Thursday, February 28, 2008

Circular File ... Critical Slam Dunks

An Old Review -- If there had been such .... Circular File -- Slam-Dunk! : Arrah Neil, or Times of Old. by G. P. R. James. New York. Harper & Brothers. "We suppose that this novel will be read, admired, praised and forgotten, like the preceding fictions of the same writer. The usual cant of eulogy will be lavished upon it, and it will then pass into oblivion, to be succeeded in three months by another equally valuable. "In our opinion there is hardly an instance on record, of an author who has contrived to win an extensive reputation, as a writer of works of imagination, with such slender intellectual materials as Mr. James. No one has ever written so many books, purporting to be novels, with so small a stock of heart, brain and invention. He is continually infringing his own copyright, by reproducing his own novels. Far from being surprised that he has written so much, we are astonished that he has not written more. From his first novel, all the rest can be logically deduced; and the reason they have not appeared faster, may be found in the fact that he has been economical in the employment of amanuenses."
The following is from a review printed in Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, December 1844. Essays. Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston. James Monroe & Co. 1 Vol. 12mo. "This elegantly printed volume will probably have a more extended circulation than any previous publication of Mr. Emerson. His reputation has now passed from notoriety to fame. It was the fashion once to class him among the wildest class of those mystics whom much transcendentalism had made mad; but his claim to be considered one of the most original and most individual thinkers that the country has produced, is now beginning to be generally acknowledged. "The number of his readers is constantly increasing; and men seem willing to like him for what he is, instead of hating him for what he is not. "Indeed, Mr. Emerson's writings have a charm altogether disconnected from the truth or the error of his opinions. He is a poet, and takes the licenses of the poet. Even if he occasionally flies above our comprehension or apprehension, few would desire to clip his wings. His wit, his fancy, his sharp insight, his terse expression, the extreme subtlety of his conception of beauty, the oddity of many of his illustrations, the quiet fearlessness of his defiances of conventionalism, and the individuality which pervaades all, gives an interest to his compositions, apart from the questionable notions of theology, or metaphysics, society or government, which they appear to convey." Haw! In other words, Heavens to Betsy, we don't understand what he is saying, but we sure do like how Mr. Emerson says it!
The tables turned, vengeance is sweet - and poor Poe not even around to reply! From an 1859 Ladies Repository, the words of one Rev. Mr. Clark: "Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of Letters. Many authors have been as idle; many as improvident; some as drunken and dissipated; and a few, perhaps, as treacherous and ungrateful; yet he seems to have succeeded in attracting and combining, in his own person, all the floating vices which genius had hitherto shown itself capable of grasping in its widest and most eccentric orbit......" Fie, Reverend Clark, fie!
History of Frederick the Second, Called Frederick the Great. by Thomas Carlyle. In four volumes. Harper & Brothers, N.Y. ($1.25 per volume) This is the start of a review of Volumes 1 & 2 contained in an issue of The Ladies Repository from 1859. We have followed Mr. Carlyle, "maker of books", as he discourseth in quaint style and with novel use of words, concerning Frederick the Great. The first two volumes will whet the appetite of the reader for what is to come. Mr. Carlyle -- we make humble but sincere confession of the fact -- is not a writer we admire. He is a great thinker -- a great writer. When he speaks the world will listen. But whether it will be wiser or or better for listening, is, with us at least, an unsolved problem. He is perpetually sending off sky-rockets, no matter how grave or how dull the subject; but what they signify is not so apparent. But we must do justice to Mr. Carlyle, even if it be at the expense of seeming inconsistent ourself. Frederick the Great is debtor to Carlyle. Great as he was in his own times, greater has he has grown since he came to "the finis", as his biographer would say, of life; his huge proportions will not be lessened by the manipulations of Mr. Carlyle ....
Do we admire him? Is he a great author? but .... but .... Do we like him ....???? And where ever does Mr. Carlyle find those peculiar words?
From the Atlantic Monthly September 1881: "In A ROMANCE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (GP Putnam's Sons) Mr. W.H. Mallock does a great deal to prove that he is not so clever as we thought him." Harrumph. No sense wasting valuable editorial space
A Quack by any other name is still a Quack ... Six Weeks in Fauquier. Being the Substance of a Series of Familiar Letters, Illustrating the Scenery, Localities, Medicinal Virtues, and General Characteristics of the White Sulphur Springs at Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia. Written in 1838 to a Gentleman in New England by a Visiter. Published by Samuel Colman, New York. Says the reviewer (Who may well have been E. A. Poe): "This is a long title to a rather small affair - a thin duodecimo of sixty-seven pages. The truth is that the whole work has very much the air of a quack advertisement; and, but for those incontrovertible words, "By a Visiter", one might suspect that the proprietors of the White Sulphur Springs had themselves turned authors for the nonce. Be this as it may, the writer should not be accused of a lack of zeal for these waters. Indeed, he sometimes carries it to the verge of a blunder -- In the preface, for instance, he first abuses Saratoga on account of that facility of access which renders its company "promiscuous", and proceeds to expatiate in praise of the 'immense crowds which have hitherto resorted to the White Sulphur'. Amid a collection of recommendatory letters, also, there occurs from one B. Watkins Leigh, in which the Senator somewhat equivocally asserts that the dropsical symptoms with which he went to Fauquier have been continually declining 'ever since he got home'. "There can be no doubt, however, that the springs in question have high medicinal , and higher fashionable virtues. The scenery is beautiful, the charges are moderate, the accommodations are good. In fact everything concerning them is good - with the exception of this stupid little book -- which is very bad indeed --- very."
The following pieces, which three bring the moment's historical rummaging to a close were not quite in the same vituperative vein.
Again from the venerable Ladies' Repository : Adam Bede. by George Eliott [sic], author of Scenes of Clerical Life. N.Y. Harper & Brothers. 12 mo. This is said to be a well-written story ... .... We have not read it. Sigh ...
Fanny and Other Poems. One Volume. Harper and Brothers. ... an Hagiographical review: "Mr. Halleck's muse but seldom condescends to flap her wings in the Parnassian atmosphere; the publishers, therefore, with due consideration of the wants of the devotees of Apollo, kindly furnish us with a repetition of the former flutterings of her graceful pinions. We should rejoice to welcome a novelty from the pen of Halleck; there are so few real poets now extant, that we cannot allow one of the highest of the craft to waste his days 'in ease in glorious", without a word of reproach - and this new edition of our favorite "Fanny" is a mouthful of sweets that makes us wish for a larger feast." Harrummph. Rather hagiographical if y'ask me. One wouldn't be surprised if this critic had kept a swooning couch handy ....
The Sin of Omission . Were the souls of these critics in peril? ...... 'twas only a venial sin ... Once again, from the Ladies Repository, 1859. The New Testament. N.Y. Collins & Bros. 12mo. "This work reached us too late for notice ...." View BOOKS FOR SALE

A Critical Broadside Aimed at the Plimsoll Line

Everyone knows those most excellent delineations of horror and psychological madness penned into reality by Edgar A. Poe. He remains the Grand Master, the Puissant Thaumaturge. But fewer people know that Poe was one of America's most trenchant literary critics. In Poe we have the critic who did not mince words ... who did not pull his punches. A good review from Poe was surely earned by Herculean efforts by a writer laboring for foothold on the slopes of Parnassus. But a pan .... could any author continue to blithely sail about on the literary sea after Poe had leveled a critical broadside at their plimsoll line? The following example of Poe's caustic tongue-in-quill is from the December 1839 Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. Harrumph, it is obvious that someone didn't pay their dues. The Poets of America, Illustrated by one of Her Painters. Edited by John Keese . Colman, New York. 1839 "This long announced and much puffed volume has at last made its appearance. For the sake of the publisher, whose enterprising spirit deserves at least the good-will of the critic, we regret that we cannot award his beloved bantling a word of honest praise. We are compelled to pronounce this "splendid gift book", this loudly-vaunted specimen of American art and science, a common-place and profitless attempt. .... We are not sold to the will of any publisher; we never criticize a work without giving it an attentive perusal; we never obtain the gratuitous presentation of expensive publications by the promise of a puff; nor do we covertly slander a brother scribe because he is connected with another periodical. There are editors who cannot make these averments. The expression of our just opinions may give offense to various individuals, but we are not to be deterred in the execution of our critical duty. "The editor of the Poets of America has woefully erred in the selection of some of the authors included in is list -- we know not whether he has mistaken the quality of the chosen from the lack of a kindred spirit with the sons of poetry -- from an ignorance of the attributes of of those whose name, although not enrolled on the catalogue of his acquaintance, have awakened the echoes of the bi-forked hill -- or whether he has suffered the interference of personal prejudice to warp his judgment and direct his choice. "When we observe that some of the most celebrated poets of the day are excluded from his selection, and that various minor lights burn in the highest places, we are tempted to doubt the truth of his averment that he sought to present the finest specimens -- the true spirit of American poetry. There are names in his list 'alike to fortune and fame unknown', and the merits of their doings will not compensate the reader the offence of pushing better men from their stools. One writer, who has not yet attained the heights of mediocrity, has three pieces within eleven ages, while some of the best poets of the age, not being intimately connected with the publisher, are compelled tostand the ordeal of a single exhibition, and others are prohibited from all chance of show. [Poe gives us a sample ... and wretched it certainly is] The pictures are tolerably fanciful in conception, but their execution is paltry and ineffective; many of them are inferior to the woodcuts in Peter parley's school books. .... [the woodcuts] are inexplicable in their detail, and seem as if they had been engraved with a sharp fork on the back of a pewter plate. E. A. Poe was one of the most incisive and important critics of his day. Most of his pronouncements on writers well stand the test of time. View BOOKS FOR SALE

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Those Uppity Feminists ... Bless 'em!

Women have had a long and hard struggle to gain, among other things, educational equality, or parity, with men. Patriarchal authoritarianism, with all of its ingrained intolerance, was an everyday reality for all women in the Nineteenth Century. Women like Emma Willard pushed the boundaries, challenging male authority, not through marches and denunciations, but through positive action, personal endeavor and undeniable force of character. Emma Willard founded the first Female Academy for higher learning, The Troy Female Seminary, later renamed the Emma Willard School. I am not going to go into the fascinating history of this wonderfully gifted woman and her contributions. But the following review in Burton's Magazine for February of 1839 gives an indication of the obstacles to be sirmounted (pun intended): A Letter, Addressed as a Circular to the Members of the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers. by Emma Willard, Principle of the Troy Female Seminary, and President of the Association. "We are informed by Coleridge, that it was the practice of his teacher, Dr. Bowyer, to allow the thesis of each of his pupils to accumulate, as if through inadvertence, to the number of some half dozen. he would then call in the writer; and spreading the several productions on the table abreast together, read them over in connexion, and institute a most searching examination into their structure and merits. Whenever, in the progress of this scrutiny, he came to a sentence that seemed irrelevant, he would say to the pupil, 'Why would not this sentence do just as well in this other thesis, as in the one where it now stands?' If a satisfactory answer could not be given, the inexorable doom was that the thesis must be burned, and a new one produced upon the same subject. "If this wholesome, though, it must be confessed, somewhat stern principle, were applied to the works of Mrs. Willard, we fear there is scarcely one of them that would escape the flames. This may be thought a harsh judgment, and wanting in the gallantry due by common consent of well bred gentlemen to the female sex. In reference to the first charge, if ti is preferred by any sensible persons, we have only to say, Read and judge for yourselves. In reference to the second, we admit that it would be valid in the majority of cases, but we deny that in the present instance it has any proper force; for Mrs. Willard has voluntarily surrendered all the immunities peculiar to her sex, by fairly doffing the simple and graceful attire of feminine modesty, and substituting in its place the flaunting robes of a more masculine self-complacency." Take that you uppity female ingrate! You forget your place!! You ... you ... you feminist! The writer of the review had never heard or imagined of the word feminist. It did not yet exist. Emma Willard's genius was as an administrator, as a social thinker, as an iconic beacon, and as a foundress. Under review here was not a mere text book (which things abounded, even then) but, among other issues economic and organizational, her written delineations of the right of women to be educated, to teach, to organize in order to educate themselves, and to have all the prerequisite bounties of a higher education. Emma Willard's name is now honored; the reviewer's name sunk into historical obscurity and irrelevancy. View BOOKS FOR SALE

Whipped for Euripides

The following is taken from an old book review from 1856: Euripides Translated. Harper & Brothers. "We believe in translations for the use of schoolboys. We advocate them. We know that we profited more at school by the surreptitious use of the "cribs" and "ponies", than we ever did by the wearisome drillings of teachers. Milton, and many another great scholar, spoke in favour of teaching youth by means of them. And finally, we think that any old fogy of a schoolmaster [harrumph!] who would whip a boy because he caught him with a 'tran', deserves to be well whipped himself. Therefore we commend Euripides Translated, in the edition before us, to all desirous of studying Greek - and, as the versions are of marked merit - to those who would obtain some idea of the stately poet in English." harrumph ... all this confounded talk of whipping gives me a headache and makes my toes twitch! I am sure any ponies used back then far outstripped todays cliffhanger reports in content and acumen of insight. View BOOKS FOR SALE

Illuminatore or Miniatores?

A London bookseller is said to be in possession of nearly two hundred original autograph letters and poems of Robert Burns, many of which have never been published, and are full of genius and eccentricity. The whole were evidently unknown to Dr, Currie, Mr. Cromek, Mr. Lockhart, or any of the biographers or editors of the works of Burns. A copy of Cicero, with large margins has been found in a library in Orleans, with more than 4,000 M. S. emendations by the celebrated Henry Stephens, and by another philologist whose hand-writing cannot be identified. OF NOTE (also from the year 1833 -- alas this old memory! excuse me but I have mislaid my source for this ... possibly Grahams): Miniatures -- The monks who practiced this style of art in illuminating missals and other manuscripts, were called illuminatores, and also miniatores, from the quantity of minium used by them - red being a predominant color in their compositions. Hence, according to some, the origin of the term miniature; but perhaps, ninety-nine persons in a hundred would be content with the more obvious derivation and meaning assigned to it by Shakespeare : "a minute picture; a portrait in little." [minium is a compound of either red lead, or cinnabar ... red mercuric sulphide -- vermilion - P. B.] Bombast -- Dr. Johnson and his learned editor have omitted one probable derivation of this word, which deserves a place after that which they have given. Baumbast is the German name for that rind or inner bark of trees used by ancient Romans as writing paper [among other things- P.B.], and by them called liber, - a term extended to the books originally written on this material; which , from its bulk and fragility, would, after the invention of paper, fall into contempt. Alas! the opprobrium which the term no conveys, might be extended to very many libraries of goodly folios et infra, of much later date than that of Don Quixote. View BOOKS FOR SALE

A Slice of the Book

A correspondent asked the following, concerning a previous essay of mine: "A comment about the woodcuts. What if... the fully intact book was worth $100... and if the book was taken apart... that each woodcut was worth $1000, mounted and framed . Would the perception of those woodcuts change?" This is a question directed at a previous piece I herewith attach a bit of that old review which contains the ancient pronouncement on some blotchy wood cuts included in an otherwise admirable book, contemporary with the review: "This is an excellent treatise, by an author we have been long familiar with. It embraces a great variety of topics calculated to interest those pursuing natural science. But we doubt whether it can be extremely 'popular', in its present dress; the wood cuts are anything but tolerable, and might have been better executed on a stump with a blacking brush. At page 45, erroneously referred to as on p. 46, there is a black spot, presumed to represent an animal, but we have been at some pains to find out which is the head and which is the tail. It looks like an old cannon bent with age! After the Boston editions we may, perhaps, be fastidious, but it must be admitted that the present publication is unworthy of the arts in America. There is not one wood cut in the book for which any man living, would give one hundredth fraction of a farthing. The time has gone by when such things could be overlooked." In polite answer, I say - that for the ancient reviewer quotedthusly - There was no collectible market for things like that then. The reviewer was commenting strictly on an aesthetic level ... condemning the publisher for offering illustrations not up to snuff and certainly, not in keeping with the quality of the writing. His critical umbrage seems to have arisen from an inner stronghold of justly firm aesthetic principles. From my own perspective, I say that what was a shapeless splotch in 1833 remains just exactly such a shapeless splotch in 2008 and any hapless collector who spends their good money on such surely deserves the raised eyebrows of his fellow collectors. Of course the modern collector is a different sort of chap, and often bereft of an aesthetically critical eye. Quite a few modern dealers, recognizing this, have taken to a practice more in keeping with an old Vincent Price / Peter Lorre vehicle than a polite antiquarian shop. The modern dealer is is often a dissector of what are perceived (by some) as dead bodies ... better to be interred with the worms and earthy humous ... until the dissector's magic hand produces ... voila! ... produces a slice of the body, which then suitably framed is transformed into exorbitantly priced objets d'art for the buyers of such corporeal plundering. Slicing up healthy books (butchering) for the plates within is frowned upon by all who maintain a polite decorum. However, it is allowed that some volumes have become so decrepit - so close to being as dust to dust ... or, as we have it to day .... pulp to pulp - and so dealers are allowed (and forgiven for such action) to take the dissectors scalpel and salvage what may be from the decaying corpus. I may have more to say about butchering (harrumph!) at some later date. View BOOKS FOR SALE

A Shred of Dignity - Two for for One & All in One

Professor Booknoodle is the online avatar of a bookseller who has a full and rewarding life of his own . The Professor's main purpose is to entertain and amuse. But don't tell him that, because he takes himself very seriously. Oh - maybe not all that seriously, for he certainly amuses himself well enough. I have actually heard a few low chuckles emanate out from under his whiskers. The Professor does enjoy sharing the odd snippet of information ... and bits and scraps from the past. He becomes totally embroiled in his essays. He doesn't understand why the world wouldn't also be embroiled. I once broached with him the possibility that he was an extension of me .... that we were two separate identities in one. I didn't quite say that he was a figment of my consciousness ... imaginary as it were. Not quite. He started, and looked quizzically at me with something almost like misty regret in his eyes. But only momentarily. He then bounded up with his usual energy, striding back and forth in front of the hearth, waving his arms about. "Two ids! Two ids!", he cried out, excitedly. Of course the professor looks at everything as a philosophical challenge. "Haw! One for two and two for One!" He quipped. He was immediately intrigued with the concept of two separate ids in one person, and wondered what old Sigmund would think and say about these two ids. I could tell that the Professor had already assumed the idea to be his own. "Two ids. Super!", the professor exclaimed, egotistically. Best we let the old codger maintain his identity, and at least a shred of dignity. View : BOOKS FOR SALE