James Cummins Features Two Centuries of Literature
By Michael Stillman
James Cummins Bookseller's Catalogue 91 of literature is filled with first editions and manuscripts of authors from the past two centuries. The names read off like a who's who list of great novelists. If you are looking for firsts, this catalogue is a great place to start.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau's first book. It was not a smashing success. If this had typified his career, Thoreau would probably have had to become a logger or some such thing. Fortunately, greater success lay ahead. At the back of the book is an advertisement, "Will Soon Be Published Walden, or Life in the Woods...." That was a harbinger of things to come for the young writer. With the success of his later works, "Concord and Merrimack" would earn its respect in time. Item 90 is a first edition of Thoreau's first work from 1849. Priced at $6,000.
One the greatest of American writers ever was Edgar Allan Poe. Poetic master of the macabre, mystery, and horror was he. Perhaps it is fitting with the strangeness of the man and his life that his most popular book during his lifetime was The Conchologist's First Book: A System of Testaceous Malacology arranged expressly for use in Schools.... This is a book about shells, a dull, ordinary book intended for school studies. While Poe was, if nothing else, a trailblazer, this book was about as unoriginal as it comes. In fact, it was mostly lifted from an earlier British text, with Poe paid a handsome advance to engage in this act of plagiarism. It was a great success, the first edition selling out in a few weeks, with other editions to follow. The money Poe earned from it would allow him to concentrate on the type of work for which he is remembered, and Poe would have to resort to such shell games nevermore. From 1839, Item 74 is a first edition of Poe's shell book. $1,750.
Here is another surprising work for its author: A Persian Pearl: and Other Essays by Clarence S. Darrow. This was Darrow's first book, and includes five essays, discussing topics such as poets Walt Whitman and Robert Browning and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Clarence Darrow, of course, is not remembered for his literary criticism. He is remembered as the greatest attorney of his era, particularly his role for the defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial. You may well remember Spencer Tracy playing Darrow's role in the fictionalized movie of this trial, "Inherit the Wind." Item 26. $1,250.