Novels, Poetry and More from The Brick Row Book Shop
Brick Row's latest catalogue with Updike's Thurber Dog on cover.
By Michael Stillman
This month we review our first catalogue from The Brick Row Book Shop. Brick Row may be new to us, but not to bookselling. The firm was founded by former Yale students in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1915, and over the years, in keeping with the advice of Horace Greeley, has followed a slow progression west. With stops at Princeton, New Jersey, New York, and Austin, Texas, it migrated all the way to its present location in San Francisco. For the past 35 years, California has been its home. It is currently operated by its third owner, John Crichton, who purchased the firm in 1983.
This latest catalogue is headed Miscellany No. 47: Recent Acquisitions. This is a generalist catalogue. However, there are notable concentrations of 19th century and earlier novels and poetry. Most are not among the best known novels and poems. They were either obscure in their time, or were once popular but now not often remembered. Some of the earlier novels are particularly interesting since at the turn of the 19th century, novels were generally looked down upon. They were thought to corrupt the mind with diversionary if not downright salacious trash. Books were supposed to offer truth and learning. It would take many years for the novel to achieve a measure of respectability. Nevertheless, this type of book, like everything that touches on the scandalous, quickly became quite popular. Brick Row takes us back to those early days with many of the items in their catalogue. Now let's take a look inside.
An indication of the low esteem with which novels were once held can be seen in Emily Hamilton, a Novel. Founded on Incidents in Real Life. By a Young Lady of Worcester County. Indications of the image problem can be seen by the fact that author Sukey Vickery did not use her name, and in her insistence that it is not pure fiction, but based on "real life." This 1803 work was published by the very respectable Isaiah Thomas, founder of the American Antiquarian Society, still the largest American repository of pre-1876 books. It tells the story of three young girls who deal with such issues as prearranged marriages and unwanted suitors. In the introduction, Ms. Vickery feels compelled to defend the merit of novels, stating, "Novels ought not to be indiscriminately condemned, since many of them afford an innocent and instructive amusement, and being written in the best style furnish the young reader with elegant language and ideas." Item 82. Priced at $1,250.
Here is a novel evidently not written in the "best style." The title is Vigor, and while it appeared under the pseudonym Walter Barrett, Clerk, the author was Joseph Scoville. According to Sabin, the 1864 book was suppressed by Carleton of New York, its own publisher. Apparently this copy was once in the library of John Harvey Vincent Arnold, whose collection went up for auction in 1879. In that sale catalogue, the book was described as, "one of the most atrocious and grossly indecent novels ever published in this country. It was rightly suppressed shortly after publication." Kind of makes you want to read it. You can, for just $150. Item 5.
Novels, Poetry and More from The Brick Row Book Shop
Poet and letter writer John Masefield.
The picture on the cover of this catalogue is the newest item therein. Labeled A Dog Long After Thurber, it is a circa 1990 signed drawing by John Updike. Updike grew up with dreams of becoming a cartoonist, and attended a school for drawing. He drew this Thurber-like dog for a fundraiser for Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. Of course, Updike went on to become noted for his writing rather than illustrating, but it's nice to know he had a backup career in the waiting if the writing didn't work out. Item 81. $3,750.
Clara was an at least somewhat popular poet around her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, around the time of the Civil War. Unfortunately, she never reached quite the popularity of one-named personalities like Liberace, so we don't know exactly who she was. Possible last names are Marling, Leake, and Cole or Coles. The book includes a biographical sketch and obituary of her son, John L. Marling. These other names may represent her maiden name (Leake?) and perhaps a second marriage. Item 12 is a copy of Clara's Poems, an uncommon obscurity published in 1861. Some are actually by her daughter, Ada, and one was written by son John. John must have been an up and coming figure. He was a newspaper editor in Nashville and served as U.S. Minister to Guatemala from 1854-1856, but died that year at the age of just 30. He also must have been a bit of a hothead as he was injured in a duel with another newspaper editor in 1852. This copy comes with a nine-line handwritten poem for "Annie's Birthday," and is signed "Clara," dated November 16, 1866. $225.
Here is another handwritten, very personal poem. This one comes in the form of a letter, and was written by the better-known (than Clara) John Masefield, onetime English Poet Lauriat. Masefield once visited Wellesley College, and popped one of the buttons on his jacket. Fortunately, Katharine Balderston, an English Professor at the college, rescued the poet by sewing it back on. Masefield might have trouble asking a woman college professor to sew his button back on today, but this was 1916 and roles were more clearly defined then. Fortunately, Masefield appreciated her assistance, and wrote her these lines, not memorable poetry, but good intentions. Writes the poet, "Dear good Miss Balderston / who sewed the button on…Although the verse is lame / And the painting no great shake / I did them for your sake… The painting is a watercolor illustration on the letter. The verse may indeed be "lame," but here's your chance to purchase an unpublished Masefield original. Item 61. $500.
The Brick Row Book Shop may be visited online at www.brickrow.com, telephone 415-398-0414, email firstname.lastname@example.org.