fiske Harris, seizing the opportunity, utilizes Joseph Sabin as his agent and buys three quarters of the American poetry lots (over 1,600 volumes) at a cost of about $750.  The purchase adds quantities of minor rarities and ephemera to his collection.  Harris pursues the more expensive desiderata such as Anne Bradstreet’s poems via the English and American booksellers and at auction. 
Stoddard records, “Harris was not a gentle, quiet man who had retired to the solitude of his library.  He was a hard competitor whose livelihood had in part depended upon exact knowledge of the minute details of textile printing.  He demanded accuracy, promptness, and exact conformity to instructions from his agents, and when a fake or a cripple was delivered to him, he flung it back with a stinging letter.  He reacted in similar fashion when an agent exceeded his limit at auction.  His correspondence reveals him as such a difficult customer that one sometimes wonders why such established dealers as Sabin and Quaritch bothered to handle his account.”
            Harris is hard on booksellers, but Stoddard notes his openness to assist scholars who utilize his library.  He also has a measure of charm when called for.  Stoddard writes, “By 1874 he was a close friend of Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman and she favored him with the finest memento of Poe which she owned and one of the great association copies in American literature: the 1845 Raven and Tales inscribed, ‘To Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, from the most devoted of her friends, Edgar A. Poe.’  Mrs. Whitman added her inscription to Harris, and in his letter of 30 Oct. 1874, Harris thanked her ‘for the precious volume you have so generously confided to my keeping.’”
            And now to Harris’s Index to American Poetry and Plays which I hold gently in my hand.  Stoddard writes, in part, “By mid-year of 1873 Harris, with the benefit of [John Russell] Bartlett’s advice, was hard at work on the catalogue of his collection.  In March of 1875 the Index was printed [in an edition of 255 copies, not all bound], and he sent copies to prominent librarians, scholars, collectors, and poets.  Harris issued the Index as a temporary, short-title catalogue, stating that he might in the future ‘print a more comprehensive catalogue of his collection, with full titles and collations of all the more important articles, and with, perhaps, brief notices of the writers.’ . . . A few of the recipients sent him additions to his collection, but many more sent him notes of attributions or of further titles.
            “Most of the recipients and reviewers were startled to learn that over 4,000 volumes of poetry, plays, and songs had been written by Americans.  William Cullen Bryant’s reply, though a bit unkind, was typical: ‘Your work, Index to American Poetry and Plays, has amazed me by showing me what multitudes of persons on our side of the Atlantic have wasted their time in writing verses in our language.’  But few of Harris’s contemporaries were competent to see that he had made one of the most significant achievements in American book collecting.
            “The Index itself was a careful piece of work.  It was cross-indexed, and each entry included the author’s name with initials, short title, place, date, format, and reference number.  Where applicable, Harris included notes of paging, special title-pages, and watermarks.  It was not known generally that many nineteenth-century American books were signed in one manner and gathered in another until the publication of the first volume of the Bibliography of American Literature in 1955, but Harris pointed out this discrepancy in several entries.”
            “Harris added 120 titles during the printing of the Index, and by the time General Rogers published his account of the Harris library in June 1875, he had added 180 more.  Indeed, in the six years following the publication of the Index Harris added over a thousand titles to the collection.
            “In 1871 Harris had written to Henry Stevens that ‘There is but one title of which I absolutely despair—the old Bay Psalm Book [1640].  Five years later, in October 1876, Harris had his chance when the Shurtleff copy came up at Leonard’s in Boston.  So for $1,025 Harris bought what was perhaps the most desirable copy of the book he had despaired of finding.  Not only was it in the original binding, not only had it been one of Thomas Prince’s copies, but it had belonged to one of the translators, Richard Mather.”
            Harris’s excitement upon holding the long-sought Bay Psalm book, the first surviving book printed in North America, is easy to imagine.  Five years to the month of its purchase, Harris is gone, perishing in the canoe accident, and his collection is up for grabs.  Stoddard writes, “The American poetry. . . was sent to the shop of Sidney S. Rider of Providence, an eccentric bookseller whose ethics were inscrutable to his contemporaries.  Rider began by selling the Bay Psalm Book to Mrs. John Carter Brown for the library of her late husband.  Then he let it be known that the remainder of the poetry could be purchased for $4,500.”
            Through various twists and turns, the collection is eventually acquired by Henry Bowen Anthony, a senator from Rhode Island, graduate of Brown, another cousin of Harris and an old friend of John Russell Bartlett.  Anthony dies a year later and bequeaths the collection to Brown University in 1884.  Stoddard notes, “In his will he requested that it be kept together and that an inscription in Latin be placed over its alcove in the library: ‘The Harris Collection of American Poetry: Commenced by Albert C. Greene, Continued by Caleb Fiske Harris and Henry B. Anthony.  By the Latter Presented to this Library.’  Today a similar wording is used in the bookplate of the Harris Collection.”
            Now let us recall the ownership signature on the front wrapper of my copy of the Index, “R[euben] A. Guild.”  This is a fantastic association copy!  Guild (1822-1899) is the librarian in charge of the Brown University Library when the Harris collection is acquired.  It is he who oversees the acquisition and installation of the books as a separate special collection in a dedicated room—the first at Brown University and one of the earliest in the country.   Guild is prominent and active in the library field, celebrated for his professional achievements and congenial nature.  He is a founder of the American Library Association and writes The Librarian’s Manual: A Treatise on Bibliography (1858) as well as a number of works about Brown University history. 
            The Harris collection numbers approximately 5,000 volumes in 1884.  An early endowment provides acquisition funds and a lengthy honor roll of curators nurture and build the holdings over the next one hundred and thirty-five years.  The collection now contains approximately 250,000 (!) volumes and is unique in scope and effort.
            While absorbing Stoddard’s Harris essay for the above recounting, I see he references a newspaper article from 1871 by Thomas Donnelly on “Prominent American Book Collectors” quoted by C. Fiske Harris in his correspondence.  This is very early for the subject matter.  Curious as to the article’s contents, I immediately try to hunt it down online and find another reference to it in Paul Leicester Ford’s “Bibliography of Private Libraries,” an annotated checklist published in the July 1889 issue of the Library Journal.  Ford’s short and often pithy comments provide amusement.  For example, he cites the Donnelly article, published in two parts under the pseudonym “Book Worm” and comments, “Better than ordinary newspaper work, but of little real value.” 
Ford’s list leads me further afield from Harris, a full-on distraction that has me careening off course until I plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole.  But before we get to that excitement, let’s discuss the compiler, for he leads a varied life, filled with rare books and writing, cut short by tragedy.
Paul Leicester Ford (1865-1902), is immersed in books from the beginning, his father being a prominent collector.  He is also a great-grandson of dictionary maker Noah Webster, the subject of his first work, an edited volume of Webster Genealogy (1876).   Ford is frail physically, small in stature, with a deformed spine and must wear a brace, but he perseveres.  He is most well-remembered as the editor of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1892-1896) which sets a new standard in editing historical texts.  He has a strong interest in bibliography and rare books, particularly Americana. He publishes bibliographic work on Alexander Hamilton, the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, The New-England Primer, printer Hugh Gaines, and of course, Thomas Jefferson.  He compiles several checklists of Americana references. Ford also has a creative streak and is a popular novelist of his day. He finds time to edit The Bibliographer: A Journal of Bibliography and Rare Book News.   Ford is married and raising a family.
Paul Leicester Ford
In sharp contrast is his brother Malcolm, at one time the most famous amateur athlete in the country.  During the 1880s, he is three times the American National Champion as “All Around Athlete,” and in 1885-1886, Malcolm wins National Championships in the long jump, and both the 100- and 200-yard dash.  Malcolm marries an heiress but after a divorce he experiences severe financial difficulties.  The wealthy Ford family does not approve of Malcom’s devotion to athletics and the father disinherits Malcolm from the will.  After their father’s death, Malcolm expects support from his siblings including Paul.  Friction between them increases over several years.
It is under these strained circumstances that Malcolm goes to Paul’s new home in New York City at 37 East Seventy-seventh Street on May 8, 1902.  They meet in the library.  Malcolm wants money.  A brief argument ensues, and the brimming bookcases surrounding the two men can only watch silently as tensions escalate.  Ford’s private secretary seated on the other side of the room is stunned by a sudden gunshot.  Malcolm has shot Paul.  Malcolm turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.  Paul Ford, mortally wounded, will die in a bedroom upstairs within the hour.  An inquest rules that Malcolm had been temporarily insane.
Thinking about Ford’s sensationalistic death, I am drawn back to his “Bibliography of Private Libraries.”  His comments about the entries reveal a man not hesitant to express his opinion.  I wonder if his forthrightness led to a mis-calculated escalation with his unstable brother.  But this is just a loose thought.  
I discover a reference cited by Ford to a newspaper article by one Lewis Rosenthal titled “Book Collectors of New-York,” in the June 13, 1886 issue of The New York Times.  Ford notes, “A very good newspaper account.”  This high praise by Ford standards makes me very curious to read it, and pronto.  Fortunately, my account is current and after a bit of hunting the article is before me.
Rosenthal frames his lengthy piece (some 5,000 words) as an interview with an old New York City bookseller of forty years standing called “Dryasdust.”  This is almost certainly a composite figure by Rosenthal incorporating his familiarity with actual booksellers spiced with stereotypes.  He writes, “Antiquary Dryasdust was standing on a low ladder and putting an octavo on the shelf as I stepped into his shop on University-place a few days ago resolved to make him chat about some of the book collectors of New-York.  Imagine a short, slight, bent figure; a head with a brown wig on it; a thin face, with a complexion like parchment; small, quick , gray eyes that seem to peer for bargains under their shaggy brows, and you an outline idea of the personality. . . .”
Rosenthal supplies via his bookseller character short descriptions of dozens of living collectors and their libraries including famous bookmen such as Robert Hoe, Rush Hawkins, Samuel P. Avery, Samuel L. M. Barlow, Brayton Ives, Hamilton Cole, Thomas Mckee, and Augustin Daly.  He describes many of the libraries first-hand.  He has a thorough knowledge of the nascent Grolier Club and the more obscure Book Fellow’s Club.  Rosenthal even notes, for example, that Henri Pene Du Bois’s book Four Private Libraries of New York (1892) is in the works almost four years before publication.
He also comments on trends: the rage for extra-illustration of volumes, and the in-depth collecting of single authors.  He has a good knowledge of fine bindings, material related to the theatre, and the collecting of French books, describing in detail for example the French library of M. Jolly Bavoillet. 
Much to my surprise, Rosenthal rather boldly for the time records a reference to the widespread collecting of erotica, “Even the most cursory account of the private collections of New-York would be incomplete without a statement that there are many collectors of suppressed and facetious works.  John Quincy Adams, who somewhere in his diary speaks of a certain nobleman in Paris who had a private collection of such rarities under lock and key, could, in our time, find at least a score of bibliophiles with similar tastes in our good town of Gotham.  I keep the names of these men a secret.  The customs officials and the agents of the Society for the Suppression of Vice are active in suppressing such books and by their rigor push the prices of things of this kind to a fabulous figure.  Generally, bound in bright colors—yellow, saffron, light blue—the publication of an erotic kind command an extensive though stealthy sale.”
Lewis Rosenthal is very much in the thick of the book action of his day, both legitimate and under-the-table.  I need to find out more about him.  He is completely unknown to me before my encounter in Ford’s checklist. 
It is getting late in the evening, but there is no clock when my interests are stirred.  I begin to hunt and remain tenacious.  I focus on the journalist angle and facts emerge.  I find a contemporary biographical sketch in Isaac Markens The Hebrew in America (1888): “Lewis Rosenthal was born in Baltimore, September 10, 1856.  He was educated at Columbia Grammar School, New York and at Dartmouth College, N.H., where he graduated in 1877.  He then removed to Paris where he was for four years a member of ‘The Parisian Staff,’ being at the same time engaged as tutor to a son of Hon. Thomas F. Noyes, United States Minister to France.  In 1882 he published, ‘America and France; the influence of the United States in France in the Eighteenth Century.’  Subsequently he was a special contributor to various New York daily newspapers.  Among his magazine articles are: ‘Poe in Paris,” “Rosseau in Philadelphia,’ and ‘Bret Harte in Germany.’  He also wrote for the ‘North American Review’ an article “Our Services to the French Republic’ and for ‘The Theatre,’ a series of sketches on the Dramatic Critics of New York and the European Capitals.”
Now I have a handle on him and find in a Dartmouth alumni publication that Rosenthal dies in Washington, D.C. in 1909.  The brief bio above explains his Francophile tendencies and his theatre interests exhibited in the “Book Collectors of New-York.”  I am excited to see if he writes other biblio-essays.  Contemporary late 19th-century accounts of American book collecting are not plentiful, and any re-discovered tidbits are important historically.
By now the hour is 2:00 am and I refuel with a jumbo rum and coke, light on the rum and heavy on the carbonated sugar / caffeine infusion.  The waft of fresh, microwaved popcorn piled high in a University of Texas Longhorn bowl permeates my office.  I toss a few kernels in the air, mouth open wide, a few make it, a few litter the floor.  I’ll pick them up later, probably.  Wife Nicole has retired for the evening so I’m unsupervised.
A major discovery comes after half my drink is gone:  The Curio: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted to Genealogy and Biography, Heraldry and Book Plates, Coins and Autographs, Rare Books and Works of Art, Old Furniture and Plate, and other Colonial Relics. (NY: R.W. Wright, 1887-1888), edited by E de V. Vermont.  This short-lived publication (Vol. 1 only, Sept. 1887-Feb. 1888) contains four signed articles by Rosenthal including “Great Men Bibliophiles,” “Hobbies of the Book Hunter,” and “New York Dramatic Libraries and Their Owners.”  The last describes on-site visits with collectors McKee, Daly, Jolly-Bavoillet, William B. Dick, J. V. Arnold, and Charles C. Moreau.  It is unlikely many, or any, biblio-historians have read these articles in over one hundred years.
The Curio also contains a lengthy, illustrated essay on “Book Binding as a Fine Art” by “The Grolierite” and four first-hand biographical sketches by Max Maury of “Great Booksellers of the World,” including Bernard Quaritch (London), Ludwig Rosenthal (Berlin), Damascene Morgand (Paris), and Edmund F. Bonaventure (New York).  The European dealers are today still prominent in the annals of bookselling.  Bonaventure is not.  He’s a specialist in rare French books and Maury calls him “one of the most famous of living American book dealers.”
This plethora of biblio material in an obscure periodical becomes even more intriguing when I discover that “The Grolierite” and “Max Maury” are pseudonyms for Lewis Rosenthal.  (Rosenthal is not a Grolier Club member but certainly knows several of them.)  Figuring this out requires online gyrations I won’t detail here but suffice to say Rosenthal publishes a novel, a work on Napoleon, and under “Max Maury” translates several French novels into English, pens a tourist guide to Paris, and compiles a English-French travel dictionary.
It’s a fine and lengthy night down the cataloging rabbit hole.  I am getting sleepy, but I’m not quite out of drink yet and there is one last jolt of discovery.  I turn up another pseudonym used by Rosenthal: Lew Rosen. 
Here is an entirely unexpected twist that has Rosenthal (as Lew Rosen) arrested by Anthony Comstock himself, the infamous anti-vice activist, United States postal inspector, and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who is dedicated to upholding Victorian morality.  The trial is a landmark one.
            Josh Lambert writes of Rosenthal and Comstock in Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2013), “Comstock’s greatest legal triumph in the regulation of printed obscenity would be the Supreme Court’s upholding of the conviction of one ‘Jew editor’ in 1896, a judicial decision that defined obscenity in American constitutional law for half a century.  Comstock deliberately and cunningly pursued this editor; whose name was Lew Rosen.  Under a false name, Comstock dispatched a letter in April 1893 to the magazine Rosen edited, Broadway, a ‘witty New York society journal,’ complaining that he had received the recent issue but that ‘some boy or printer’s devil has been playing a joke on you, as the paper on three pages is marred with a black substance marked over them.’  ‘There has been no practical joke played on you at all,’ one of Rosen’s employees quickly replied, following instructions from the editor.  ‘It is only lamp black. . . and is easily removed with a piece of bread.’  When Comstock scrubbed away the grease, he discovered beneath it what the court later referred to as ‘pictures of females, in different attitudes of indecency.’  Comstock testified against Rosen, and the latter was convicted and sentenced to thirteen months at hard labor for sending obscenity through the mail.  Rosen appealed his conviction all the way up the judicial ladder, but the Supreme Court finally upheld his sentence, condemning Rosen to jail because his aim had been, as Justice John Marshal Harlan wrote, ‘ of course, to excite a curiosity to know what was thus concealed.’”
And then I discover that bookseller Edmund Bonaventure, profiled by Rosenthal in The Curio, has years earlier in 1883 been prosecuted by Comstock for selling racy prints. 
But it really is getting late now, and I’d rather not be sitting here when the sun rises.  My mind is full.  A straightforward cataloging of my chance find in Pasadena has become a surreal plunge through known and unknown; a drowning, a murder-suicide, famous and forgotten bookmen, a brush with the underbelly of the late 19th century book trade, and a desire to learn more about the intriguing Lewis Rosenthal, aka Lew Rosen, Max Maury, and “The Grolierite.”  
Would it surprise my readers that before bed I’ve already hunted down and ordered an inscribed Rosenthal item and a complete set of The Curio? 

Related links:

Roger Stoddard's essay on C. Fiske Harris

Scanned Copy of Harris' Index

Paul Leicester Ford's Bibliography of Private Libraries


  1. You're even crazier than I am! Great article!!!

    1. Thanks, Dave! I've always inspired to crazier than you, biblio-wise. Hopefully, our wives will not add any comments. KZ

  2. Terrific article. Wonderful combination of research, detective work, new material, and bibliofool enthusiasm. We need more from that Zimmerman guy!

    Kevin Graffagnino

    1. Hi Kevin, thanks for the kudos and encouragement. KZ

  3. Down the rabbit hole and into a bibliographical maze! Reading your post made me take my copy of __The Curio__ down from the shelf to reread Rosenthal's articles!

    1. It doesn't surprise me you too would own a set! Thanks for reading. Looking forward to your next biblio-post, wherever that may lead.....