I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morgan, but in fact, it’s all on me: I’ve loved books with woodcuts since I was a boy, and I recently went on a bit of a spree getting illustrated and limited editions of a few of my literary favorites. None of them are particularly valuable, but all are, as they say, “collectible“.
Above, is an edition of Poe’s tales that was issued in the 1940s, although I recall these images from a library book, perhaps a reprint, when I was in school. The book is in great condition, and I re-papered the tattered slipcase, one of my new hobbies. I love that Fortunato and Montresor!
This collection of Poe stories (remember the old song from Mad Magazine?) is part of a series of woodcut-illustrated classics published in paperback by Penguin Books, and featured in the Morgan exhibition. Found it online, but it has not arrived in the mail yet.
Of course, when it comes to Poe, my favorite, after Amontillado, and distiguished by being his only novel, is the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym. I bought a few editions in French, all translated by Charles Baudelaire, who introduced Poe to France in the 1850s. This is a nicely illustrated copy from the 1970s.
And here is a first edition of Pym’s Adventures, first edition in French, that is, published in 1858. Why is it that the French were so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to paperbacks? The book on the mantle of this well-known painting by Magritte is Arthur Gordon Pym, although I can’t make out the date.
Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.
Done with Poe! Candide is one of my all-time favorite books, so I have many copies of it, including a variety of cheap paperpacks, but I decided to upgrade my collection. This French edition is illustrated by the Italian Umberto Brunelleschi using stencils, or pochoirs. It was published in the 1930s – quite a racy little paperback.
Back to woodcuts with this 1920s edition, also heavy on the erotic aspect, as is par for the course with Candide, and why not!
Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté
And a tiny little softcover edition from the 1920s, complete with woodcut illustrations and vignettes. Did I mention that one of my Internet passwords is Pangloss?
I have a few editions of Candide with illustrations by Rockwell Kent – it was such a popular production that it was issued several times in different formats, but I had never even seen a copy of the Kent Moby Dick. (I read that it was a big deal that Melville’s name wasn’t on the cover, as if you needed it!) This Random House edition from 1930 is the first reissue of the Kent illustrated version, originally published in a very limited three-volume set. (There is also a fancy gold and blue covered version of this book from 1933.) Kent’s pictures are fantastic, but they are ink drawings, not woodcut prints, although they are almost always referred to as such.
I like Barry Moser’s art work a lot, and I have a few trade editions of his books – Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein – so I figured I should get a copy of his Moby Dick. It’s often cited as a superlative example of book design and production, and the original letterpress edition goes for many thousands of dollars: I settled for the hardcover University of California reprint. I like it, but it just doesn’t excite me the way Rockwell Kent’s does.
And while I was on this Herman Melville theme, I read this book about the slave trade, by a local historian. The facts of the trade are unspeakably appalling, a veritable holocaust that played out over centuries. Even the language of the traders is similar to what we know of Nazi organizers of the death camps: the main difference was that slaves were expected to reproduce, rather than simply work themselves to death. One of the benefits of a pre-industrial age.
It’s a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade, using Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, as unifying narrative device for the history. Until I read this book, I had thought that Melville based his story on facts from the Amistad case, but actually, there really was a Captain Delano! He was an ancestor of FDR, and quite a few other people as well, and he was involved in the slave trade himself, fine old New Englander that he was. The story is based on his memoir which recounts in detail his encounter with the historical Don Benito. I purchased this limited edition illustrated edition of Benito Cereno with woodcuts by Derrick Palmer, published by the Imprint Society.
The pictures below show Delano being rowed to the captive slave ship, and Babu’s head on a pike, after the truth has been revealed.