A Wunderkammer in Virginia

cover of A Curator’s Wunderkammer— David R. Whitesell. A Curator’s Wunderkammer. A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia. Exhibition Catalog. [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library], 2022. Illustrated throughout. [iv], 105 pp. Edition of 500 copies [in fact, 310]. $25.00.
David Whitesell’s Wunderkammer exhibition is a retirement party in material form, a late career greatest hits selection of sixty-four books, manuscripts, and ephemera he bought for Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library during a decade at as curator at the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia (previously he was at the American Antiquarian Society for many years). The exhibition runs through July but information seems meager on the UVa website, so I will treat this catalogue as my invitation to the party (complete with a transcript of all the speeches!) and write about it.
A Curator’s Wunderkammer includes is divided into five broad categories: Jefferson, Virginia, & American History (23 items); English Literature (5 items); American Literature (7 items); Printing, Publishing & Book Arts (19 items); and Omnium Gatherum (10 items). Boundaries are usually a lot  fuzzier than people think, and here, too: many of the items in the Omnium Gatherum have an Americana flavor.  This is only a tiny selection from some 15,000 items Whitesell purchased, but they document the curator’s energies and the range of materials that he has seen.  The items include a Jefferson manuscript and the diary of a young lady growing up in Virginia during the Civil War (this is after all, Jefferson’s university);  the first novel by an American-born author; a rare Boston imprint of Meat out of the Eater and Day of Doom; the decorative wrapper for  a ream of paper from a Hartford Mill; a memoir of a Bavarian soldier in the first world war; a private manuscript anthology of the poet Chatterton; and a fragment of Washington Irving letter, just before his career took off with The Sketch Book.
Whitesell pays attention to poetry (he was editor of Roger Stoddard’s  monumental  Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 through 1820). Notable here are a family copy of an early American utopia in verse, The United Worlds (1834), which conclusively identifies the author, and The Eucleia (ca. 1865), a nonce collection of the works of William Cook, mendicant poet and self-publisher in Salem, Mass., reflecting Whitesell’s interest in “nineteenth-century non-canonical verse”. And then there is the rare and remarkable and potent America and other poems by James Monroe Whitfield (Buffalo, 1853).
America by James Monroe Whitfield, 1853
The last item in the catalogue is the manuscript of an essay, “La biblioteca total”,  written by Jorge Luis Borges for Sur (August 1939), which is identified as a precursor of the story, “La biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel), published two years later in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. No wonder he describes this as “the prize, and if I must choose, my favorite UVA acquisition”.
In this catalogue Whitesell names the booksellers from whom he purchased materials (this aspect of the history of the object is usually omitted); and so this catalogue becomes a an account of relationships between the antiquarian trade and a knowledgeable institutional buyer. He writes discursively on his selection process and the constantly changing nature of the book trade. This is a fun catalogue.

[Note: The colophon states 500 copies printed, but due to paper shortages only 310 were in fact printed. If you want one, best to act soon.Details: https://at.virginia.edu/wunderkammer]

A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Bronte

Photograph by Clark Hodgin for the New York Times
The news is out. A BOOK OF RYHMES, a miniature manuscript book created by Charlotte Brontë in 1829 and unseen for more than a century, will be displayed and offered for sale by James Cummins Bookseller and Maggs Bros. Ltd. on 21 April at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, at the Cummins booth (A4). Sometimes the best stories in the antiquarian book trade can never be told, so it is a delight to see this one become part of the public history of world literature.
Jenny Schuessler wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times, A Brontë Fit for a Doll’s House, or, A Tiny Brontë Book, Lost for a Century, Resurfaces, discussing the intense private world of the Brontë children and the persistent interest in their manuscripts. Schuessler elicited a beautiful response from biographer Claire Harman on looking into this unpublished manuscript (Harman’s observation also demonstrates that bringing Alice in Wonderland into descriptions of subjective experience always makes the world a brighter place). The first time I saw one of the Brontë manuscripts was more than a decade ago at the British Library, when the exhibition Out of This World. Science Fiction but not as you know it (2011) presented Branwell’s map of Glasstown and surrounding lands and The History of the Young Men (Ashley MS 2468), as well as writings by Charlotte and Emily.
It’s a nice to have a brief role in the long history of this manuscript, and to be part of this joyous chapter in the history of the book trade. See you at the book fair.
Photograph by Clark Hodgin for the New York Times
A description of the manuscript follows:
BRONTË, Charlotte. A BOOK OF RYHMES. By Ch[a]rlotte Bronte. Sold by Nobody. And Printed by Herself, &c., &c. Haworth, Dec. 17, 1829, Anno Domino. 15, [1, blank] pp. 32mo (4 x 2-1/2 inches). Haworth: October to December 1829. Stitched in brown “sugar paper” wrappers, titled in ink on upper cover. Some toning to leaves. Alexander 8. Provenance: Charlotte Brontë; Rev. A. B. Nicholls; sold at Sotheby’s 19 June 1914, lot 193, “Property of Mrs. A. B. Nicholls, Widow of the late Rev. A. B. Nicholls, whose first wife was Charlotte Bronte”; Walpole Gallleries, 17 November 1916, lot 32.
This beautiful miniature manuscript book of poem by Charlotte Brontë, aged 13, is known from the transcript of CB’s own catalogue of her books in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë and was sold at the dispersal of the effects of the second wife of Rev. Nicholls, whose first wife was Charlotte Brontë. The manuscript was last seen in public in November 1916 when it sold at auction at Walpole Galleries in New York.
A Book of Ryhmes comprises : i). The Beauty of Nature; ii). A Short Poem; iii). Meditations while Journeying in a Canadian Forest; iv). Song of an Exile; v). On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel; vi). A Thing of fourteen lines; vii). A Bit of a rhyme; viii). Lines written on the Bank of a River one fine Summer Evening; ix). Spring, a Song; x). Autumn, a Song. xi). Contents.
On the verso of her title page, Charlotte writes: “The following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged but they are nevertheless my best.” At the end of this Book of “Ryhmes” she refers to the secondary world created by the Brontë children amongst themselves but clearly asserting her authorship and creative control over that world:
“This book is written by myself but I pretend that the Marquis of Duro & Lord Charles Wellesley in the Young Men’s World have written one like it, & the Songs marked in the Index so * are written by the Marquis of Duro and those marked so † are written by Lord Charles Wellesley.” At the head of the page she also alludes to one of her best known early productions, Tales of the Islanders: “I began this book, the second volume of the Tales of the Islanders, 2 magazines for December, and the Characters of the most Celebrated Men of the Present time on the 26th of October, 1829, & finished them all by the 17 of December, 1829”. She has signed the small book no less than twelve times during its composition.
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The Dead of the House by Hannah Green

The Endless Bookshelf is many things, but it is above all a series of notes on reading and thinking about books, as texts and as objects. More than a decade ago, a friend gave me a copy of the paperback reprint of The Dead of the House by Hannah Green, deeming rightly that I would appreciate. I read it with pleasure and gave a copy to friend with an affinity for books and for the wood, and he enjoyed it, too. It was Green’s only novel (technically, in science fiction terms, a fixup composed of several linked stories), all the more remarkable for that, perhaps.

I often thought about the book over the years, and then not long ago I saw an inscribed copy of the original edition, published by Doubleday in 1972, and, as one does, thought about it some more. I began re-reading the book, and turned a more interesting copy.

custom dust jacket for The Dead of the House by John Wesley, is it the only one to survive?

Hannah Green. The Dead of the House. Doubleday, 1972. Inscribed by the author, “For Dieter With my Love Hannah New York, April 1972”. With printed pictorial dust jacket by John Wesley, inscribed on the blank front flap, “Cover for Dieter John Wesley 1972”, and retaining original publisher’s dust jacket with text front panel and author portrait on back panel.

Hannah Green (1927-1996) married painter John Wesley in 1971. His jacket images are closely linked to the text and the look is not dissimilar to his other graphic work at the time (especially some early works, such as Alice or the Radcliffe Tennis team) and a little more somber than the pop art motifs for which he is best known. Was it a trial proof for a design rejected by Doubleday ?  And, of course, one wonders about the identity of the Dieter to whom the book is inscribed. To be continued, perhaps.

fifteen years of the Endless Bookshelf

24 January 2022

Your correspondent celebrates fifteen years of simply messing about in books on this website (it started here, but of course the mischief and fun and seriousness go back much further). There are a few regular readers of the ’shelf, and perhaps once in a while a new reader will come across something in the archives which cannot be found elsewhere. I continue to read Proust in the Pléiades edition, with great interest and pleasure; I am now at the stage of Le Côté des Guermantes, and there is no stopping. There are also other books which come to hand, as I usually have a second or a third book which I am reading, or at least reading at. Some of them are noted below. I omit the names of several bibliographies I have been consulting as these fall under work in progress.

I have written a few essays recently where the lead time for publication is rather longer than for the Endless Bookshelf: I received Paul Witcover’s new book late last week, read it, and finished the review a couple of days later; and even had time to look at it in the cold light of day before posting it. That flexibility is one reasion why I figure I will keep writing these chronicles of small beer for a while longer. Perhaps you will want to read them.

I am very much looking forward to reading Robert Aickman An Attempted Biography by R. B. Russell (Tartarus Press); I have read some of Aickman’s stories but by no means all of them.

tattered remains of front wrapper of Ulysses, 1922

Wednesday 2 February marks the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published as a book in Paris on the author’s fortieth birthday in 1922. This is the darkened and tattered remains of the front wrapper of one of the 750 ordinary copies of the first edition, one of those scraps of paper which demand to be saved.

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In February, I expect to be at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland, booth 504 (James Cummins Bookseller) at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Friday 11 February through Sunday 13 February. If you are in the Bay Area, come by and say hello (and please let me know in advance if you would like a pass).

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recent reading


— Henry C. Mercer. November Night Tales [1928]. [Introduction by Peter Bell]. Swan River Press, 2015.
Supernatural tales by the Pennsylvania polymath archaeologist, ceramicist, and polymath Henry C. Mercer (1856-1930), who was educated at Harvard (Class of 1879) and as a ceramicist played a key part in the American Arts and Crafts movement. His poured concrete mansion, Fonthill — named for William Beckford’s Gothic folly — is a turn of the century wonder; and his collections of American tools and vernacular objects pioneered the preservation of what is now called material culture. These stories range from rural Pennsylvania folklore to a forgotten treasure in the Italian Alps. The best of them is “The Wolf Book”, a tale of werewolves in the Balkans and an ill-starred book.

— Richard Thompson, with Scott Timberg. Beeswing. Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2021.
Memoir by one of the founders of Fairport Convention; his fabulous 1968 dream of Keith Richards and south London is worth the price of admission. Thompson played a solo acoustic show at a local Montclair venue not too long before the pandemic, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was one of the great moments of that evening. Thompson’s songs express — like the late novels of Russell Hoban — the curious notion that loss is the great creative well for literature and song. Sad and beautiful can be triumphant at the same time, because the song outlasts the sorrow.

— T. Frank Muir. Hand for a Hand. Soho Crime, [2012]. Crime novel set in St. Andrews, Scotland.

— Sara Gran. The Book of the Most Precious Substance. A Novel. Dreamland Books, [2022].

— Michael Shea. Mr. Cannyharme. A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror. Foreword by Linda Shea. Edited by St. Joshi. Hippocampus, [2021].
San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, with interdimensional beings, written by Michael Shea circa 1981. I found the first half of the book interesting, with well grounded scenes around the Tenderloin hotel managed by the writer-protagonist, and some choice, weird secondary characters. My interest waned as the supernatural elements unfolded.

merry christmas from 1887

merry christmas from 1887

from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 22 December 1887

Eliza (my great-aunt) writes on behalf of herself and her younger brother Henry (my grandfather); their father was a cavalry officer:

Jefferson Barracks, December 2

Dear Sandy Clause

Will you bring me a doll and a pair of fleece gloves, a bed and a pair of slippers , a burro [or bureau], and a baby carriage. Goodbye. And a train for my brother Henry. And a hat a horse a GG saddle and a GG bridle and a streetcar a book a saber and a gun.

From Eliza Wesssells

 

 

this most important thing

this most important thing

“I cannot think why the whole bed of the ocean is not one solid mass of oysters, so prolific the creatures seem.”

— Sherlock Holmes

Ever since moving to the yellow house some seventeen years ago, I have thought about the cluster of sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) along the block, some of which are plainly older than our house (built 1896 and one of the oldest on the street, which dates to when Montclair was still partly an agricultural town). The oldest sweet gums are tall, with boughs spreading in a high canopy and producing an abundance of biomass at each season: flowers; leaves, which fall in mid-November; and the spiky globes of the pods which typically fall at the end of December. I have raked and gathered bushels of the pods, and thought about them: aesthetically, as Christmas-tree ornaments (spray-painted gold), and as sources of literary inspiration (see The Windhill Bequest). I am not, however, anything more than an amateur botanist and sometime alumnus of the San Francisco Weedwalks. So it was only last year that I noticed another aspect of the plant’s cycle. I brought indoors two early fallen pods, still sheathed in a greenish pink husk, and put them in a small bowl. And promptly forgot them for a few days. They dried out, and opened, and at the bottom of the bowl I found hundreds of tiny seeds. Outside, I saw doves scratching amid the fallen pods, I thought of vanished forests, and the passenger pigeon.

And today while raking leaves (that ridiculous suburban dance, a little late this year), I paused for a moment. Off in the distance there was a rumble of a passenger jet taking off from Newark. Looking up, I saw a tiny, almost invisible fall of golden seeds from the gum trees overhead, turning silently until, with a noise of unseen raindrops, they hit the leaves I had raked. The sweet gums cast billions of seeds each season. In all the preceding years I had never noticed this most important thing.

I looked up in other trees, and noticed birds, sparrows and doves, moving among the pods and not waiting for the seedcast. When I saw that a layer of the seeds covered parts of the terrace, I put down a sheet of paper at random and after about two hours I collected half a teaspoon of the seeds, each one barely the size of a mustard seed. That amateur conjecture about the passenger pigeon does not now seem so unlikely. The trees here were probably young saplings when the passenger pigeon went extinct.

I suppose I had been thinking about life cycles of plants and their rôle in an interdependent ecosystem after reading an essay by Chris Brown on the industrial agricultural countryside: “what I remember is the paradox that all that vast green countryside was so completely devoid of wild nature”. And having read “Or All the Seas with Oysters” by Avram Davidson, I should of course have been primed to pay more attention to the reproductive abundance of organisms as an inherent aspect of competition in those interdependent systems.

The pods will come down, empty, a month from now (usually around the first snow). By that time, I will have looked in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau to see if he has written on the sweet gum; and I will have read William B. Mershon’s book, The Passenger Pigeon (1907), and possibly something a bit more up-to-date. I wonder if the seeds are edible for humans.

Forget that old saw, from tiny acorns great oaks: when it come to small beginnings, the sweet gum outclasses the oak.

[This essay took half an hour, and seventeen years, to write.]

time in the novels of Jon A. Jackson

special issue on re-reading : part three
time in the novels of Jon A. Jackson

Jon A. Jackson
The Die Hard. Random House, [1977]
The Blind Pig. Random House, [1978]
Grootka. Foul Play Press/Countryman Press, [1990]
Hit on the House. Atlantic Monthly, [1993]
Deadman. Atlantic Monthly, [1994]
Dead Folk. Dennis McMillan, 1995
Dead Folks. Atlantic Monthly, [1996]
Go by Go. Dennis McMillan, 1998
Man with an Axe. Atlantic Monthly, [1998]
La Donna Detroit. Atlantic Monthly, [2000]
Badger Games. Atlantic Monthly, [2002]
No Man’s Dog. Atlantic Monthly, [2004]

Readers of the ’shelf will recognize the name of novelist Jon A. Jackson, who wrote eleven novels featuring a Detroit detective known as ‘Fang’ Mulheisen, and Go by Go, a sharp novel of events in Butte, Montana, in 1917. I am pretty sure it was Dennis McMillan who first told me about Jackson, and I was intrigued, for I had read Red Harvest and knew that Hammett’s Poisonville was Butte, and I had spent one summer and one winter in Detroit in 1979, which was right around the time Jackson began publishing the Mulheisen novels. I began picking up the books, and have read and re-read them over the years. I have not revisited Detroit, so I have vivid memories of the sounds and smells and camaraderie of the zinc foundry where I worked that summer, and only a residual memory of the geography. The city is a character — if not quite to to the degree that Innsmouth is a character in Lovecraft’s story — or, more to the point, Detroit is an attitude that is felt throughout the novels. Detective Sergeant Mulheisen is nearing forty, a good detective despite the limitations of budget and pressure. He is smart and disinclined to move off the street into an administrative post. He is not the only recurring character in the Detroit novels: several characters take on lives and energies of their own, and Jackson had the sense to follow where they led him. Grootka, Mulheisen’s some-time mentor and a tough, even brutal cop of the old model, is the focus of the third novel, which ends with his death, but Grootka was so protean a figure that several years later Jackson answered the question What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? in Man with an Axe, a jazzy novel of Grootka’s notebooks and clues conveyed posthumously to Mulheisen. Joe Service, a troubleshooter for the Detroit mob from somewhere out west, and Helen Sedlacek, a mobster’s daughter, enable Jackson to range far afield from the Motor City, sometimes with Mulheisen in pursuit.

Among the notions that have interested me are the sense and function of time in the books. These are not novels of unchanging characters in an almost eternal present (examples being the musical comedies without music of the Wodehouse’s tales of Bertie Wooster, or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels), nor are they quite the large work in twenty-two novels which is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. It’s a funny thing, the internal elapsed time in a work of fiction, even more so when one thinks about a succession of books: which clocks are ticking, those a reader discerns within each book, and those unseen ones in the  spaces between books. It is of course a mug’s game to demand too much (any?) internal consistency within a fictional narrative, but the nature of attention is to observe and create patterns. The Mulheisen books describe a fairly tight sequence of murders, heists, and capers — much shorter than the nearly thirty-year  timeline of publication — during which Fang contemplates and rejects career changes, the face of the Detroit mob changes, and Joe Service remains a step ahead of the cops (mostly).

While Jackson brings computers into the series early on — the scam in Grootka which leads to murder is a computer program automating a shell game for access to money as information, a kid with a PC delivers critic messages to Mulheisen in Man with an Axe, and mobster Humphrey DiEbola finds his school sweetheart on a bulletin board — the world of Mulheisen and Joe Service is, however, an analogue one, where people walk and and talk and drive and learn things through unmediated experience.  Maybe that is one one the charms of the series for me. Mulheisen thinks about the colonial history of the Detroit, and the rumors and legends in the Detroit of his youth, so there is a tacit recognition that narratives of  human motivations and actions are meaningful.

The subjective experience of the reader is that all the action from The Die-Hard to La Donna Detroit occurs in just a few years, a reminder of the long continuity of human life before the ubiquity of smart phones. The last two are a little different. Badger Games brings home the aftermath of the Balkan wars into Joe Service’s rural arcadia. No Man’s Dog is definitely post-Patriot Act with elements of domestic terrorism and extralegal activities by disaffected government agents, and a clear sense that Mulheisen is an older cop in a changed world.

No great conclusions to offer, just a suggestion to pick up one of Jackson’s books if you see it. Go by Go, his novel of a raw Pinkerton op named Goodwin Ryder, recreates the wide open atmosphere of Butte in 1917. It is a retrospective narration of some complexity and features a cameo of Sam Hammett.

[Note: the idea of paying attention to internal subjective timelines in works of fiction arose in a conversation with Brendan Byrne about time in Liz Hand’s Cass Neary novels. Perhaps he (or I) will write that essay.]