The latest catalogue from James Cummins Bookseller is titled First American Edition. It is a collection of mostly first American editions (with a few not first but early editions) of books first published in England or continental Europe. Some of them are European classics, others from antiquity published in the old countries before reaching a printing press in America. Then some are American works, but ones that were published across the sea before being published in America. This is particularly common with books through the early 19th century. There wasn't a lot of printing taking place in America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Works by American authors quite naturally would be printed in England, where there were both more printers and readers. Here now are some selections from this catalogue of first Americans.
Here is a quintessentially American work that did not make it to an American press until over a century after it was first published in London. Item 146 is Cotton Mather's Mangnalia Christi Americana:, or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England, from its first Planting in the year 1620, unto the year of our Lord, 1698. Despite the book's title, and Mather's role as the most important clergyman in America, this is far more than an ecclesiastical history. It is a general history of the first settlements in New England. Along with being a clergyman and historian, Mather was interested in science and would later become a strong supporter of smallpox inoculation at a time when it was extremely controversial. However, his tacit support of the Salem witchcraft trials will always be a major blemish on his record. Mather's history was first published in 1702, but the first American, published in Hartford, did not come out until 1820. Priced at $350.
This next first American edition followed the true first by several thousand years, though, naturally enough, it was much closer in time to the first printed edition. Item 21 is Biblia Hebraica, the first Hebrew Bible printed in America. It was taken from the second edition of the Joseph Athias Bible. Hebrew type had appeared in North American books as early as 1640, which those in the book field will immediately recognize as the date of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in England's North American colonies. However, Hebrew letters were only used in brief examples, meaning that the type was hard to find. It was not until the 19th century that full books in the Hebrew language began to appear. This early Bible was published in Philadelphia in 1814. $15,000.
Next up is the first American Koran, though it was published with very different intentions than the first Hebrew Bible. Item 124 is The Koran Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mahomet. It was printed in Springfield, Massachusetts, for Isaiah Thomas, the legendary printer who founded the American Antiquarian Society. However, this book was not published for the Muslim faithful. It was published at the time of the Barbary Wars, when there was much anti-Muslim sentiment in America. The introduction seeks to show the book's shortcomings to non-Muslims who believed it was the source of bad behavior. This first American Koran was published in 1806. $450.
The anti-Muslim sentiment of the era is also seen in the first American edition of this less than objective biography of Mohammad. The book's purpose is readily foreseen in its title: The Life of Mohamet; or, the History of That Imposture which was begun, carried on, and finally established by him in Arabia; and which has Subjugated a larger Portion of the Globe, than the Religion of Jesus has yet set at Liberty... No, this 1802 book does not sound like it was intended to provide a balanced view. Item 141. $400.
Here is another book with a long delay before reaching America – over two centuries. Still, a first American edition is sort of a homecoming for it. Item 154 is The Common-Wealth of Utopia, Thomas More's "utopian" novel first published in 1516. The first American did not come until 1753. This story, naturally, is the source of the concept of Utopia, an ideal land where things operate the way they should. This is how we know these lands are fictional. The reason this edition is sort of a homecoming is that More set his book in the New World, Utopia being discovered by a man who supposedly sailed with Amerigo Vespucci. This is the first Utopian edition... sort of. $10,000.
Item 79 is the first novel written for children in the English language: The Governess: or, Little Female Academy Being the History of Mrs. Teachum, and Her Nine Girls. Mrs. Teachum? That name is either a fantastic coincidence or this is fiction. The author is Sarah Fielding, sister of novelist Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones). The book was based on her own experiences in boarding school with her three sisters. It provides children with moral lessons based on those examples. The book was first published in 1749, with this first American edition issued in 1791. $1,500.