Perusing the memoirs of 20th century book dealers and collectors can provide some useful perspective on what’s been collected over the years, as well as an idea of the (often jaw-droppingly low) prices people used to pay for things the average person could hardly dream of stumbling on today – inscribed copies of Dickens and Mark Twain, original hand-written manuscripts by James Joyce or Joseph Conrad, the works.
(You have to correct for inflation, of course. A dollar in the 1930s was made of silver, an ounce of which will cost you $40 today. And a single pre-1933 $20 gold piece can now set you back $1,400 in today’s Washington Monopoly money.)
The reason such literary artifacts are rarely encountered today is that the wealthy American collectors of the teens and ‘20s bought them up, often from England’s threadbare aristocracy, and then sold or donated them en bloc for the tax deduction to institutions – the rare book collections of university libraries, for the most part.
(Thanks, Mister Taxman!)
Are they safe, there? Or, by taking them out of circulation, leaving the volumes to gather dust till they’re forgotten, do these fancy mausoleums unwittingly contribute to rendering such treasures essentially worthless? For demand inevitably withers for what no one can acquire, and rarity creates no value without demand.
(You couldn’t get much rarer than your old Brownie or Cub Scout uniform – it’s-one-of-a-kind. So what do you think it would bring at Sotheby’s?)
At any rate, the best of these books would have to include David Randall’s “Dukedom Large Enough,” followed probably by John Winterich’s “23 Books & the Stories Behind Them.”
But then there’s “Modern Book Collecting for the Impecunious Amateur,” 1936, by longtime Dartmouth Professor Herbert Faulkner West.
Let me admit that if I were to attempt a book in 2014, advising book collectors what titles published since 1944 they might collect today in hopes they’ll remain valued and maybe even soar in price by 2084, I’m sure I’d get stuff wrong. Approaching the question with the sensibility of someone whose values were largely formed in the 1950s and ‘60s, I’m sure I’d name books that are significant to me (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”?) that will draw nothing but yawns in 50 or 70 years, while missing entirely some trend only now developing out there in post-literate hip-hop land.
(I’d still feel fairly safe with “Dune” and “Lord of the Rings,” leaving aside the nagging worry that, like the Eloi, our descendants by then will ask “Books? What are books?”)
But you’d have to go a ways to match the quirky befuddlement of the 1936 recommendations of Herbert Faulkner West.
Yes, Perfesser West does advise to collect what you like, rather than accumulating merely as an investment, like railroad bonds. As with most good advice, that’s an example more frequently given than taken. And admittedly the absence here of Fenimore Cooper, Emerson, Melville, Poe, Thoreau, and Whitman are not because the good perfesser didn’t realize they were collectible, but rather because, already in the 1930s, he notes these great books were “beyond the means of collectors I have in mind.” (Though he admits it’s no crime to “live in a fool’s paradise” and hope a copy of “Leaves of Grass” will someday turn up in the attic.)
But there’s something else seriously wrong, here.
Yes, Professor West had heard of William Faulkner. But by 1930 “Mr. Faulkner was writing too rapidly for his own good. . . . My enthusiasm for Faulkner waned some time ago,” the good professor advises.
Ernest Hemingway? His “sharp staccato dialogues” made him a good crafter of short stories, “but already he is writing trash.”
In 1936, mind you. So just skip hanging around the bookstore waiting for those first printings of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to show up – no future in it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald? Franz Kafka? D.H. Lawrence? Henry Miller? Jules Verne? Oscar Wilde? Dashiell Hammett? Erskine Childers? Edgar Rice Burroughs? Mr. West either never heard of them, or considered their work not worth a single mention among collectible first printings then available for a few dimes.
The “sensible collector” will not be fooled by “the eccentricities” of E.E. Cummings, “nor will he swallow the imbecilities of the left-bank or ‘transition’ school of writers,” clucks the self-assured Professor West.
Not like, say, the kind of hot stuff pouring from the pens of Sherwood Anderson, C.M. Doughty, Rowland Evans Robinson, and H.M. Tomlinson. Mr. West virtually drools over them.
And who else does he spend page after page praising to high heaven, urging his readers to stockpile at all costs? The works of a now scarcely remembered minor British socialist politician named Robert Cunninghame Graham and his buddies, W.H. Hudson, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Edward Garnett, and Richard Curle.
OK, Hudson wrote “Green Mansions” (though Mr. West of course thought his other stuff, now widely forgotten, was better), and a few of Curle’s mysteries are still worth the price of a night at a decent hotel, if you can find them in dust jackets. Mr. West also generously acknowledges the collectability of the works of another of Graham’s friends, Joseph Conrad.
Mr. West then proceeds to declare Theodore Dreiser’s ”An American Tragedy” the “most significant American novel of the twentieth century.”
Yes, all these writers had some skill, and of course Herbert Faulkner West had every right to read and collect — and tout — whatever authors he enjoyed. But his list of now largely unread prose clearly reveals a man whose sensibilities were formed on a steady diet of the literary product of the late Victorian age, when all America was reading “Peck’s Bad Boy” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (two he specifically advises acquiring) and who was not going to be convinced that just because a few wanton women started bobbing their hair and dancing the Charleston — sometimes even to decadent music performed by Negroes — this meant the world and its literature were in the process of changing almost beyond recognition.
It’s also possible that — even as early as 1936 — we have here an example of a tendency now familiar in academia. Hundreds of young scholars having already sung the praises of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it’s now necessary to stake out new ground, to praise someone or something no one else has yet chewed to a medium-gray pulp. Fine. But instead of discovering Langston Hughes or James Joyce, we’re advised here to grab George Baker’s “Ebeneezer Walks with God”; John Burroughs’ 1896 biography of Walt Whitman; Roy Campbell’s “The Flaming Terrapin”; G. Lowes Dickinson’s “Letters from a Chinese Official”; Stephen Graham’s “The Death of Yesterday” . . .
I grow weary. Are there some lost treasures to be re-discovered here? Possibly. But what we look for, 80 years down the trail, are what we can now recognize as the harbingers of new literary forms and voices, new ground being broken, new generations of zoot-suiters and jazzmen, loud and boisterous, shocking us with the uncensored language of the streets, escaping the sonorous buzzing of the sleepy old men in their easy chairs.
And the safe and cloistered faculty lounges of Dartmouth College.