Friday, April 1, 2011

The Magic Art of The Great Humbug

The temptation of a well made object is powerful. With books, and well made old books specially, this needn't be ruinous. Lots of beautiful used books are out there, none of them particularly valuable, or expensive, some of them even worth reading, for curiosity's sake, if the buyer isn't fussy about the relevance of the information or the durability of the style. Tons of the stuff. Seems there must be dry basements and warm attics full of old books, in every state in the Union, to judge just by volume we see at the Used Books Desk almost every day. And there's hardly a used bookstore I've ever been in, and I've been in every one I could get to, that doesn't have a case or more of this useless, handsome lumber, usually labeled something like, "Old But Interesting", or "Collectibles," moldering somewhere near either the restroom or the fire-exit. Evidently, even the most knowledgeable of the experienced dealers are not altogether immune to the charms of a pretty cover, deckled edges, and a bit of stray gilding, however unremembered the author or forgettable, and justly forgotten the title. I would bet that there is hardly an old house anywhere in America that might not have a shelf or more of just such books, books no one has glanced at since well before great-grandma was widowed, just waiting for the heirs to finally clear off the old homestead for good and all.

Poverty, if anything, would seem to preserve more neglected literature than will ever have been read in living memory, just because ignorant people, specially in mourning, while having little or no curiosity about such things, tend to suspect all books as being about equally valuable, and old books, of whatever merit, in whatever condition, are recognized as rare, at least in the sense that they are unlikely to the point of being inexplicable when found by the family among the effects of the deceased.

Someone preparing for the auction is sure to say, "Somebody sure liked to read," and whoever hauled the lot to the table, even if the one doing the lifting has lived in the drafty family house all his pinched life long, is just as sure to shrug, having no memory of ever having seen a living soul engaged in such activity, at least not with anything more challenging than The Penny Saver. Usually though, for the sake of family pride, some older relation, sticking his or her nose in, and bitter at having not been remembered in the will, will be struck by the sudden and quite vivid memory of his or her own sainted and long dead mother reading these very titles, once so beloved by one and all, on many a long winter's night by the coal stove, reading to the whole rapt, contented family, by the light of the kerosene. Such interjections will be smilingly acknowledged by the auctioneer's assistants and pointedly ignored by whatever grand-nephew, cousin or son what had to haul them down from the attic. (I have myself been witness to this business and come from a place where such sad scenes were set.)

It can be a little mystifying, why what usually survives does.

Some old books just refuse to go away, whatever the incongruity of the circumstances or setting in which they have lived out their original owners and or usefulness. There's one such I remember everywhere. Even the poorest American home may still to this day have a large leather Bible of considerable weight, workmanship and antiquity, somewhere about the place. In my childhood, I was in not a few proud, poky, poorly furnished houses, with tar-paper walls and remnants on the floor, such sticks of furniture as had been either rescued from the dump or kept up past any suggestion of their original design, or utility, constituting the whole of the movables, save always one ugly but comfortable easy chair set to face the television, large or small, and often as not the little one that worked resting on the more impressive model that did not. Such decoration as might be, other than school pictures and free calendars, was usually as hideous as it was forlorn: a class tassel hung on wire shelves, dusty fairground souvenirs, old bottles, glass insulators, busted tin toys. Somewhere though, resting on some piece with chipped veneer, the inevitable leather Bible, perfectly preserved and undisturbed for generations, the last baby's name added before the present owner's father was yet born. Those beautiful old books seem to survive every decampment, depredation, disaster and diminution of fortune, like an ornamental mantelpiece untouched by a house-fire, prized up from the wreck and carried along to no particular purpose from one bare habitation to the next, set uselessly in a corner, no fireplace to be seen in the trailer, but the carved wood just too pretty to leave behind. Should there be anywhere a collector of such honored and neglected objects as the average American family Bible, these big old books might be had, thirteen to the dozen, cheap, did not peasant superstition prevent even the idea occurring that there might be a profit to be made from the sale of a Bible. Buying used books for a living in this increasingly unsentimental age, one does occasionally come across the impressive old family Bible at the bottom of a box of old books, but handsome as it may be, there it will usually stay. Most people nowadays shy of buying an old Bible of any size unless it suggests pious study they may or may not ever get around to. Not for me to judge.

One of the most common misunderstandings in which the retailer of used books is likely to become involved when dealing with the inexperienced potential seller, is the suspicion of sharp practice. Even as it is explained that no one now reads Ella Wheeler Wilcox, that as with the the present owner, no one will ever think to do so again, the suspicion lingers that the dealer is probably lying, just to make some kind of underhanded deal on the one or two pretty little books by Booth Tarkington that may have been plucked out of pity from the box and for which the seller is now being offered two dollars.

What about this lovely old thing, bound in brown butchers' paper, elegantly printed, the headers all still in vivid red? Surely these must tempt someone, be worth something, be somehow... good?

Every used books dealer I know, myself included has thought as much of books from the Roycroft. Just recently, two big bound copies of such material, presumably from "The Philistine," came across the desk. Handsome things: bound, indeed, in brown butchers' paper, held together with two rivets at the reinforced spine, beautiful, bold typefaces and cleverly printed text, often, indeed, titled in red, with "boxed" items, usually aphorisms or short poems, framed by the wider text. Works of art, without a doubt. From the workshops of the late Elbert Hubbard, and instantly recognizable as such, and as such, worthless.

Even the feel of most Roycroft stuffs is nearly as pleasant as their printing and presentation. Everything about the books -- except their contents -- suggests care and art. Doubtlessly, somewhere in the world, someone does indeed collect these pretty things. There may even be, somewhere in America tonight, some solitary reading Elbert Hubbard with appreciation. The trouble is, Hubbard wasn't much as a writer. By no means the worst cracker philosopher this nation has produced, and far from the least influential artist at the turn of the last century, mostly what Hubbard was was the Barnum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, the great showman of bohemianism and the return to simplicity and guild craftsmanship. He is an important figure in American cultural history. What he is not now is much worth reading, or collecting, despite his once amazing popularity.

Hubbard's most famous essay, A Message to Garcia, was once a fixture on American bookshelves, though no one reads it now, nor need they. Originally published without a title in the March, 1899 issue of Hubbard's magazine, The Philistine, this brief item, proving popular, was quickly reprinted, first as a pamphlet and then as a proper book, all from Hubbard's Roycroft Press. The little book of boosterish American imperialism, based on the story of a Cuban eager to welcome his new American masters even as he shook off the Spanish yoke, went on to sell over 40 million copies, and was translated into no less than thirty-seven languages. Though far from widely read or of a philosophical bent, Hubbard did possess both a remarkable memory for other people's original ideas, and a genuine gift for assimilating and reproducing the least of these in lectures, journalism and all manner of print. Just that one little book may be said to have spawned, in its way, a whole new American literature of bumptious uplift. It, like the whole of Hubbard's literary output, was chiefly distinguished by the folksy self assurance of Hubbard's plagiarisms, from everyone from Emerson to Andrew Carnegie, all of which he somehow managed to spin into corn, and his almost religious conviction in his own persuasive powers. In this, Elbert Hubbard provided the template for nearly every peddler of Self Help seen since. (He would have been right at home lecturing the credulous on a PBS pledge-night, had he not died well before the invention of television, having confidently booked passage, for him and the second wife, on the Lusitania in 1915.)

Hubbard was a more complex character than this brief dismissal might suggest. My interest in him though is only just in the production of his Roycroft Press, really just an adjunct of the communal artist colony more properly known as "The Roycrofters" or "The Roycroft Shops," which Hubbard founded in 1895. The craftspeople drawn there both by Hubbard's personal magnetism and the promise of the exciting new and original work being done there, produced an amazing amount of lasting value, in printmaking, design, and both the plastic and the practical arts. Unfortunately for the lovers of literature, the chief product of Hubbard's presses were the works of Elbert Hubbard.

As a dealer in used books, Hubbard's is a cautionary tale of great craftsmanship put to the service of inferior work. I can not tell you the times I have seen the curious customer in a used books shop, pull a Roycroft book from the shelves of Americana or wherever it rests otherwise undisturbed, admire it's design and then be disappointed to find that those thick, well printed pages are full of pap. Even in Hubbard's once popular travels, to the homes of America's great artists and writers, but just as often to the homes of the worst robber barons of the Gilded Age, whom Hubbard admired with an equal fervor, the modern reader will be disappointed to find that the subject of every pretty book is always Elbert Hubbard; his thoughts on the glories of a Spring day he happened to grace at the home of Washington Irving, his impressions of the sunrise over Henry Clay Frick, Hubbard reflecting on the near perfection of Elbert Hubbard. That almost no one should now know so much as the man's name may tell one all one needs to know as to the value of the writings and philosophy of this curiosity of American ego.

Like the forgotten family Bible, the value in a book by Elbert Hubbard has largely evaporated with the faith in American exceptionalism that was once proudly represented by either displayed in the front parlor. Nostalgia -- that most weirdly American disability -- can only do but so much in the marketplace of ideas, and books. The truth is, there's nothing now to be done in the way of selling Elbert Hubbard. We would need an Elbert Hubbard again to do it.

No one really wants that, now do we?

No comments:

Post a Comment