Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2003 Issue

American Historical Novels:<br>Scribner&#146;s Catalogue 115 Revisited

Scribner1

A great catalogue will be used. This one is very worn.


By Bruce McKinney

In 1938 Scribner’s Book Store, on its way to issuing about 175 catalogues during its corporate life, issued #115, American Historical Novels:  Fifteenth to Nineteenth Century.  This is an engrossing survey of books that their rare book department felt to be both readable and often valuable.  When I first saw this catalogue I was struck by the catalogers’ knowledge of the material and their evident appreciation of the 228 items offered.  Here is an example.  In describing No. 12, a lot of two books, Jane G. Austin’s Standish of Standish and Betty Alden's, The First Born Daughter of the Pilgrims they wrote, “To our mind the best tales of the Plymouth Colony ever written; the historical background is excellent, Miss Austin rigidly verifying every particular.”  Of Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, published in 1868, their cataloguer wrote, “A bizarre tale by a newspaper woman who flitted in and out of the Civil War White House and wrote the “inside story” of an effort by Mary Todd Lincoln to sell secretly the rich clothes she had worn as First Lady.  The author was Jane Swisshelm, Washington’s trail-blazing newspaper-woman – an abolitionist sobster.  An important work.”  I found myself hooked on their knowledgeable perspective and decided to see what has happened to these titles in the sixty-five years since this exceptional catalogue was published.  Some of them should be available and it turns out they are.  Well over half of the titles are on ABE and certainly they are on the other listing sites as well.  Firsts aren’t all rare books as 150 copies of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron ( No. 227), 82 copies of Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s The Clansman (No. 216) and 117 copies of Walter D. Edmonds’s Drums Along the Mohawk (No. 87) confirm.  Of course there are incorrectly described items included in these online numbers but there are plenty of copies even including the erroneous entries.

In the Scribner catalogue there are 228 items with a total price of $6,725, an average of $29.42 per item.  The most expensive is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Water-Witch Or The Skimmer of the Seas printed in Dresden in 1830 (No. 41).  Their price is $285.  For reference they also offer a first American edition published in Philadelphia the same year for $15.  There are seven copies of the American edition today on ABE for prices ranging from $204.39 to $788.  The Dresden edition is not so easily found.

The second most expensive book is a fine copy of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (No. 196) in its first edition, 1865, and in its original dust wrapper. This gem costs $250. Today Bauman Rare Books offers a similar, if not identical copy, for $3,000.

There are two books tying for third place at $175. One is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales (#61), the first edition in original black cloth printed in Boston in 1837 that they describe as “slightly foxed but far above the average condition for this book.” The other is George Lippard’s Legend of the Black Rangers, 1844.

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