Fragments of Gutenberg in Chicago

Nicholas A. Basbane


he idea that a finished book might be regarded by its author as a work-in-progress may sound paradoxical, but that is precisely the way I feel about A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude, the first two installments in what I hope will be a trilogy on the fascinating concept of book people, book places, and book culture. Most professional authors will tell you that once a manuscript goes through the publishing process and becomes a completed work, they are done with it, and the reasoning is sound, especially if a living is to be made, and if new projects are to be undertaken and seen through the press.

While I subscribe in principle to that view, especially as it relates to the writing of fiction and poetry (one of the worst decisions William Wordsworth ever made, critics agree, was to rework many of the exuberant poems of his youth in the twilight of his life for “posterity”), the nature of my work is such that a lot of the people I write about are alive and well and still fulfilling their bibliophilic destinies. It is true that a good number of my subjects — the collectors Robert Hoe III (1839-1909), J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), and Henry Huntington (1850-1927), the booksellers Dr. A. H. W. Rosenbach (1876-1952) and Jake Zeitlin (1902-1987), and the librarians Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) and Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), for instance — were long since deceased and their legacies pretty much secure when I began my explorations among the gently mad in the mid-1980s.

But one of the departures I have pursued in my inquiries is to consider the contributions and experiences of figures from the here and now, and since a central subtext of my writing is the cycle of books and book people, I feel it my responsibility to keep tabs on “breaking developments,” as it were, and to report on them from time to time to my readers.

The publication in 1999 of the first paper-back edition of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books provides a telling case in point. By then four years had elapsed since release of the hardcover, and a number of pertinent “transitions” had taken place, three of them in 1996 alone, each one, in its own way, reaffirming the various dynamics of passage I had taken such pains to illumine by the examples of their predecessors. There was no way I would have considered rewriting elements of the book itself, of course, and I said as much at the outset, noting that my “original narrative structure” from the hardcover would remain intact, and that “people who were alive in 1995 remain alive in this new edition.” But I did write a preface detailing the dispositions of the three libraries all the same, and the ways each one reflected the wishes of the respective collectors.

To summarize briefly: the core holdings of the incomparable collection of 20th-Century first editions gathered by the New Yorker Carter Burden (1941-1996) went to the Pierpont Morgan Library, with some items returning to the marketplace; with careful preparations having been made well in advance of his passing, the vast culinary archive of Chicago restaurateur and philanthropist Louis I. Szathmary II (1919-1996) had already been installed in a number of institutions; and the great library of medicine and science assembled by the San Francisco psychoanalyst Dr. Haskell F. Norman (1915-1996) was sold at auction to nourish the next generation of collectors, the $18.6 million realized setting records in a number of areas.

The salient lesson to be learned — and it was the same lesson appreciated in the examples of three French collectors from the 19th Century profiled \in the opening pages of Gentle Madness — was that “each contributed in different but equally essential ways to the cycle of books among collectors, libraries, and dealers,” and that regardless of the destinations that had been chosen for the books, “steps were taken to ensure proper passage.”

With those subsequent developments firmly placed “on the record,” I wonder now how, and in what context, I should account for the en bloc purchase of the Sanford and Helen Berger William Morris Collection by the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, early in 2000, and the combination sale-gift of the massive Michael Zinman Collection of Early American Imprints to the Library Company of Philadelphia later that year, each a transaction that made the two institutions, in one fell swoop, major repositories in these respective fields. Perhaps it is this kind of detail that argues for the creation of a gentlemadness .com web site, who knows, but it certainly is a possibility I will bear in mind, because I always am being asked for status reports about “my” collectors from AGM, and this could be the way to do it.

In the meantime, I have Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture to keep tabs on, and my hands are full there as well, as recent events have demonstrated quite tellingly. No sooner had the bound galleys come back from my publisher in May than I learned that one of the greatest collectors I had ever met — Abel Berland of Glencoe, IL and one of the guiding spirits of The Caxton Club — had consigned his fabulous library of Western history and literature to Christie’s for a fall sale, the same week in October, in fact, that my new book was scheduled for publication by HarperCollins. I was able to get some details of Abel’s decision into the finished book, but the sale results themselves — and, as members of this organization know quite well, they included a number of records for printed books, most notably the $6.2 million paid for Abel’s exquisite copy of the First Folio of Shakes-peare (1623), the most ever spent at auction for a 17th-Century book — will have to wait for inclusion in a future edition of P&F.

That Abel’s books would one day be sold at auction came as no surprise to me, I might add, and I indicated as much in my book, noting his conviction that he owed the next generation of collectors an opportunity to enjoy the company of the treasures he had described to me as his “dearest friends.” Indeed, to emphasize the point, he had quoted words from my own book, the comment of Robert Hoe that if “the great collections of the past had not been sold, where would I have found my books?”

So that critical element of the equation was being satisfied in this instance. And when I visited Chicago late in October, I discovered yet again just how timeless the cycle is when I was introduced to the remarkable collection of “Doyleana” — books, manuscripts, letters, paintings, journals pertaining to the life and career of Arthur Conan Doyle and his family — gathered by Dr. C. Frederick Kittle and his wife Ann and earmarked for deposit to the Newberry Library, where it will become, in an instant, a research collection of the first importance. The words of Henry Huntington seemed appropriate in both cases. “Men may come and men may go,” the California magnate had once said, “but books go on forever.” Or, as the Romans would have it, littera scripta manet — the written word endures.

Title page of Abel Berland’s First Folio (1623) by William Shakespeare, which recently broke the record for 17th-Century books, bringing at Christie’s of New York auction, October 8, 2001, $6.2 million. Image from Christie’s catalogue of the Berland collection. Used with permission.

Cloth cover of the first issue in book form of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskerville (1902). The story was first serialized in a magazine in 1901. From the collection of C. Frederick Kittle, through whose courtesy it is used.

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