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Hartmann’s Whitman: Remembrances from the King of the Bohemians

When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
– Walt Whitman, “When I Read the Book” (From Leaves of Grass)


The best pieces of provenance evidence — the most interesting inscriptions, marginalia, and annotations — tell us not only about the volume in our hands (where it has been, who owned it, and so on), they reveal something about the world beyond the book.  Handwritten indexes, nota benes, and underlining can clue us into what a particular reader took away from a given work.  Marginal glosses and textual commentary can reveal much about the history of scholarship and reading.  And occasionally, personal notes unrelated to the content of a book can give us great insight into the life and times of the book’s owner(s) and those they knew.

When the book owner in question is a particularly noteworthy historical figure, these personal inscriptions and annotations can be of special interest to the historian. One book that I like to trot out now and again as an example of this is our first edition copy of The Great Gatsby, inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author’s note in that book reveals something about his creative process, and gives us insight into the character of Jay Gatsby. This example is limited, however, because the note is terse, related wholly to the book at hand.

Provenance Project volunteer Meg Hughey recently discovered another book in our collections that illustrates this point even better: A copy of Walt Whitman’s 1871 poem After All, Not to Create Only owned by Whitman’s friend Sadakichi Hartmann.

Hartmann's bookplate, designed by "LB" -- his wife, Lillian Bonham Hartmann.

(Carl) Sadakichi Hartmann was a man with an eclectic background. Born in Japan in 1867 to a German merchant father and a Japanese mother, Hartmann was schooled in Germany before being disowned by his father at the age of 14 and sent to live in the United States. While making his way in the States as a young man, Hartmann taught himself to appreciate art and poetry, and before too long had become acquaintances with a number of notable contemporary authors and artists, including Walt Whitman (already near the end of his life when the young Hartmann came to know him).

By the early twentieth century, Hartmann was living in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and had become quite a well-known figure in the Bohemian community there. Hartmann fit right in among the unconventional, unattached artistic vagabonds of New York.  Guido Bruno, an eccentric Bohemian editor who published a number of poems, essays, and other musings by Greenwich Village regulars, even crowned Hartmann “King of the Bohemians.”


Hartmann’s copy of Whitman’s poem After All, Not to Create Only bears some evidence of his time in Greenwich Village. Pasted in the front is a programme, printed by Guido Bruno, announcing a poetry reading by Hartmann on October 25, 1915.


The illustration on the first page (by Hartmann’s common-law wife, Lillian Bonham) shows Hartmann frying eggs with a seated Walt Whitman.

trying hard to be
a great man, went
frying eggs with the great Whitman

The free event took place at Bruno’s Garret on Washington Square, and featured Hartmann reading some of his favorite poetry (“providing Sadakichi doesn’t change his mind”).

Sadakichi Hartmann, author of
“Christ,” “Buddha,” and “The
Whistler Book” will read, after an
introductory talk, selections from his
favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe and
from his fellow-journeyman for years,
Walt Whitman.


Most interesting, however, and unique to the copy in MSU Special Collections, is a series of notes penciled in the last few pages of the thin book. Hartmann appears to have used his copy of Whitman to record anecdotes from his personal life, including several stories of his interactions with Whitman himself. These short episodes reveal much about both poets, and their relationship.

In one note, Hartman recalls asking Whitman about his opinion of German authors Henrik Ibsen and Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Hartmann, Whitman claimed to have read neither of them. Hartmann goes so far as to claim that “Like most American authors, [Whitman] was extremely ignorant about contemporary foreign literature.”


Another note critical of the poet recounts Hartmann’s chance meeting with Whitman’s housekeeper in Philadelphia. When asked if Whitman had left the woman anything upon his death, she is said to have replied “Nothing to speak of… I thought he would do more.” Hartmann agrees, although he does note that Whitman left his housekeeper $200, at least (not a small sum of money in 1892).


Not all of the notes about Whitman are critical, however. Hartmann was clearly fond of Whitman, and he mentions readings he did of the elder poet’s work, positive conversations about Whitman with others, and one occasion where he came to Whitman’s defense against a doctor’s charges of insanity.


“Dr. Nordan asserted that Whitman showed traits of insanity,” Hartmann recalls. “I protested most vehemently to such a statement.” When the doctor asks if Whitman was absesnt-minded, Hartmann replies “Yes, but he was always a good listener.” The doctor (“the fanatic,” in Hartmann’s words) shoots back: “What of that? What on earth would prevent a mad man from being a good listener?” Hartmann remains silent on this point.

The anecdotes, however, aren’t all about Whitman.  Hartmann, as a regular in the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene and as an established author in his own right, was connected to a number of other noteworthy individuals.  He drops several names in his notes — in one he recounts drinking a bottle of champagne with “old Pfaff,” the proprietor of a popular Manhattan beer cellar, the two reminiscing about Whitman.


In another note Hartmann records that he sent six copies of an unnamed Whitman text to various literary critics, including Georg Brandes, author Paul Heyse, “some Russian critic,” and an individual noted only as “Sanagui.”


One of Hartmann’s longest notes tells of an early 1890s visit to the home of W.D. Howells, a well known author, editor, and critic of the time.  Hartmann, who didn’t really come into his own as a writer until later that decade, was apparently hard up for money at the time of his visit.  He showed up at Howells’ in the morning begging for five dollars, which the old man grudgingly handed over.  Hartmann promised to repay the loan the next time he came, cynically noting that “at that time I still believed in the possibility of such things,” but never visited Howells at his home again.


Another anecdote reinforces the idea that Hartmann was struggling financially for much of his early life.  “Publisher McKay was with a shotgun after me,” Hartmann notes.  “He wanted his $12 back.  But he did not succeed.”


In true Bohemian fashion, Sadakichi Hartmann never quite got out of his dire financial straits, despite his later success as a poet and literary critic.  He eventually moved to California, living and working in Hollywood (and even making a cameo on Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad).  In his later years, out of work and in deteriorating health, he moved in with one of his daughters in the California desert.  Hartmann eventually died in 1944, at the age of 77.

The Special Collections & Archives department of the University of California, Riverside holds a substantial collection of Hartmann’s papers.  It is rare to find his papers and remnants of his personal library “in the wild,” so to speak, and MSU is lucky to have his annotated copy of this Whitman poem.  The handwritten remembrances and anecdotes in the back typify the personal connection that many individuals have with their books, but Hartmann’s notes are peculiarly exceptional due to their uniqueness and association value.

Scans of all of the notes are below, with transcriptions.  I have cleaned up Hartmann’s punctuation slightly for readability, and included [in brackets] my assumptions about missing words affecting the meaning of certain sentences.  As with anything, though, some passages are up for interpretation.  Click on the images for full-sized versions.


I spoke about European
expositions. W. said “Oy!”
I said they seem to manage
them more artistically, perhaps
only in detail.
W. said “Show different things,
perhaps, but it amounts to the
same thing.”

One day I asked Whitman
about his opinion of Ibsen [and]
Niet[z]sche. He had read
neither of them. Like most
American authors he was
extremely ignorant about contemporary
foreign literature.


Mrs. Davis was a bad cook.
Sloppy, old New Jersey style.
Couldn’t fry meat, only
make gravy. Not even a
good baker. – Pam Walt!

Met Whitman’s housekeeper
after his death in Philadelphia.
I asked “Did he leave you
nothing?” She answered “Nothing
to speak of (Whitman left her
[$]200). I thought he would do
more.” And I believe he
should have.

Saw Donaldson repeatedly.
He lived in a simple red
brick house. He explained,
“I live in a house with such
a simple exterior, because
some day the Revolution
will come. People do not
know what is inside.”
D – fool!


Whitman did not like my
remark that some day he
would be put on the
back shelves, like all
of us suppose, [when?] we are no
longer a vital force, only
indirectly so as all good
literature. Kennedy told
me that I had no right
to say such things to the
old man.

Sent copies of Whitman at
my own expense to:
          Georg Brandes,
          Paul Heyse,
          Sanagui [?],
     some Russian critic,
and two other critics,
I have forgotten to whom.
          6 copies in all.

My article on Whitman in the
Münchener Neueste Nachrichten
was my first literary effort
that was printed (1885).


At my first Whitman reading
(1896 at Katherine Stagg’s house,
N.Y.), Stedman sent his secretary
as a representative. She
was silly enough to interrupt
me. “Please, tell me what
is all this about? Will
it go on forever?”
          “Until it is finished,” I

Drank a bottle of champagne
with old Pfaff. Had a place
somewhere near Madison Sq.
Did not get anything out
of him except that
“Whitman was a fine chap.”

Dr. Nordan asserted that Whitman
showed traits of insanity.
I protested most vehemently
to such a statement.
“Was he not absent minded?”
the doctor querried.
“Yes,” I replied, “but he was
always a good listener.”
“What of that?” the fanatic replied.
“What on earth would prevent
a mad man from being a
good listener?”


Lawyer Sewill of Camden,
one of Whitman’s admirers,
said to me
“One does not write about such
things. You know, one doesn’t.
One can not talk publicly
about the sex relations with
one’s wife.”
“But he did,” I insisted,
“and he thinks he was right.
Is not one man’s opinion as
good as another?”

Publisher McKay was with a
shotgun after me. He wanted
his $12 back. But he did not
succeed. The following witticism
     “I want the twelve dollars back.”
     “That is your business.”
     “I know it is. But when[…]
     how – from you – when will
     you ever have it to give it back?”
     “That’s my business.”

Called about 11 a.m. in the early [18]90[s] at W.D. Howells.
He came from his study,
the parlor, and said rather brusquely
          “I told you not to come in
the morning. I do not like to be
disturbed at this hour of the day.”
          “Excuse me—” I stammered.
“You came to talk to me about
Whitman? Well, you must come
“No, I came to ask you for five
dollars. I really need it very
Howells grumbled to himself, then
produced a five dollar note.
          “I [will] return it next time I come,” I
ventured to say. At that time I
still believed in the possibility of
such things.
          “Very well,” said Howells, “but
don’t come in the morning. Any
other time. Will be glad to
see you.”
          But somehow I never came
again, neither in the morning
nor any other time of the day.

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An Artistic Edge: Selected Fore-Edge Paintings at MSU Special Collections

As we have seen time and time again, one can learn a great deal by examining the various marks in books.  However, this study of rare book provenance often focuses on the primitive, mundane, or even ugly facets of book ownership.  Libraries and personal collectors do not generally stamp or inscribe their books to beautify them or to add value, but to mark the items as their property.  And many people, having been born into a centuries-old print culture, see handwritten annotations and marginalia as imperfect human elements marring the otherwise mechanical orderliness of a printed text.

I do not share this worldview, but of course I am biased by my interest in the potential value of these additions as provenance evidence.  However, there are some marks in books to which I suspect even the most ardent biblio-purist would not object — marks interesting not only for their historical value, but also for their artistic merit.

Throughout the long and varied history of the book, writers, binders, printers and publishers have embellished the products of their craft in a myriad of ways.  Early Medieval manuscripts were often meticulously illustrated, and bookmakers have been tooling, stamping, or painting designs onto book covers for centuries.  Even in the modern age of machine printing and mass production, there is a great demand for artisan books bound, decorated or illustrated by hand.

One of the most interesting and uncommon forms of book art, the form I will be exploring below, is the practice of fore-edge painting.  These rare instances of book adornment are the result of painting a design or a scene on the front edge of a book’s text block (the edge opposite the spine).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting remains relatively obscure, despite a recent revival in the practice, largely because the artwork is usually visible only when the book’s pages are fanned out.  In addition, most of these paintings (especially those from the 18th century onward) are hidden by gilded page edges.  Since fore-edge paintings typically remain invisible until the text block of the book is examined closely, and since each painting takes so much care and skill to produce, most people are unaware of this artistic tradition — even many bibliophiles and book dealers have never come across examples of these secret paintings.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Prior to the development of this art form, titles, shelf codes, or other identifying marks were often inked onto the fore-edges of books, so that the volumes could be easily identified when they were stacked on top of one another.  It is difficult to determine exactly when or where the practice of painting these edges began, although most scholars agree that the simplest form of “flat” fore-edge illustration likely became popular in late-15th or early-16th century Italy.

Regardless of the precise date the practice was invented, by the mid-17th century fore-edge painting had arrived in England, where bookmakers developed the technique of applying paint to fanned pages, so that the artwork would be hidden when the book was closed.  The practice continued to enjoy moderate popularity among England’s elite bookmakers and their patrons for a number of years, but by the end of the 17th century interest in fore-edge painting had waned, and few new works were created until the art’s revival nearly one hundred years later.

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU's 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU’s 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

The re-emergence of fore-edge painting as a popular art form in the late 18th century was largely due to the efforts of one English bookbinding and publishing company, Edwards of Halifax.  Although there were other fore-edge painters operating throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a surprising number of these artists did not sign their work, and it remains difficult to identify the creators of many paintings from this era.  Due to the sheer number of works that are traceable back to the Edwards firm, however, a great many unsigned pieces of fore-edge painting end up being attributed to them as well.

After the revival of fore-edge painting by Edwards of Halifax, the trade remained relatively popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.  A number of artists and bookbinders made their names creating beautiful fore-edge paintings, most often in the English style of “hidden” painting on fanned pages.  As the art form grew in popularity it evolved into more complex forms, and by the early 20th century paintings were even being done on both sides of the fore-edge (so that one painting would be visible if you fanned the pages one direction, and another if you fanned them the other way), on all three edges of the book (head, tail, and for-edge), or both.  Even in these elaborate cases the book’s edges were usually gilded, hiding all artwork from casual inspection.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges -- completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU's 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges — completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU’s 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

The range of subject matter for these paintings also grew as the art form evolved.   Early fore-edge paintings were of mostly pastoral scenes, but by the 20th century artists were producing paintings for a much wider audience, and had to adapt to the current Zeitgeist and the ever-changing demands of collectors.  Vignettes included depictions of historical or mythical events, sports scenes, cityscapes, and more.  Of course, some fore-edge paintings were added by collectors themselves, and the themes of many paintings often matched the subject matter of the host books.

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train.  On MSU's copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train. On MSU’s copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London.  From MSU's 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London. From MSU’s 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral behind.  On MSU's 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral behind. On MSU’s 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

The renaissance of fore-edge painting in the 18th century by Edwards of Halifax pales in comparison to the latest, 20th century revival of the art.  Most modern artists, however, rather than adding their art to contemporary works, instead paint on the fore-edges of old books — often from the 18th or 19th century.  This can make it difficult to date a fore-edge painting through a cursory visual examination alone, and many unsigned and undated paintings can fool even a trained eye.  Worse still, this ambiguity is often deliberate, perpetrated with the intent to defraud collectors.

Thankfully the reputable modern artists seem to outnumber the fraudulent, and it is these known artists who are largely responsible for making the practice popular again in the 20th century.  Chief among these, at least in the first half of the century, was the prolific fore-edge painter Miss C. B. Currie, who produced a series of signed and dated paintings for Sotheran’s of London.  Martin Frost, another modern day fore-edge artist, produced a great deal of signed and dated work in the latter half of the 20th century and still creates fore-edge paintings today.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU's 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott's The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815).  Artist unknown.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU’s 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815). Artist unknown.

Even with the recent “second renaissance” of fore-edge painting, the art form remains relatively unknown and misunderstood.  However, a number of institutions, such as the Boston Public Library, maintain large, beautiful collections of fore-edge painted books from every era, and several artisan bookbinders working today still produce their own fore-edge paintings.

With the help of some outspoken rare book dealers and special collections libraries, this centuries-old trade is finally, slowly working its way back into the public’s awareness.  And I think nearly everyone — even those who would normally cringe at the sight of a marked-up book — can admire the products of this unique craft, tragically under-appreciated in the history of book arts.

Two scenes on a single fore-edge.  This painting only takes up half of the text block -- up to page 248 or so.  Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction.  From MSU's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

Two scenes on a single fore-edge. This painting only takes up half of the text block — up to page 248 or so. Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction. From MSU’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559.  All together, MSU's copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559. All in all, MSU’s copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

For more information on the art of fore-edge painting, see the Boston Public Library’s articles on fore-edge painting and the website of modern fore-edge artist Martin Frost.  Also be sure to check out these previously undocumented fore-edge paintings recently discovered by Special Collections & Archives staff at the University of Iowa!  (original UI Special Collections Tumblr post here)

Does anyone out there recognize the artists of any of our fore-edge paintings?  Has anyone had a chance to see a work like this in person?  Leave a comment below!

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Found in the Vault: Dryden’s Poems with Manuscript Additions

Happy belated New Year to our readers!

This week we’re going to look at one of the most heavily annotated books we’ve come across so far during the course of the Provenance Project here at MSU Special Collections: a collection of poems by 17th century English Poet Laureate John Dryden.  This 1688 anthology, entitled Dryden’s Poems, is a collection of eight individual pamphlets of Dryden’s poetry (ranging in date from 1681 to 1688), bound together in contemporary calfskin.  What’s particularly interesting about this volume is that bound into the work are over 100 additional leaves of late 17th century paper, approximately 30 of which contain manuscript notes, poems, and letters identified as being “by Dryden and others” (see the MSU online catalog entry for this item).

Dryden Manuscript Page 1The manuscript additions begin on the earliest pages of the volume, before any printed material.  The first few pages are devoted to a poetic quotation, attributed to Milton, by an unknown annotator.  The first page of this quote is included here.

Directly following this is a manuscript copy of “A Pathetic Farewell” from Richard Glover’s 1737 epic poem Leonidas, seemingly in the same handwriting.  It should be noted that Dryden died in 1700, ruling out the possibility that these annotations are his.

Dryden Manuscript Page 2

Excerpt from Glover’s Leonidas. In MSU’s copy of Dryden’s Poems (XX PR3412.D7).

Throughout the collection of poetry are a number of other provenance markers, including many more inserted manuscript pages.  Also of interest are the notes written in the margins of Dryden’s allegorical “Absalom and Achitophel,” a poem couching references to political events in contemporary England in language ostensibly about a biblical story.

Dryden Manuscript Page 3These marginal notes reveal the true identities behind most of the allegorical names in the poem.  David is revealed to symbolize King Charles (Charles II), Absalom to be James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, Israel to be England, Jerusalem or Sion [Zion] to be London, and so on.  It is not clear who is responsible for these illuminating marginalia, but they seem to more or less reflect scholarly consensus on the poem’s allegories.  The notes appear to be more or less contemporary with the printing of the volume.

Dryden Manuscript Page 4

Descriptive marginalia accompanying “Absalom and Achitophel” in Dryden’s Poems.  Only the first few pages are reproduced here.

Dryden Manuscript Page 5Directly following the Absalom marginalia is another inserted manuscript sheet, this one a series of excerpts from a published series of sermons (originally given by Samuel Clarke in 1704-1705) awkwardly titled A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, the Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation.  The abridged quotation begins:  “Atheism arises from stupid ignorance, gross corruption of manners or false philosophy…”  The recto page is shown here.

Do you see any similarities between the handwriting on this page and that on the previous manuscript pages?  It’s difficult to tell whether a majority of the passages were written by the same hand, but that remains a distinct possibility.  As with the excerpt from Leonidas above, the date of the quoted material excludes Dryden as the possible annotator.

The next major addition to the printed book comes in the section containing Dryden’s poem The Hind and the Panther.  It appears that the first four printed pages of this particular copy of the poem were lost, and someone has replaced the missing pages with meticulous handwritten text.  The unnamed annotator even went as far as replicating the appearance of the page numbers and title.  Compare the handwritten title page of Part I of the poem (on the left) to the printed title page of Part II (on the right):

Dryden Manuscript Page 6

The final twelve printed pages of this poem were also apparently damaged or lost, and manuscript substitutions for those pages were also bound into the volume in their proper place.  Below you can see where the manuscript copy picks up again, as well as the final (handwritten) page of the poem.  Note that aside from the faux print look of the manuscript title page, the handwriting on these pages is again similar to the earlier annotations in this book.  Perhaps they all belong to the same author?

Dryden Manuscript Page 7

Transition from printed page to manuscript page in “The Hind and the Panther,” Dryden’s Poems.

Dryden Manuscript Page 8

Final page of “The Hind and the Panther,” in manuscript. Also note the large ink blot on the following printed page.  The characteristics of the paper also change — this is the beginning of a new pamphlet bound into this volume.

The final few manuscript pages are where things start to get really interesting.  In the nearly 100 pages added to the back of the volume, there are a number of excerpted poems, transcribed letters, and other annotations, in what appear to be at least four different hands.  The first of these is a passage from Lucretius, signed J. Dryden.  Could it actually be from the Poet Laureate?  The handwriting does appear to differ from that in the beginning of the book, in those annotations we have already shown cannot be from Dryden.  Does the handwriting look similar to that in the marginal notes on “Absalom and Achitophel” or in “The Hind and the Panther”?

Dryden Manuscript Page 9

Dryden Manuscript Page 10Following this passage from Lucretius is a manuscript copy of a poem addressed to Dryden by Wentworth Dillon, the 4th Earl of Roscomon, on the former’s “Religio Laici” (a poem also included in this collection).  The handwriting is nearly identical to that in the Lucretius excerpt, making it possible that this poetic commentary on Dryden’s work could have been written into the back of this volume by Dryden himself.  The first page of this poem is shown on the right.  Can you see the similarity in the handwriting between this page and the previous two?

This has only been a sample of the many manuscript pages bound into this collection of Dryden’s poems.  Most of the images included in this post only represent the first page or two of their respective manuscript sections, and there are additional essays, letters, and other handwritten pages bound into this volume – too many to realistically include in this singular content update.  The selection given above, however, is representative of the general form taken by these manuscript additions, and also includes the most unique or interesting instances.

Quite a few of the rare books here in MSU Special Collections have at least some markers of provenance, but only a handful have such a depth of supplementary material that it takes nearly an entire day or more to read and catalog it all.  Understanding the origin of many of the annotations in Dryden’s Poems is an ongoing process, and the provenance of these passages is still being investigated.  At times it can seem like the work of a provenance detective is never done!  We’ll post an update if we uncover anything else interesting in the manuscript additions to MSU’s copy of Dryden’s Poems.

Until next time, contemplate the double meaning of this lovely quote we stumbled upon the other day:  In a good book the best is between the lines.”  

Hope to see you back soon!

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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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Found in the Vault: Ownership Inscriptions and More

“The easiest and most common way to indicate ownership of a book is to write one’s name in it.”

David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History

Book owners have been inscribing their names on endpapers, flyleaves, and title pages ever since the invention of the book.  Not every signature necessarily indicates ownership, of course – authors have been signing copies of their work for other people nearly as long as people have been signing their own books, and students are often encouraged to write their names in the front of textbooks, books which may get reused year after year.  Take the following inscription found in the front of MSU’s copy of English Orthographie, a primer on reading and writing from 1670:

William Richards

William Richards
not owner of this
book but his name
in it yould find if rite
you look

If you do look to the rite (right), you’ll see a series of squiggles that apparently is supposed to be Richards’ signature.  Turning to the inside of the back cover (the rear pastedown endpaper), we can see that this particular scribe has been quite busy, again practicing his elaborate signature:

William Richards 2And in case you were curious about the upside-down line written in the outer margin of that first picture, it appears to be part of a song or a poem our William Richards was writing:

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]...

Come all you brave gallant and m[???]…

The Jacobean-era handwriting, combined with the flourishes of someone keen to show off his penmanship, make these inscriptions somewhat challenging to read.  Look at the varying ways Richards writes even the same letters in that first inscription!  This isn’t helped by the fluidity of spelling which was common prior to the late 19th century.  Writers would sometimes even change up the spelling of words from line to line, even varying the spelling of their own names at different points in a single text.  We can see an example of this in another set of inscriptions at MSU:

John Baskervyle His Book 1718 Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of

John Baskervyle
His Book
Ownership inscription found on the front flyleaf of Des. Erasmi Roterod. Colloqvia; nunc emendatiora (XX PA8506 1679).

John Baskervile Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf.

John Baskervile
Ownership inscription found on the rear flyleaf of the same book.

This loose approach to spelling is compounded by the style of early handwriting, making many manuscript inscriptions in books very difficult for the untrained modern eye to read.  Combine these issues with the characteristic quirks of an individual’s penmanship (as we saw last week in the John Greenleaf Whittier letter), and making heads or tails of some provenance evidence can be quite the challenge indeed.  I’m going to leave you this week with another inscription that time has made difficult to interpret.  Can you make out what it says?  Post your best transcription in the comments below!


Inscription in MSU’s copy of The Passion of Dido for Æneas (XX PA6807.A5 W3), Virgil, translated by Edmund Waller & Sidney Godolphin in 1658.

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What Counts as Provenance Evidence?

The student of provenance is beset by many problems.  Inscriptions in books may be illegible, damaged, defaced, or removed altogether.  Bookplates… may be partly or wholly torn out, or may have other bookplates pasted on top… Many marks of ownership in early books rely on heraldry, an ancient discipline whose arcane codes and terminology are not immediately accessible to many people today.”

– David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History

Last week, we introduced the concept of rare book provenance, and briefly discussed some of the difficulties involved in its study.  This week, we’re going to be wading even deeper into the pool of provenance issues by asking you, the reader, what you think might be important enough to warrant recording as provenance evidence.  I would hardly consider myself an expert in provenance markers (I’m learning more every day), and much of what I know now I’ve had to teach myself on the job.  And while there are some handy provenance evidence guides and standardized lists of terminology, the subject makes for a tricky study because of its fluid nature – instances of provenance evidence can vary widely, and you never know exactly what you’ll find until you open up the covers.  Every book is unique.

Take MSU’s copy of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli (PA 6478.A2 1515), for example – a book I came across a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a modestly sized book, only 6 inches tall and less than an inch thick, smaller than most modern paperbacks.  Yet between its covers are crammed a staggering number of annotations, insertions, dates, codes, and marginalia.  These are the markings on the front endsheets:

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Some were clearly added since the book has been in MSU’s possession, while others are much, much earlier.  Some markings are relatively straightforward and easy to understand, while others are more mysterious.  How many different marks do you see?  Let’s be literal at this stage and refrain from judgment about which particular inscriptions are important for determining provenance.  I count at least 15 different potential provenance markers on these two pages alone.  I’ll highlight those below:

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1. This stamp seems relatively straightforward at first glance.  It was likely added by MSU, but does not conform to the way in which Special Collections marks its books today.  Indeed, I pointed this mark out to Special Collections head Peter Berg, and he seemed unsure just when exactly MSU had ever had a “rare book room,” referred to as such.  The acquisition of this book by MSU predates the existence of the Special Collections Department as we know it today (the Special Collections Library opened in 1962).  Do you think additional research about this particular mark is warranted, or is its value in our understanding the history of this book’s chain of custody relatively low?

2. Another library mark (likely tied to the stamp above it), this time a catalog entry.  It seems to be based on the Dewey Decimal system, with some additional notation added at the end.  The notation conforms to early MSU catalog entries, but is obsolete by the standards used in Special Collections today.  As with [1] above, how important is it to record old MSU markings like this, given that the book is still in MSU’s possession?  Can markers like these give us any useful information about how the book might have moved around within the University itself?

3. What do you make of these letters?  Could they be initials of a previous owner?  They are in pen, and look to predate the library marks.  Can you make out that first letter?  How would you record these markings on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet?

4. What could these numbers mean?  It looks like a date, but the handwriting and the nature of the medium (colored pencil or crayon) look too recent to make the date (1537) contemporary with the hand that wrote it down.  Could it be telling us something else important about the work, which was published in 1515?  Perhaps it’s attempting to date the signature above it, or perhaps it’s not a date at all.  Should we record these markings as potential provenance evidence?

5. What does this look like to you?  Could it be a signature?  It’s in pencil – could it be tied to the notes in [6] and/or [7], and does it look the same as the markings in [8]?  If we cannot decipher it, is it substantial enough to note as provenance data?

6. There is clearly a price recorded here – 2.50 – but is that price related to the other, more faded markings around it?  Is the price related to the note in [7]?  Is it the asking price, recorded by a bookseller for his/her clients, or was it added by the purchaser, recording what he/she paid?  Without knowing the date of this inscription, it’s difficult to assess the relative value of this price (due to inflation), and we don’t even know the units (dollars, pounds, etc.).

7. “Second Aldine Edition – a re-impression of the 1502 edn.”  Could this be a note by the bookseller, to go along with the price from [6]?  Or are both [6] and [7] notes from the librarian who acquired the book, recording the price paid and a quick summary of the item purchased?

8. What could this be?  A signature?  Does it bear any resemblance to the mark in [5], or is it unrelated?  Again, could it be tied to the notes in [6] and [7]?

9. This note is in pencil.  Does it look like the same handwriting used in note [7]?  The final part of the inscription is clearly “No. 116” – but what is that first word?  Does this note tell us anything about the provenance of this particular book?

10. Almost impossible to see on the images above, there is a tiny number penciled in the corner here.  It appears to be the number 13… or is it a 15?  What do you think it could mean?

11. This tiny stray “C” hardly seems worthy of recording as potential provenance evidence.  Or is it?  What are your thoughts?

12. Ah, now here’s something more like what most people imagine when they think of provenance markers.  Does this look like a signature to you?  It seems old, and is even dated (1760).  How would you transcribe the signature here?  G. Crofs. A: B.?  What do you make of this?  Is it someone’s name?  Have you ever seen a name written or abbreviated like that?  Perhaps more research is necessary to determine just what this inscription is trying to tell us.

13. Here is an embossed stamp identifying the book as the property of Michigan State University.  Well, technically it says “Michigan State College of Agr. and App. Science,” a name used for MSU from 1925 to 1955.  So that at least tells us that the stamp dates from sometime in that range.  Could this embossed stamp be contemporary with the “rare book room” stamp from [1]?  The Special Collections Department at MSU was established in 1962.  What could that tell us about the potential usefulness of this stamp for tracing this book’s provenance history?

14. It looks like several lines of writing were erased here.  Is there any value in recording this fact on a Provenance Evidence Worksheet?  Is there any clue at all to what might have been written here?  Or when?  What about when it might have been erased?

15. Another mysterious pencil mark.  What do you think this number means?  Is there any significance to the hooked mark underneath?  Is any of this worth recording as provenance evidence?  Do we have to know what something means to record it, or is it enough that it might be useful to someone for provenance determination?

Post 2 Image 3

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The book raises all of those questions in the front endpapers alone.  When we delve deeper into the pages, more questions about provenance markers arise.  Here on page 2 are a few more potential pieces of evidence:

16. Note the stamped number on the bottom of the page.  This looks like a library mark – could it be an acquisition number?  Is it tied to the library markings in [1], [2], and [13] above?  How might we find out?

17. Did you notice the note in the gutter, or inner margin?  It’s the note I showed you last week, here in its original context.  Note the date (7-15-43), the name (Dawson), and the price (2.50).  The price listed here is the same as that listed in [6], but the handwriting is different.  Could this be a note from the individual who acquired the book for MSU’s library?  The date given here is consistent with the range of dates we noted for the embossed stamp in [13].  And this context now elucidates the letters in front of the date:  remember from our note on [13] that in 1943 MSU was referred to as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, which could have easily been abbreviated as MSC.

You see, provenance markers cannot always be considered in isolation.  This note, easy to miss on a cursory glance (I myself didn’t notice it until I took this photo), gives us new insight into several of the markings on the front endpapers.  Also noteworthy on this page is the underlining of a number of words and phrases.

Post 2 Image 5

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18. In fact, there are marginal notes and underlined passages throughout the text.  This example is representative of most of the annotations:  the text is in Latin, and the ink is clearly old, showing signs of oxidation.  What clues could these marginalia give us about this book’s provenance?

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19. On the rear flyleaf is the following set of notes:  “Pretium. x/6” in the top margin, and “Collated & perfect” in the center of the page, signed and dated “JB. 1750.”  What do these inscriptions tell us?  The date is certainly helpful, but what do you make of the other notes?  What do you think JB’s role might have been in the history of this volume?

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20. Hints of a pencil inscription, long since faded or erased.  Is there any information recoverable here?  How might we go about doing so?  Is this worth recording?

21. These markings are much clearer than those in [20], but are they equally mysterious?  How would you interpret these numbers in a circle?

22. This provenance marker is very straightforward.  Is it worth recording as provenance evidence, or should we count on the fact that such conservation reports are recorded and filed elsewhere?  Does the fact that this label was applied so recently (January 2012) reduce its usefulness as a provenance marker for us?

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23. The final potential piece of provenance data in this particular book is a very unconventional one.  A significant portion of one corner of the text block is blackened and burned.  Do you think this fact is worth noting?  While it may not be realistic to record every odd physical feature of a given volume, could evidence that the book survived a disaster such as a fire or flood give us any clues about its provenance?  What if it was considered in combination with other potential provenance markers?

The example of M. Annei Lucani Civilis belli has been a lengthy one, but I hope it has been helpful in illustrating some of the questions we have to ask ourselves when searching for provenance evidence.  Not every piece of evidence is easy to understand, and it’s often difficult to decide what particular markings are worthy of our time and effort.  Most books have fewer potential provenance markers, if they have any at all, but this example (with two dozen possible entries) is hardly the most heavily annotated book in MSU’s collection.  If you have any thoughts about the difficulties involved in doing provenance detective work, leave some comments below.  And as always, come back next time for another update on the provenance project at Michigan State Special Collections.


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