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Update: Mark Twain, Eugene Field, and a Skeptical Odyssey in the Stacks

Back in March, I shared something we had recently discovered in the Special Collections vault: an 1835 edition of Cruikshank at Home, inscribed by noted authors Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Eugene Field.  We were excited to find the autographs of these two 19th century literary giants, especially because no mention of the inscriptions was made in our library catalog.  However, our excitement began to sour somewhat when we discovered an additional inscription in the back of the book: a note from Eugene Field II, son of the famous poet.

Inscriptions in our copy of copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

Inscriptions in our copy of copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

At face value, the note seemed to corroborate the authenticity of the signatures, claiming that the volume had come from the library of Field Sr. — but a little research cast doubt on this assertion.  It turns out that the younger Field was a notorious forger of literary autographs, including his father’s and Twain’s.  Lacking the requisite expertise to tell a well-faked Twain signature from the real deal, we exhibited the book as a curiosity, but could say nothing more on the matter.

While we are still unable to take a confident position on the authenticity of the signatures, just recently we’ve made some additional (re)discoveries that have thrust our questionable Cruikshank back into the limelight.

Our new Special Collections Librarian Pat Olson was thumbing through old copies of the MSU Friends of the Library newsletter, when one article in particular caught his eye.  The article details the donation of a private library to Michigan State in the fall of 1952:

On September 29th, 1952, Mr. Charles G. Munn of the Reynolds Spring Company of Jackson, Michigan, very kindly donated his private library of 700 volumes to Michigan State College.  Mr. Munn’s books were officially appraised by the Manufacturers’ Appraisal Company at $4,000.  Standard authors… were represented by exceptionally well bound sets, and among these were some first editions, some books with outstanding illustrations, and no less than ten autographed volumes and sets.

The article goes on to list several of the “more outstanding rarities” from the Munn library.  Lo and behold, among the thirteen enumerated books is our now infamous Cruikshank (with an appraiser’s valuation):

Field5

Now, at least, we knew where we had acquired the volume.  Interestingly, the Clemens and Field autographs were not only known, but were a highlight of the collection.  It’s amazing what knowledge can be lost when you don’t keep meticulous historical records (this acquisition, remember, came a full decade before Special Collections existed as a separate library).  As an institution, we had forgotten all about the inscriptions over the course of the last 60 years.

Reading on, we discovered a connection among several volumes in the Munn collection.  Six other books on the list were stated to have come from the Field family library, with inscriptions to prove it:

Byron, George Gordon.
Works… With His Letters and Journals, and His Life, by Thomas Moore, Esq. London, Murray, 1832.
14 vols.; bound in green leather, gold tooled.  Autograph of Eugene Field on title page.  Appraisal $119.
Chesterfield, Earl of.
Letters to His Son… on the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman… With Topical Headings and a Special Introduction by Oliver H. G. Leigh.  New York, Dingwall-Rock, c 1901.
2 vols.; bound in red leather, gold tooled.  “Of the Beau Brummel Edition of the Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, 1999 sets have been printed of which this is set No. 1111.”  On back page: “Added after his Death.  This book comes from the library of my father, Eugene Field.  Eugene Field II.  Sept. 11, 1921.”  Appraised at $100.
Field, Eugene.
The Writings in Prose and Verse…  N. Y., Scribners, 1896.
12 vols.; bound in blue leather, gold tooled.  Autographed on fore page of Vol. 1 by Julia S. Field (Mrs. Eugene Field).  Appraised at $96.
 Irving, Washington.
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  London, Murray, 1828.
4 vols.  Penciled notation “First Edition” on fore page.  Eugene Field’s autograph on inside cover.  Appraised at $100.
Shakespeare, William.
The Plays and Poems… according to the Improved Text of Edmund Malone… ed. by A. J. Valpy.  London, Bohn, 1853.
15 vols.; illustrated with steel engravings.  Vol. 1 contains autograph of Eugene Field at top of title page and autograph of S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) on fore page.  Appraised $225.
Tarkington, Booth.
Works.  New York, Doubleday, 1922.
16 vols.  Seawood Edition “…strictly limited to 1075 numbered and registered copies, each with a portrait signed by the author in volume one.”  Mr. Munn’s set was No. 2.  Vol. 1 is signed by “Doubleday Page and Co.” and undersigned by Booth Tarkington and each of the remaining volumes is autographed by Tarkington on the title page between title and publishers’ data.  Vol. 1 also contains autograph of Julia S. Field (Mrs. Eugene Field) on a fore page.  The set appraised at $128.

We had struck a Eugene Field gold mine: three additional volumes supposedly bearing Field’s inscription, one of which also featured another Clemens/Twain autograph.  Two featuring the autograph of Field’s wife, Julia, and one with a note from Field’s son, matching almost exactly the note in the back of the Cruikshank volume.

Naturally, we went on a hunt to find these other books on our stacks.

The Byron we were unable to locate.  Special Collections does have an 1832 set of Byron’s Works, but it is in 17 volumes, not 14, and in a green library cloth binding, not gold tooled green leather.  None of the volumes bears the autograph of Eugene Field on the title page.  Interestingly, the first 12 or so of the volumes indicate that they are “volume __ out of 14” whereas the final volumes are “out of 17”.  Whether the publishers changed their minds about the size of the set mid-run, or we have two partial sets put together, I don’t know.

Chesterfield

Inscription from Eugene Field II, on a rear flyleaf of the Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (BJ1671.C52 1925 v.1)

We were eventually able to find the inscribed copy of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, but it was being kept in the general stacks, not in Special Collections!  After verifying that this copy was the same one mentioned in the library newsletter, we rescued the two volume set and transferred it to our rare book collection.  However, there are some odd things going on with this inscription from Eugene Field II.

This particular edition of Chesterfield (the Beau Brummel edition) was printed in 1925, although the note in the back from Field’s son is dated 1921.  The copyright for this version of the text goes back as far as 1901, but even that is a full six years after Field’s death in 1895.  Needless to say, these facts cast some serious doubt on his son’s claim that the book came from his father’s library.

Field

Julia S. Field’s inscription (?), in The Writings in Prose and Verse of Eugene Field (PS1665.A2 1896 v.1)

We were also successful in finding the listed copy of Field’s Writings in Prose and Verse.  Sure enough, the half-title of the first volume seems to bear an inscription from Julia Field.  Again, there is something odd about this inscription.  Maybe I’m being too cynical, but the parenthetical addition of “Mrs. Eugene Field” after the name seems a little too on-the-nose, don’t you think?  Also strange is the fact that the signature only appears on the first volume of the 12 volume set.

Ah well, perhaps Mrs. Field was merely autographing the work for someone else, to add value to the set — the world may never know!

d

Eugene Field autograph.  A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Washington Irving (XX PS2072.H67 1828 v.1)

The Washington Irving set was right where it should be on the shelf.  Eugene Field’s (supposed) autograph, matching the one in our Cruikshank, was indeed penned on the inside cover.

d

Note in the back of the 1828 Irving.

Interestingly, however, we found another note from Field’s son, on a rear flyleaf of the first volume.  This note was not included in the set’s description in the 1952 newsletter.

As with the other six books with supposed Field provenance, I have my doubts that the Eugene Field autograph in our Irving volume is authentic.  If it is supposed to be an ownership inscription, which it certainly looks like, why is only the first volume signed?  There is another, older ownership inscription in this same book (on the title page), and that signature appears consistently across all four volumes (which is much more common, in my experience).  What if Field had loaned or lost volumes 2, 3, or 4?  Am I being too cynical again?

Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the Shakespeare or the Tarkington sets among our collections.  There is no trace whatsoever of the Shakespeare volumes, and no record of sale or deaccession.  The Tarkington, however, is another (stranger) matter: we do have a 16 volume Tarkington set matching the newsletter description almost exactly… except that it’s No. 315 in the limited set of 1075, not Mr. Munn’s copy No. 2.  As such, no Julia Field autograph — real or not — is present in our Vol. 1 (or any of our volumes, for that matter).  How did we come to acquire Munn’s set No. 2 in 1952, only to have it replaced with a nearly identical, but differently numbered set in the intervening 62 years?

Our doubts about the Cruikshank Twain/Field autographs were only compounded by the discovery of these other volumes with similar inscriptions.  By finding this donation record in an old newsletter, we were able to move one link back in the chain of provenance, but many questions still remain about the authenticity of these signatures.

However, the somewhat ironic fact is that the notoriety of Eugene Field II has ended up adding some value to these works after all, even if the autographs are fakes.  A set of forged signatures would make an interesting collection in its own right!

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Hand-Coloring in Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One of the lessons we learn through the study of rare book provenance is that no two copies of an old book are truly identical.  Every volume lives its own life, and receives its own marks, scars, and brands as it moves from owner to owner through time and space.  Some marks of provenance are accidental, or at least incidental to the core content of a work, while others are the result of printers, booksellers, and owners making a concerted effort to add value to their books, to distinguish one particular copy from another.

If a book featured printed image plates, most often created from woodcut blocks, one common way to enhance the appeal and uniqueness of the work was to add color to the images.  In the early days of printing, this process would need to be done by hand, applying color to an already printed black and white woodcut plate.  The results could be quite stunning:

Uncolored woodcut of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497–98. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A hand-colored

A colored copy of the same print, thought to have been colored by Dürer himself.  Image from Harvard’s Houghton Library Tumblr.

The example above is a special case — most early colored plates were not done by the artists themselves, but rather were colored according to a printer’s orders, at the time of a book’s publication, or later at a bookseller’s discretion.  In both cases the aim was to add to the value of a work, to increase its appeal.  Book owners also sometimes colored items in their collections, much for the same reasons.

Books became cheaper and more widely available after the invention of the printing press, and in the process they lost some of their uniqueness and their charm.  In the print era many copies of a work could be churned out quickly with little variation between them, but hand-colored plates gave printers and booksellers a way to recapture some of the vibrancy and individuality of illuminated manuscripts from ages past.

Note

Hand-colored illustrations from our copy of Origine des Ornemens des Armoiries (XX CR151.M38 1680 c.2), a 17th century French work on heraldry.

It’s easy to find images of well executed book colorization online, and we have a few more here at MSU Special Collections (although nothing rivaling that Dürer print).  Most rare book libraries, however, don’t seem as keen to show off their less impressive examples.  Looking at the early hand-coloring usually featured on blogs or in library exhibits, one might come away with the impression that all colored plates are great works of art, or at least that they demonstrate a certain level of expertise or proficiency.  As in any endeavor, however, there are failures — examples of mismanagement, unfinished work, or all-around shoddy craftsmanship.

Take our 1530 copy of Georg Rüxner’s Anfang, Ursprung und Herkomen des Thurniers inn Teutscher Nation (XX folio CR4533.R8 1532), also called simply Thurnier Buch, or the Tournament Book.  The work presents a historical sketch of medieval tournaments in Germany from the 10th century to the tournament at Worms in 1487, providing information on the origin of the tournament and descriptions of the participants.  The book features a number of woodcut plates, including 41 images of various tournament activities and an additional 246 cuts of heraldic imagery.

Most of the plates are at least partially colored, although some of them, seemingly chosen at random, are not.  The book includes a number of duplicate images (appearing on different pages), and in each of these cases, only one of the pairs is colored.  This, at least, has a kind of logic to it — and for the most part, the color on these early plates isn’t awful, but it’s clear that the colorist was working with a somewhat limited palette:

HCW12

Click to enlarge.

HCW13

Click to enlarge.

The hand-coloring of these plates actually displays some level of competency, when compared to others in the same book.  Note that green and red crop up in odd places, though.  Was this an artistic choice, or the result of a limited color selection?  Some woodcuts from this volume take this preference for reds and greens to an absurd level, and demonstrate a general unwillingness to stay inside the lines, as well:

Note

There’s another issue plaguing some of the woodcut plates in our Thurnier Buch — a surprising number of images are only partially colored, and again it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the colorist’s choices.  Often only one or two figures in the image will be colored, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the colorist ran out of time, got bored, or simply forgot to go back and finish the job.

n

In this particular woodcut, figures are colored seemingly at random.  The trumpets and the robes of the trumpeters received color, as did the gowns of two women in the foreground.  Three hairstyles are colored (brown), and a stick (or sword) in the background got a touch of red.  Most notably, perhaps, is that only the scene out of one window is colored.

Note

There is only one instance of color in this image, a touch of yellow applied to one man’s robe.  Why did the colorist stop here?

In many ways, our copy of the Thurnier Buch is like a 16th century coloring book — it’s as if a child was using this work to practice, clumsily applying what colors he had as the mood struck him.

When we dig a little deeper into the history of early hand-colored books, the clumsiness of this work become understandable.  Book collectors might be surprised to learn that printers and booksellers often employed children to complete the coloring process, meaning that essentially these early works were coloring books, of a sort — although they weren’t intended to be fun.  As this blog article from librarian and bibliophile L. D. Mitchell of explains,

[M]ost hand-colored plates were in fact not colored by the illustrators who drew or engraved the printed images, but rather were usually the work of an anonymous watercolorist who, more often than not, was a woman or child working in what was an early assembly-line process.

It’s unclear whether our Thurnier Buch was colored at the printer’s shop or in the collection of the book’s owner.  It’s certainly possible that the coloring is the work of a child, whether a young employee of the printer or the child of an early owner, but it’s also possible that it merely represents the unfinished work of an untrained adult book owner, someone who got bored partway through the coloring process.

It’s understandable that most libraries and book collectors aren’t keen to highlight these less-than-exceptional pieces, but I would argue that many of these botched coloring jobs are appealing because of their ineptitude.  They can be humorous, yes, but they can also teach us something, potentially giving us insight into the hand-coloring process, or connecting us to the past — serving to humanize those who contributed to this aspect of book history, and to remind us that pobody’s nerfect.

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The Secret Lives of Books: Uncovering the Hidden (and not so Hidden) Clues

“In a good book the best is between the lines.”

– Swedish proverb

Remember this quote we left you with last time?  Ostensibly the saying is a Swedish proverb (I’m skeptical), but whatever the origin, it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.  While I’m sure the intent behind the proverb is to extol the merits of interpretive analysis (“reading between the lines,” as it were), I’m happy to take the quote at face value and apply it to the study of provenance.

Cataloging the unique traits of rare books at MSU, I’m reminded again and again that often the most interesting things about a book are incidental to its original, printed content.  As Peter Berg, Head of MSU Special Collections, put it:

“If every picture tells a story, as the saying goes, then it can be said that almost every book tells two stories.”

One story is obvious, of course, but in order to uncover a book’s second story we sometimes have to literally read between the lines — or look in the margins, on the flyleaves, etc.  Here are revealed the secret lives of books: not just the stuff of bibliographies, but of biblio-biographies, life histories told through copy-specific features such as annotations, marks of ownership, or peculiarities in the way books were bound.

It is this last category, in particular, that has been on my mind a lot this week.

Hand-bound books, like any truly artisanal product, occasionally have some idiosyncratic features.  For example, throughout history bookbinders have often repurposed leftover materials — scraps of wastepaper or pages from discarded books — to shore up new binding projects.  As a result, many old books have fragments of other, even older books or manuscripts hidden within their spines or pasted under their endleaves.  When they form part of a book’s pastedown endpaper, these pieces of “binding waste” are often plainly visible, and can be a valuable and easily decipherable piece of provenance evidence.

Here at MSU I have run across several instances of this repurposed binding waste.  Below is one example I found just the other day:

Front pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Front pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

Rear pastedown of John Selden's 1631 Titles of honor

Rear pastedown of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of honor (XX folio CR3501.S4 1631).

These images show both the front and rear pastedowns of MSU’s copy of Titles of honor, printed in 1631.  Although the work is a treatise on peerage and heraldry, a little bit of research shows that the pages used for its pastedown endsheets come from Book V of the Decretals of Gregory IX, a series of 13th-century papal letters on canonical Catholic law.  I have not yet been able to identify the particular edition represented here, but given the date of the binding and the fact that the text is printed (and not manuscript), its date must fall within a range of 150 years or so.  The appearance of the paper (comparable to that in the text block) and the fact that these pages were on-hand for use as binding waste makes it likely that they come from a printing roughly contemporary with that of the larger work.

Rear pastedown of MSU's 1695 copy of De arte graphica by C. A. Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Rear pastedown of MSU’s 1695 copy of De arte graphica by Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy (XX ND1130.D8 1695).

Above is another example of discarded pages being used anew.  The work is John Dryden’s 1695 English translation of De arte graphica, or The art of painting, by French painter C. A. Du Fresnoy (originally published in 1668).  The page used in the pastedown is a fragment of John Speed’s geographical study and atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, first published in 1611.  As with the first example, this binding waste has nothing in common with the content of the volume into which it is bound, and was likely just the first piece of scrap paper the binder happened to grab.  This page is hidden a little better than the two used in the previous example, and features less printed text, but most of the words are still visible through the sheet pasted on top.

But scraps of binding waste aren’t the only pieces of provenance evidence that can be found on a book’s pastedown endpapers.  As we have seen before, the inside of the front cover was often the go-to place for ownership inscriptions, bookplates, library stamps, and other marks of provenance.  Like binding waste, these other pieces of evidence can occasionally be hidden in plain sight.  Such was the case of the Phytobasanos:

MSU's copy of

MSU’s 1744 copy of Fabio Colonna’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU's copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The title page of MSU’s copy of Phytobasanos by Fabio Colonna (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Fabio Colonna’s botanical study ΦΥΤΟΒΑΣΑΝΟΣ, or Phytobasanos (The Torture of Plants, or possibly Botanical Touchstone), was originally published in Naples in 1592, although MSU’s copy of the work is a modestly-bound 1744 edition.  This particular copy is interesting for a number of reasons.  On the title page, the place of publication for this volume is listed as Milan (“Mediolani”) although several other surviving copies of this 1744 edition indicate that they were published — apparently concurrently — in Florence (see for example the copies at UT Dallas or the Lyon Public Library).

In addition, the book features a couple of fascinating and potentially telling inscriptions.  On the title page (shown above) is an ownership inscription from “Georgius Mauritius Lowitz”, dated 1751 (MDCCLI).  As it turns out, this is the Latinized name of a certain Georg Moriz Lowitz, who happens to have an entry in the CERL Thesaurus (a database of historical names maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries).  According to the Thesaurus, Lowitz died in 1774, and in 1776 his library was sold at auction.

Inscription on the front pastedown

Inscription on the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Another interesting inscription, useful for establishing part of this volume’s ownership history, can be found at the top of the front pastedown:

Norimbergam
Jo: Gabrieli Doppelmair Viro Sapientissimo
                                                  Janus [?]anny offert

If we Anglicanize the names and translate the Latin, the text reads as follows:

Nuremberg
[To] Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, the wisest man
                                         Presented [by] Janus [?]anny 

This presentation inscription records the gift of the book to Johann Gabriel Doppelmair, a notable late 17th/early 18th century German mathematician and scientist (who even has a crater on the moon named after him).  While this inscription is undated, it must fall within the relatively small window between 1744 (when the book was published) and 1750 (when Doppelmair died).

Both of these inscriptions are crucial to our understanding of this book’s provenance, and the Doppelmair inscription in particular is interesting in its own right (and it gives the work some added value through association with a noteworthy historical figure) — but surprisingly, none of this information is included in the book’s current catalog record.

But I digress.

Front pastedown endpaper

Front pastedown endpaper of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

The reason I brought up the Phytobasanos in the first place is not because of its ownership inscriptions.  Take a look at the entire front pastedown — what else do you see?  There is a Dewey Decimal call number penciled near the Doppelmair inscription, as well as a library stamp…  There’s a price (and $5 no less!), and a curious red mark (possibly wax).  But what’s going on near the bottom of the page?  This is where things really get interesting.  It appears as though some sort of bookworm has eaten through part of the endpaper — and through the hole it created, there are markings visible underneath the pastedown:

Close-up

Close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

Not only are there markings showing through from beneath the pastedown, but the markings appear to be manuscript writing!  Wanting to investigate further, but not wanting to damage the book any more than the insect already had, I was able to carefully pry up some of the loose page (the glue had failed just below the worm-line), and get a better view of the text written there:

Close-up

Extreme close-up, underneath the pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744).

“Vicaria” — in ink, in manuscript, under the pastedown endpaper.  It may be difficult to see in these photographs, but there appeared to be even more writing underneath the pastedown, above the text visible through the wormhole (so to speak).  That portion of the page, however, was still firmly glued to the inner surface of the cover.  I called in Eric Alstrom, Head of Conservation and Preservation at MSU, and we discussed possible methods of reading this additional text without causing irreparable damage to the book.  We ultimately decided to spray a fine mist of ethyl alcohol over the area in question, which rendered the pastedown translucent enough to read what was written underneath.

Close-up

The secret revealed: close-up of the front pastedown of MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), sprayed with ethanol.

As we sprayed the page with ethanol, the text slowly began to reveal itself.  However, discoloration of the paper, combined with some old bubbling between the pastedown and the cover board, made it somewhat difficult to read the entire inscription.

Photoshop

Close-up of the hidden text in MSU’s Phytobasanos (XX folio QK41.C65 1744), computer enhanced.

As far as we could tell given our limited success, the full text of the inscription reads as follows:

   M Rev°: Prē [???]
Vicaria

The text following Prē is difficult to make out, but it appears to be either a “G” or a “6” followed by two smaller, round characters.  I hypothesized that Prē might be short for “pretium” and that the text which follows could represent a price, such as “6-0-0” — but it is difficult to know for sure.  A little research into the other marks produced some additional (speculative) results.  M Rev° seems to be an abbreviation for “Monsignor Reverend” or “Monsignor Reverendissimo” (official forms of address for certain members of the Roman Catholic clergy), while Vicaria can either refer to a specific neighborhood of Naples or to an Italian vicarage more generally (the residence of a vicar or vice-regent).  Putting all of these clues together, could this be a note from the binder, indicating his client, price, and location?

A little learning is a dangerous thing, as the saying goes, and I am hardly an expert on mid-18th century binding marks.  Have any of our readers encountered similar inscriptions?  If you have some insight into the meaning of this text, please post a comment below and help us identify this mysterious piece of provenance evidence.

It’s amazing to think that were it not for the destructive dietary habits of a library pest, this hidden message might never have been revealed.  How many other books in the Special Collections vault bear similar secret marks of provenance, which will never see the light of day?  What else is out there?

Every day there are new surprises here at MSU Special Collections, and the work of a biblio-detective is never done!

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Found in the Vault: An Inscription From F. Scott Fitzgerald

As promised last time, this week I’m highlighting a particularly interesting and timely find in the Special Collections vault:  A personalized presentation inscription from F. Scott Fitzgerald, found inside a first edition copy of his book The Great Gatsby.  

With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film version of the novel earlier this year, it’s safe to say that The Great Gatsby has been in the public consciousness quite a bit lately, whatever anyone’s particular opinion of the movie may have been.

Author's presentation inscription.  Front free endpaper, The Great Gatsby (XX PS3511.I9 G7 1925 c.2)

Author’s presentation inscription. Found on the front free endpaper of MSU’s first edition copy of The Great Gatsby (XX PS3511.I9 G7 1925 c.2)

The inscription, made out to Charles T. Scott, provides some interesting insight into the character of Jay Gatsby, and gives us a glimpse at Fitzgerald’s creative process in writing the novel:

 Gatsby was never quite real to me.  His original served for a good enough exterior until about the middle of the book he grew thin and I began to fill him with my own emotional life.  So he’s synthetic – and that’s one of the flaws in this book.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ellerslie, Edgemoor, Delaware, 1927

Aside from its potential literary importance, this inscription is also an especially valuable piece of provenance evidence.

The start point and the end point for the book’s chain of custody are obvious, of course – the book was published in 1925 and belongs to MSU Special Collections now.  The presentation inscription is dated 1927, which means that the author likely had the book in his possession prior to that date, at which point it changed hands to Charles T. Scott, the recipient named in the inscription.  But what about the ownership history of the volume in the intervening years?

It’s easy to see that this inscription could be very interesting from a literary or scholarly perspective.  More than merely an author’s autograph or a personalized dedication (e.g., “To my good friend Charles – enjoy!”), this note gives us new information about the author’s own perspective of a central character in The Great Gatsby  a work still widely read and studied, considered to be one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

Such an inscription would surely be of interest to scholars of literature or Fitzgerald bibliographers, then — and indeed we find it quoted in a few different sources.  A reference to this inscription turns up in a short essay by James E. Miller, Jr., in a Bloom’s Guides edition of The Great Gatsby.  The inscription is also quoted in a biography of Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson entitled Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Donaldson writes:

While Daisy was obviously modeled on Ginevra King, Fitzgerald originally based the figure of Gatsby on a stock manipulator he’d encountered in Great Neck and then let the character gradually change into himself. “Gatsby was never quite real to me,” he admitted. “His original served for a good enough exterior until about the middle of the book he grew thin and I began to fill him with my emotional life.”

But how did these authors cite the text of this inscription, an inscription unique to the copy in MSU Special Collections?  Might they have viewed the book at MSU, or was the inscription noted in another source, predating the university’s acquistion of the volume?

Donaldson fortunately cites a source for his quotation:  F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Descriptive Bibliography, by the late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.  In that work, Bruccoli indicates that an old bookseller catalog was his source for the transcribed inscription.  Some additional research returns another, more recent work edited by Bruccoli:  F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006.   This work provides the bookseller’s description of this particular copy, from Goodspeed’s Catalogue #303 in 1938, which lists the book for sale — and for $4.50 no less.  First edition dust jackets tell us that The Great Gatsby was originally sold in 1925 for $2.00!

Entry in Goodspeed's Catalogue, from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.

Entry in Goodspeed’s Catalogue, from F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, 1935-2006, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli.  Image from Google Books.

This catalog entry gives us another link in the chain:  at some point in the 11 years since the book was gifted to Charles Scott it ended up at Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston.

A second entry in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace gives another bookseller’s description of the item – appearing in a 1941 sale of the collection of H. Bertram Smith, at the Parke-Bernet auction house in New York (Sale Number 325, 10-11 December).  This tells us that at some point in the three years between its listing in Goodspeed’s Catalogue and its listing in the Parke-Bernet sale, the book came into the possession of Mr. Smith, whoever he might have been (note that the price of the book has gone up again).

Entry in a sale catalog of the collection of H. Bertram Smith, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1941.  Also found in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace.

Entry in an auction catalog for the collection of H. Bertram Smith, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1941. Also found in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace.  Image from Google Books.

But we may be able to fill in more of the links in this volume’s chain of custody.  Looking at MSU’s acquisition record for this particular item, we find that the book was donated to MSU Special Collections in 1998 — on May 28th, to be precise.  The acquisition record provides us with the previous owner.  We’re currently in the process of reconnecting with that donor, and part of that process is to inquire about his (or his family’s) acquisition of the book.  I had wanted to hold off on this post until that information had been collected, but I’ll hopefully have an update for you in the coming weeks that fills in more of this book’s ownership history — and the chances are good that with a little more digging we’ll have a complete picture of this volume’s provenance.

While it is uncommon to be able to recreate a book’s complete ownership history through a single piece of provenance evidence, in the case of this particular copy of The Great Gatsby, we may very well be able to do just that.  Cases like this one show just how crucial and potentially rewarding studying provenance can be.

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