Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2011 Issue

The Library of America: Where the 19th Century Meets the 21st

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19th century poetry offered on a 21st century venue.

I have come to expect all types of goods to be advertised on the internet. Occasionally, one might even see something sort of book related, such as an electronic reader or some phenomenally popular new series. What I wasn't prepared for was the advertisement I saw recently while checking out the weather forecast. There it was – a collection of 19th century poetry, featuring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and “more.” Is there really a sufficient market for such classic literature to justify advertising on the internet? What's more, these weren't electronic versions of these texts or some other sort of 21st century technology. These were books – paper and ink, with old-fashioned hard covers.

In the days ahead, I discovered similar ads for collections of works by Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. Who could be selling new print editions of these old classics to a mass-market audience today? The answer is... The Library of America. The Library of America is a surprising organization, a nonprofit publisher that has been operating somewhat below the radar for over three decades. It was formed in 1979 by various scholars and literary critics who were concerned about the availability of the works of America's greatest writers. Of course, those were the days before the availability of massive quantities of old books online, or electronic and online copies of books, generally offered free if published before 1923. Still, though circumstances have changed since 1979, the work of the Library of America goes on. Their role, somewhere between purveyor of text and publisher of fine editions, continues to fill the shelves of both longtime loyal followers and new clients, some of whom discovered the Library when checking out the day's weather.

The founders of the Library originally secured their funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. In 1982, their first book was published. Now, 225 titles later, the Library has an active publishing schedule set for next year. We asked Brian McCarthy, Associate Publisher of the Library of America, to tell us a bit more about the Library and its work, and how it reaches people in the second decade of the 21st century.

What makes the Library of America very different from any other publishers we have known is the multitude of roles they seek to fill. It started from a basic preservation role, that of preserving access to the great American literature of the past for today's generations. However, other roles include making this classic literature available at an affordable price, creating fine, collectible quality editions of these works, and selecting the most authoritative versions of these books to publish. Mr. McCarthy explained the multifaceted mission by noting, “From the beginning, our mission has always been about more than availability. It has been about presenting America’s best and most significant writing in the most authoritative possible texts and in a durable, affordable, aesthetically pleasing, and convenient format.” He then pointed out, “In addition, each and every item in a Library of America volume comes from the most reliable, authoritative source for that particular selection. Choosing an authoritative text involves studying the textual history of each work to determine which of its various versions is the most appropriate to reprint.”

Curating works at the Library of America is not limited to selecting the most accurate text among competing editions. It can also lead to compilations that are original works. Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1973, is a collection of articles, features, columns, and book excerpts gathered together “to present a compelling as-it-happened panorama of that turbulent era.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 18591865, published “555 letters, speeches, messages, proclamations, orders, memoranda, drafts, and fragments that together form a record of the Civil War as experienced by its most central figure.” Mr. McCarthy points out, “while a diligent researcher might locate a particular letter or speech on the Internet, there is no equivalent digital selection of Lincoln’s most essential writings from the war years.”

Purchases from the Library also reflect the varying missions behind their publishing. Mr. McCarthy explains, “Our readers use books for many reasons: as readers, as collectors, as scholars, as students. Many buy our books because they want to own a permanent collection of a favorite author; others buy our books for the quality of the bindings and their appearance in their personal libraries. Many customers might buy only one title or boxed set, but we have several thousand customers who own virtually all 225 titles in the series.”

Of those 225 titles, which were the biggest sellers? The top seller goes to Thomas Jefferson: Writings, with sales of 217,518 copies. It is followed by Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859-1865; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832-1858; and Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose. Each of these was originally published in the 1980s, but that does not imply that sales were greater years ago. These works have been available for going on three decades, so their sales totals are naturally higher than for more recently published works.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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