Tag Archives: rare books

Select Acquisitions: In Manuscript

Manuscript. “A work written by hand” informs Glaister, synonymous with “holograph.” Or, as is often abbreviated, Ms.

A two-letter abbreviation that can cause the collector’s heart to flutter; the curator’s eye to gleam; the author to despair of ever finishing.

Why this reaction? Is it the unique aspect inherent to the term? A printed book, by its very nature and concept, can be expected to be encountered in multiple copies; not so the manuscript that gave rise to the book. It is, more often than not, expected to be found in no more than one copy, with additional the variant, not the norm.

With this in mind then, Tavistock Books presents our list for March, In Manuscript. It consists of thirty items all created “by hand”: letters, book manuscripts, ledgers, journals, diaries, sketch books,a nd even a few pencil sketches [to round out the numbers].

Temporally, the items range from the 17th century to the 20th. As is our custom and wont, subjects represented are diverse, from rent records, to transatlantic travel, to baseball. Prices range from $125 to $20,000.

We invite you to peruse the list! Should you have any inquiries, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We thank you for your attention, and we hope that you find something of interest while browsing these offerings.

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Featured Items in Manuscript

Rhode Island Light Infantry Company Records, 1818-1873

The Rhode Island First Light Infantry Company was formed in 1818 as a state militia company based in Providence, Rhode Island, and was affiliated with the Second Regiment of the Rhode Island militia. It became the First Light Infantry Regiment in 1863. This regiment saw no active duty, with its activities more iRhode_Island_Light_Infantryn consonance with a social club vice a well-trained military unit. However, per the RIHS notes on this organization, the 1st Light Infantry Company did play an important role in providing trained soldiers when circumstances required. The Company helped suppress the Olney’s Lane race riots in 1831, primarily by arresting white rioters.

The Company was also involved in suppressing the Dorr Rebellion, a fomentation and later a short-lived, armed insurrection led by Thomas Wilson Dorr agitating for changes to Rhode Island’s electoral system. In the case of this particular Rebellion, there were militia members on both sides of the fight! Pages 61 through 66 of Volume 2 discuss the events of May 19th, 1842. Many of the Company members also served in the American Civil War in Companies C and D of the First Regiment, Rhode Island Detached Militia.

The activities recorded herein, written in pen and by necessity by many different individuals given the span of time involved, are detailed and informative accounts of the daily, weekly, and monthly meetings of the Company, most often held at the Armory in Providence. Together, these four volumes are the primary source for the history of the First Light Infantry Company, and are invaluable for understanding the inner workings of the Company and their [occasionally] significant role in Rhode Island history. Details>>

Journal Across the Atlantic

“On Board the Eagle from London to / Philadelphia. / John Ker Captain – Born in Ireland.” So begins this interesting diary recorded by an unidentified male passenger making a transatlantic voyage on this ship. The first written page of the journal records the significant personages of the crew, including their nationality, from Captain Ker to “Sam A Sailor Born in America” and “George. The Cook A Black from Bengall”. Passenger names are noted: four in the passenger cabin, with five more in steerage.

The diary records shipboard life, almost daily, for the next two months, beginning with leaving London for Gravesend, and like many passengers, “On Entering the downs I began to be Sick in the afternoon… … Journal_Across_AtlanticFraser sitting upon the Binacle going down to the Steerage over the Sailors asleep Read with an audible voice a Chapter or two out of the word of God as so unusual affair disturbed the men below who arose in a passion and an uproar ensued whitch Occationed the Interference of the Captain — and where is the wonder! … Saw a Grampus (?) Whale along side of us very near this day and he made his appearances several times as he passed from us. June 20 – 1785. Monday. Saw a sail at a distance. … Tuesday 21 … saw a sail ahead of us.”The ship was Spanish, and the diarist continues with a description of an at-sea meeting between the two vessels.

The diarist continues in such a vein, recording passenger activity – “Fraser and Mark Denison play at Cards until Dark” – and observing crew interaction – “The mate then thought his dignity insulted…” In late July, another vessel rendezvous is recorded .. “They offered us some oranges and fruit…” By this time, the tone of the journal has tended towards patience, with food [“potatoes gone”] and water [“… drink dirty Water”] becoming an issue…. “But I keep as much an Equanimity as possible and more I Flatter myself than any on Board.”

The last entry of the journal is “Saturday morn July 30th”. “A many moths or Small Butterflies came on board – a dispute whether they Bred on board – Cox [steerage passenger] maintains the affirmative but they were never seen coming with the wind it was thought very improbably and tho he supported his theory [?] only it is Carried against him – …” So ends this record of a transatlantic voyage… an illuminating peek into a passenger’s shipboard life while en route the New World. Original mss journals such as this are rare in commerce. Details>>

Autograph Letter Signed with Steel Plate Engraving of Charles Dickens and Photograph of Gadshill

This delightful Dickensiana is matted and framed in a simple black, wooden frame. The label on the frame’s reverse appears to be pre-World War II. Charles Dickens, writing to an unknown correspondent, tells of of his son Charley’s stay and schooling in Germany, with one Professor Muller who supervised “the classical part of his studies.” Dickens continues, “I was in all respects well satisfied,” though Charley “considered him ‘a Dragon in respect of his ardour for work.'” This letter is partially published by Storey & Tillotson in Volume 8 [p. 206] of the Pilgrim Letters, with their abbreviated text coming from a 1901 Walter M Hill catalogue. The actual letter, here offered, has a concluding five-line paragraph not previously recorded. Details>>


Amergin the White Stag

Sven Berlin was a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a dancer and a writer. His 1962 roman-a-clef novel The Dark Monarch was written with the prime motive of venting his anger over the hypocrisies of an over-close and competitive art St. Ives art colony. It was not well received by his fellow art colony members, who all too Amergin_White_Stageasily recognized themselves within the pages. The book was withdrawn after four successful libel actions.

Contrary to what some writers report, Berlin did not abandon the genre of fiction following the unpleasantness that The Dark Monarch brought. In 1964 he published his novel Jonah’s Dream: A Meditation on Fishing, a volume full of Berlin’s accomplished and sensitive vignettes of fish and fishermen, and in 1971, his knowledge of the gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengo: Man of the Road. It would be a full seven years before Amergin appeared. The story is a mystical fable of encounters between a man, a woman, and a stag in “The Great Forest in the South.”

Many of Berlin’s publications drew upon personal experience. Berlin was part of the D-Day invasions of World War II, having rejected his former stance of conscientious objector, but the experience led to a breakdown and he returned to Cornwall to find restitution through his art. From that time on, the redemptive, restorative and spiritual power of art and nature would remain his guiding principle. The same theme runs through his works, including the two volumes of his ‘autosvenography’: The Coat of Many Colours and Virgo in Exile, that being a belief in the abstract and mystical forces that guide both nature and humankind. His writing is rich in imagery and metaphor, exhibiting an often dream-like quality. This manuscript is no exception. Details>>

Somerset Mss Rent Book, 1690-1755

Apparently this volume was originally intended and begun as a medical text, to be comprised of thirteen volumes, or chapters. Pages [i-iv] contain the index for the medical entries, in Latin. The pages, corresponding to the entry in the index, are captioned with the appropriate heading. Turning the volume over and beginning with the final unnumbered page and working back to page 457, the text is comprised of accounting entries of amounts paid for things such as bread for orphans, for scavenger, stocker, water, and the parson. There are entries for the window tax, poor tax, the king’s tax for the land lord, lamps, etc.


 The year is divided into four quarters: Lady Day Quarter, Midsomer (midsummer) Quarter, Michaelmass Quarter, and Xmass Quarter. The entries in these ten pages are the earliest, dating from 1690 to 1708, and provide a fascinating glimpse into the economy and financial obligations of the citizenry of this time.The volume is then turned over again and the entries pick up at page [v] continuing to page 115 with entries for rents and mortgages collected in the parish of Norton Fitzwarren, Taunton district, Somerset, England.

While many entries are written in the first person — “Then I rec’d the first rent myself” — the identity of the individual or individuals making the entries is not recorded. The financial entries for 1720 on appear to be by a different individual than those of 1690 through 1709.The text as a whole provides a fascinating glimpse into the economy and financial obligations of the citizenry of Norton Fitzwarren, providing important and valuable information as to the cost of living at the end of the seventeenth century to the mid-point of the eighteenth century in one English parish. Many of the same names appear for the 65 recorded years of rents and mortgages, and by consulting parish records one can see the relationships between the citizens through marriages; the life cycle of the parish through births and deaths. Details>>

Robert H Barton Family Correspondence Collection, 1849-1871

Robert Barton, of Providence, Rhode Island, left his wife Julia Anna Bennett Barton and four children –William, Emily, Harriet, and Julia–in the winter of 1849, headed for the California gold fields. The collection begins with Robert’s departure in 1849, and continues through 1871. Of the 72 letters, six are from Robert –one to his wife, and five to his son. The remainder are to Robert, from divers family members, and even his pastor, all with the common theme of “come home.”

From this correspondence, and the fact Robert Barton is not buried with the rest of his family in the North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island, it is questioned whether the man ever did leave California and return to Providence 9even though the RI census notes his presence). Robert writes to his wife of his good intentions for heading to California, and consistently states “if he is permitted to return home “; however, it is fairly clear that he never intended to do so. In one letter to his son, he says that William should look to a gentleman there in Providence for advice and guidance, discourages him from coming to California, etc.



And while Robert’s letters contain a smattering of comments on his efforts to find gold, and the account statement from Gregory & Waite Groceries & Provisions gives a glimpse into the daily fare of a ’49er, this collection’s value lies elsewhere than California. The collection does extensively chronicle the history of one Providence, Rhode Island family, their struggles and successes. Herein then lies the richness of the archive, which documents the life of this Providence family, after the “man of the house” succumbs to gold fever. Details>>

The Album of Sarah Knight

To S. K. —“Deign to accept the boon tis all I ask/And if thou think’st I fall too far behind/Let abler pens hereafter meet the task/And yield thee something suited to thy mind.” From our study of this splendid little volume, it would appear to have been used similar to an autograph album wherein friends would pen a Album_Sarah_Knightpoem, or a snippet from such for the owner. Some of the poems may have been copied by the owner into the album. Several of the entries have been illustrated in watercolor or thinned black ink, by an accomplished hand. The writing is in almost all cases very legible, and penned by those who had obviously received high marks for penmanship.

From the entries we have gleaned that this volume was owned by at least three individuals: Sarah Knight, T. M. Knight, and M.S. Conard, with the latest entry (1860) being penned by Conard. In conducting research, we can find several women named Sarah Knight who lived in Philadelphia and New York. We can also find a G. Coggshall (the presenter of the album), a Sophia Mix, and an Arabella Clark–all names given in the volume–living in either Philadelphia or New York at the same time, but without more to go on, we cannot pinpoint with any certainty the exact identity of these individuals. There was a Sarah Knight, of Philadelphia, who was born around 1804, which would have made her around 21 when this volume was given to her, which would seem fitting. The poems herein are typical for the 1820’s, and the illustrations are exquisite. It’s quite a lovely little example of early 19th Century autograph/ friendship books. Details>>


Related Reading:
A Look Back at Long-Lost Manuscripts
Preserving Antiquarian Photographs and Photo Albums
Collecting Antiquarian Diaries, Journals, and Correspondence

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A Collection of Confederate Literature

On March 11, 1861, delegates from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas gathered in Montgomery, Alabama. Their purpose: to ratify the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The document was–not unsurprisingly–similar to the US Constitution, even using some of the same language.

But the Confederate Constitution gave the states much more autonomy and power than the central government. For example, while a presidential item veto existed, states had to consent to the use of any funds or resources by the federal government. The Confederate Constitution also set six-year terms for the president and the vice presidents, and precluded the president from serving two consecutive terms. And slavery was “recognized and protected” in all slave states and territories, while foreign slave trade remained illegal.

Both France and Great Britain considered entering the fray on the side of the Confederates. But they never acknowledged the Confederate States of America as its own independent, autonomous entity, and the Confederate States crumbled in April 1865.

A Selection of Confederate Literature

For collectors of Americana, the Civil War is a perennially popular area of focus. Within that specialization, the depth and breadth of material available makes it possible to further specialize in a sub-section of Civil War literature. The works and records of the Confederacy offer a fascinating, enlightening, and sobering look into one of the bloodiest periods in American history. Even this sub-specialty has incredible scope, stretching to include works written both before and long after the war itself.

The Italian Bride

Levy-Italian_brideSamuel Yates Levy wrote this play in honor of Eliza Logan and had it printed for private distribution in 1856. Logan was a popular actress in the mid-nineteenth century, and her father, Cornelius Logan, acted as her manager until his death in 1853. Though Logan was born in Philadelphia, she made her name in the antebellum South, with many lucrative engagements in cities like Savannah. Meanwhile, Levy would go on to become a Confederate officer during the Civil War, slightly unusual because he was Jewish. Research indicates that this volume’s recipient was a fellow officer from Georgia. Details>> 

Great Expectations

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_EditionDickens’ first visit to America ended less than well. The legendary author returned to Britain and published two American Notes, which criticized the United States, most notably for permitting the institution of slavery. (He further alienated American readers with Martin Chuzzlewit.) Dickens’ strong opposition to slavery and his keen sensitivity to social injustice made him an unlikely ally of the Confederacy. But after a close reading of James Spence, who was not only a writer for the London Times, but also a pro-South merchant, Dickens revised his opinion. In All the Year Round, he spoke out in defense of the South on the subject of the Morrill Tariff, noting that the ariff had “severed the last threads that bound the North and South together.” This first Confederate edition of Great Expectations is exceedingly rare in the trade, with no copies having come to auction in the past thirty years. Details>>

Carrie Bell

Carrie_BellCaptain MC Capers wrote the lyrics to the Confederate tune “Carrie Bell,” while T. Von La Hache composed the musical accompaniment. Capers was formerly of the “Macon Volunteers” and had also participated in the Indian Wars in Florida (1836). During the Civil War, Capers was in command of Company G, 1st LA Heavy Artillery Regiment of the CSA. In July 1863, he was promoted to major, seeing service at Vicksburg and elsewhere in the South. Details>>

A Legal View of the Seizure of Messrs Mason and Slidell

Legal_View_Seizure_Mason_SlidellThough this pamphlet was published under the pseudonym “Pro Lege,” it’s thought to be the work of Virginia statesman Francis Rives. He delves into the issues regarding seizure at sea during the US Civil War. The matter came the the forefront when Captain Wilkes, acting on his own cognizance, boarded the British vessel Trent and took two individuals, Mason and Slidell, captive. The two were acting as Confederate diplomats. Wilkes’ bold move was locally applauded, but the British were indignant and on the verge of entering the war against the Union forces. Seward released the two gentlemen and told the British that Wilkes had erred and acted without proper authority. Published in 1861, this pamphlet looks at the diverse international maritime legal issues and the ramifications of Wilkes’ act. Details>>

General Orders No 30

General_Orders_No_30Containing “An Act to Organize Bands of Partizan (sic) Raiders” and “An Act to Further Provide for the Public Defence,” this document was published in April 1862 by the Confederate War Department. It authorized the president “to call out and place in the military serve of the Confederate States, for three years, unless the war shall have been sooner ended, all white men who are residents of the Confederate State, between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.” Details>>

Life of General Stand Watie

Life_General_Stand_WatieThe only Indian brigadier in the Confederate Army and the last Confederate general to surrender, Stand Watie was no stranger to conflict. Long before the war, Watie and his brother, Elias Boudinot, had published the Cherokee Phoenix. Watie also acted as a signatory to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which called for the removal of the Cherokee people from Georgia to “Indian Territory” (which eventually became Oklahoma). During the Civil War, Watie consistently distinguished himself in battle, refusing to surrender until June 23, 1865. His grandniece wrote the biography Life of General Stand Watie. The first edition is rare in the trade; only one other copy has come to market in the last fifteen years. Details>>

The Princess of the Moon: A Confederate Fairy Story

Princess_Moon“‘I am the Fairy of the Moon,’ said she, ‘and having witnessed your grief I desire to serve you. What would you have?'”

The Princess of the Moon is a relatively scarce juvenile with strong fantasy elements. The bias of the author, Cora Semmes Ives, is obvious, and she clearly wanted the Civil War to end differently. Published in 1869, this volume illustrates that Confederate sympathies certainly didn’t dissolve with the Confederacy. OCLC records three institutional holdings, though we found a few additional ones. Details>>

John Brown and Wm. Mahone

John_Brown_William_MahoneWritten by George W Bagby in 1880, this pamphlet’s half-title is “An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble.” The political tract, anti-Grant and anti-Malone, was issued during Malone’s 1880 run for US Senator for Virginia. Bagby proposes an odd connection among Grant, Mahone, and Confederate guerilla John S Mosby. He also predicts a civil war worse than that of the early 1860’s. “Miserable South!…despised by all the world, and for no crime but that you Christianized a race of savages thrust upon you by mercantile greed–how sad is your fate!” Details>>

The James Boys in Arkansas; or, After Confederate Gold

James_Boys_JayHawkers_Confederate_GoldThe concept of Confederate plunder was a popular one that survived the end of the Civil War. It inspired this 1895 dime novel, which plays on the notion that Confederate rebels had hoarded ill-gotten wealth. According to Bragin’s Dime Novels Bibliography, author Frank Tousey “practically revolutionized the dime novel field…[and here in the Detective Library was] the finest James Boys stories. The second title proves but a teaser, comprising only three pages of text and informing readers that the entire tale can be found in Issue No. 671. This is considered a scarce title of outlaw fiction; OCLC records only one institutional holding. Details>>


The Ins and Outs of Collecting Serial Fiction for Children

By the 1890’s, dime novels were all the rage. They sold millions of copies each year. Teens and young adults were hardly immune to the allure of the often sensational stories. An ambitious author, Edward Stratemeyer saw an opportunity in publishing inexpensive novels especially for children and young adults. Stratemeyer had been around the publishing industry for years as both an author and an editor. He’d printed his first story at only fourteen years old, and was devoted to the industry from that moment on.

Judy_Bolton_Ghost_ParadeIn 1898, Stratemeyer got his big break: famous author Horatio Alger, Jr was ailing. Alger had already penned more than one hundred novels for boys, but he had a number of unfinished manuscripts. He invited Stratemeyer to complete one of the novels. Stratemeyer went a step further, negotiating for the copyright to four unpublished manuscripts, which he published under Alger’s name.

Stratemeyer published The Rover Boys at School in 1899 under the pseudonym Arthur Winfield. The book was so successful, it became the first of a thirty-book series that sold millions of copies. Stratemeyer founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate expressly to produce new series like The Rover Boys. He would pay writers fixed fees to write books based on his outlines. By the end of the twentieth century, Stratemeyer’s books had sold billions of copies and spawned multiple imitators.

Keene_Nancy_Drew_Tapping_HeelsThe Bobbsey Twins debuted in 1904. Written under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope, the series was a runaway hit. Stratemeyer followed up with Tom Swift (1910), written under the pen name Victor Appleton. By the time The Hardy Boys series began in 1926 (written under the name Franklin Dixon), about 98% of children named a Stratemeyer Syndicate series book as their favorite. Stratemeyer had truly established a publishing empire. Nancy Drew debuted four years later–and originally outsold The Hardy Boys.

Many of Stratemeyer’s series remain popular among children even today. They’re also favorites among collectors of children’s books because they evoke such nostalgia. Because the books were so popular, they were frequently reissued, but without changes to the copyright or edition information. Some were even updated to keep up with technological advances–again, often without any updated edition information. It’s difficult, then, to identify true first editions. While there are detailed bibliographies for Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Judy Bolton, little information is available on most other series. Collectors should only purchase books from these kinds of series if the seller cites the appropriate bibliography in the description.

Appleton_Tom_Swift_Sky_TrainIf you’re interested in collecting a particular series, don’t let the lack of bibliographic information dissuade you! Enthusiasts find collecting serial fiction particularly satisfying because the ideal contents of the collection are already well defined; the pursuit especially appeals to completists, who are often interested in building a collection whose value as a whole is more than merely the sum of its parts. A common approach is to assemble an entire set without regard to edition. Then you can work toward replacing less desirable editions as you become more confident and knowledgeable.


The Rare Books of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is upon us. If this day of hearts, candy, and warm fuzzies isn’t exactly your cup of tea, you’re not alone! Here’s a look at our three best less-than-romantic rare books for the holiday.

Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance

Twain_Autobiography_First_RomanceThe title of this work is quite misleading; the events have no relevance to Twain’s life. The book, published by Sheldon & Co in 1871, contains two separate stories: “A Burlesque Autobiography,” which first appeared in Twain’s Memoranda contributions to The Galaxy; and “First Romance,” which was originally published in The Express in 1870. They were not Twain’s favorites; indeed, two years after the book was published, he bought the printing plates and destroyed them.

The short stories do feature characters who are supposedly related to Twain. Twain ends the story abruptly, saying only “The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particularly close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again—and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business, and leave that person to get out the best way that offers—or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.”

Just as the story has no real connection to Twain’s life, the illustrations also have no connection to the text. They use illustrations of the children’s poem The House that Jack Built to criticize the Erie Railroad Ring and its participants.

Revi-Lona: A Romance of Love in a Marvelous Land

Cowan_Revi_LonaWhere romance and science fiction intersect, you’ll find Revi-Lona: A Romance of Love in a Marvelous Land by Frank Cowan. The novel is set in Antarctica and includes all the expected elements, such as prehistoric creatures and super science. Though Bleiler dates the novel’s publication to 1879, other sources simply place the novel “circa 1880’s.”

Though Cowan published a number of works, he’s probably better known for being Andrew Jackson’s personal secretary for managing land patents. Cowan was appointed to the position in 1867 and remained in the post until Jackson was succeeded by Ulysses S Grant. That same year, Cowan perpetrated a major literary hoax with his friend Thomas Birch Florence, who owned a failing Georgetown newspaper.

In an effort to bolster sales, Cowan and Florence came up with a fantastic story; they reported that the body of an Icelandic Christian woman who’d supposedly died in 1051 had been found under the Great Falls of the Potomac River. The body proved that other settlers had reached America a full five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Though the story did bolster sales, Cowan and Florence were eventually found out.

Fact and Fiction! Disappointed Love! A Story

Disappointed_Love_Cochran_CottonThe drop title of this work is “Drawn from the lives of Miss Clara C Cochran and Miss Catherine B Cotton, Who Committed Suicide, By Drowning, in the Canal at Manchester, N. H., August 14, 1853.” The two young women worked and roomed together at the Manchester Corporation and had “frequently expressed a purpose to drown themselves.” But their housemates thought little of it and paid the girls no heed.

Then on August 14, 1853, Cochran and Cotton “proceeded hand-in-hand, with great apparent cheerfulness, to the bridge crossing the upper canal…and together leapt into the water.” A few people witnessed the event. The women had obviously premeditated their demise, as both left letters to loved ones and put their affairs in order. Cochran, only nineteen years old at the time of her suicide, stood to inherit a large sum on her 21st birthday, which made her motives even more inscrutable to her contemporaries.

What are your favorite obscure or eccentric tales of love? And what rare book would you most like to receive for Valentine’s Day yourself?

Related Posts:
A Look Back at Long-Lost Manuscripts
Courtship, Romance, and Love…Antiquarian Style

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Looking Back at 2013, and Looking Forward to 2014!


This year has been a terrific one here at Tavistock Books, and we have you to thank for that! We appreciate your being a part of our community, and we look forward to building that community with you in the coming year. To that end, here’s a look back at the ten most popular blog articles of 2013. It came as no surprise that Charles Dickens was a favorite, as were William Shakespeare and articles about collecting rare books:

  1. Why Did Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
  2. Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!
  3. The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
  4. Meet Dr. Erin Blake, Curator of Art and Special Collections at the Folger Library!
  5. Alexander Pope’s Legacy of Satire and Scholarship
  6. Edgar Allan Poe: Creator of Enduring Terror and Literary Masterpieces
  7. A Brief History of True Crime Literature
  8. A Brief History of Broadsides
  9. Charles Dickens Does Boston
  10. The Benefits of Bibliography

Other favorites were recaps of events in the antiquarian world, such as intrepid assistant and Tavistock Books’ scholarship recipient Travis Low’s recap of Rare Book School. We’ll be sure to keep the updates coming, starting with with the two California book fairs: San Francisco (February 1-2) and Pasadena (February 7-9). Watch our website and blog for more information.

What’s Ahead for 2014

Many of you have graciously and thoughtfully offered blog article suggestions and other feedback. Therefore you’ll soon be seeing articles about a wide variety of bookish topics, from early American bindings to the history of nursing, from tips on collecting sheet music to a look back at Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Have an idea for a blog post or a question about rare books? We can’t wait to hear it! You’re invited to share it in the “Comments” section of any blog or to contact us via phone or email. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter.


Samuel Johnson: Both Author and Subject of Innovative Biography

Life of Johnson-James Boswell

September 18 marks the birthday of Samuel Johnson, legendary author, essayist, and lexicographer. Johnson is perhaps best known as the subject of James Boswell’s seminal Life of Johnson, the biography that ushered in a new era for the genre. But before Johnson merited his own biography (indeed, multiple biographies), he got his start by writing a biography himself. Johnson began a strange and relatively short-lived friendship with minor poet Richard Savage, and gained attention by writing Savage’s biography.

An Unlikely Friendship

Grub Street Journal

From The Grub Street Journal (Oct 30, 1732), this cartoon depicts the “literatory,” a sort of publishing factory driven by beasts without artistic inspiration. Such was the perception of Grub Street writers like Johnson and Savage, who did indeed scrape together a living from commissioned writing.  

Samuel Johnson came to London in 1737, when he was 28 years old. By 1739, he was already separated from his wife (already in her late forties) and scraping by as an impoverished writer in Grub Street. It was during this period of poverty that Johnson befriended Richard Savage. Savage was at least twelve years older than Johnson, and he, too was struggling to make a living with his pen. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield and the Earl Rivers. Thanks to a sensational public divorce, Savage’s repeated insistence on his ancestry, and the fact that he did in fact receive financial support from the countess, his assertions are rather well corroborated.

Savage found even further notoriety when he killed a man and was sentenced to death. He says that his own mother encouraged a speedy dispatch of her illegitimate son, but Queen Caroline interceded on his behalf. Savage was released, and soon stories of his origins and exploits had taken on a life of their own. Savage’s most famous poem was, appropriately enough, The Bastard.

Richard Savage-Old Bailey

Etching of proceedings inside the Old Bailey (c 1725)

It’s not clear how or when Johnson and Savage first met. There’s no actual documentation of their meeting in the form of letters, journal entries, or eyewitness accounts. But in Johnson’s later years, the myth developed that Johnson and Savage encountered each other on the street at night. Neither could afford food or lodging, so they passed the nights by wandering through London. Their friendship, however, lasted less than two years. And while Johnson writes of Savage’s nightly walks, he never mentions himself as a companion–he never alludes to the pair’s first meeting at all.

The friendship is unlikely in every sense. Johnson was a devout Christian, hardly a likely companion to a murderer and profligate. It was likely a friendship of proximity, promulgated by shared circumstances. But Life of Savage propelled Johnson to fame, and he remained successful thanks to subsequent works like his momentous Dictionary of the English Language (1755), The History of Rasselas (1759), and The Rambler (1750-1752). Savage, on the other hand, continued to languish as a minor poet. He relentlessly and shamelessly sought the patronage of Robert Walpole and an appointment to the position of poet laureate, but to no avail.

An Empathetic Biographer

Johnson starts his biography with a sort of meditation on Savage’s nightly perambulations around London. He places these excursions in the context of Savage’s poem “Of Public Spirit,” which considers the state’s responsibility to care for the poor and indigent and questions the Whig policy of expatriating the underprivileged to North America and Africa. Savage goes so far as to attack colonialism, countering the popular rationalization that “while they enslave, they civilize.” It’s quite fitting that “Of Public Spirit” sold only 72 copies, underlining Savage’s status as a nonentity. Savage himself was disenfranchised, and Johnson saw him as a spokesman for the downtrodden. Johnson’s latent empathy for Savage betrays his own familiarity with such destitution.

Yet while Johnson writes of Savage’s nightly walks, he never mentions himself as a companion–he never alludes to the pair’s first meeting at all. By the time he set about writing Savage’s biography, he had already realized the need to distance himself from Savage. Johnson wrote, “it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself discharged, by the first Quarrel, from all Ties of Honour or Gratitude.”

Richard Savage-Samuel Johnson

Thus, while Johnson saw Savage as a Romantic figure, a starving-poet archetype, he never got taken by him. A great appeal of Life of Savage was that tension between Johnson as biographer and Johnson as friend; he constantly walked a line between judgement and empathy. This approach was certainly uncommon; biographies tended to aggrandize their subjects, glossing over shortcomings. Johnson also departed from the classic form of biography, drawing influences instead from distinctively English sources: elements of Newgate confessions, scandal romances, and courtroom dramas all crop up in Life of Savage. Johnson’s innovation resulted in a biography that was as readable as a novel.

A Role Reversal

Fast forward almost twenty years, to May 16, 1763. Johnson was 53 years old. He entered Tom Davies’ bookshop and encountered the 22-year-old James Boswell. The Scottish Boswell had entreated Davies to keep his heritage a secret; he knew that Johnson disliked Scots. But Davies laughed off the request and made a very casual introduction. The meeting affected Boswell deeply, just as Johnson’s first interaction with Savage had likely affected Johnson profoundly. Boswell wrote of the experience later, noting that Johnson was “a Man of most dreadful appearance. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge, and strength of expression command vast respect and render him excellent company.”

Boswell resolved to record further details of his interactions with Johnson, an endeavor that would later result in eighteen volumes of documentation over their long friendship. It’s important to note that Boswell only spent approximately 250 days with Johnson, which illustrates how truly fastidious he was in recording the details of Johnson’s life. When Boswell undertook Johnson’s biography, he overcame the challenge of having met Johnson later in life by conducting extensive research. Despite apparently possessing all the “truth” of Johnson’s life, Boswell still took liberties with Johnson’s life. He censured some of Johnson’s less politically correct comments and omitted some events altogether.

Samuel Johnson-James Boswell-Oliver Goldsmith

In “The Mitre Tavern” (1880), Samuel Johnson (far right) converses with James Boswell (center) and author Goldsmith.

Yet Boswell wasn’t the first to attempt a biography of Samuel Johnson. Other much more illustrious authors, namely Horace Walpole, Elizabeth Montagu, and Frances Burney, were all working on biographies. And Sir Richard Hawkins had already beaten Boswell to the punch. The two, it turns out, didn’t agree on much–except that Johnson’s relationship with Savage was completely inexplicable. Though they presented disparate accounts of Johnson’s first meeting with Savage (and Johnson himself did nothing to elucidate the matter), their estimation of Savage is perhaps best distilled by Boswell: he called Savage “a man of whom it is difficult to speak impartially, without wondering that he was for some time the intimate companion of Johnson; for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence, and ingratitude.”

When Boswell finally published Life of Johnson in 1791, the work was truly exhaustive. Boswell set a new standard for biography, insisting upon the importance of details, of acknowledging that the minutiae are ultimately part of the big picture of someone’s character and personhood. His work now stands as the greatest biography in the English language, perhaps, as some think, eclipsing even the work of Johnson himself.