April 22, 2014

The Tell-Tale Heart$_57 (2)The Cask of Amontillado

I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morganbut 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.

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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.

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Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.

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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!

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Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté

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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?

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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.



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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.

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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.

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Candide forever!

December 2, 2009

By chance, I stumbled upon a notice for a talk about Voltaire’s Candide, that was part of this series.  Since it’s one of my favorite books (I buy a copy whenever I see it) I decided to risk an immersion, however brief, into the world of literary academe, to which I said goodbye so many years ago.  I can say right off that I learned something important – the speaker also curated this exhibit which I will certainly visit now that I know of it!

The talk was about the processes by which a work of literature becomes part of the canon, the received wisdom of cultural propriety as Flaubert might have said.  The speaker was particularly interested in how a work, especially a successful one, gets entangled in the web of prefaces, afterwords, copies, satires, imitations, rip-offs, corrupt versions, “bad readings,” and just how THE WORK gets pulled out of all this onto the hallowed shelf of really Great Books.  Rather arcane, but who knew that Candide had so many spurious sequels?  And what could be more fun than reading, as she said, the  “18th century pseudo-philosophy” in these various texts? I’m sure they are not available in translation, so I’ll pass on that one.

By coincidence, I just got my copy, used of course, of one of the later paperback editions of Candide, the Penguin Deluxe Edition, that has a cover drawn by Chris Ware of comic book glory.  In keeping with the theme of re-productions, translations, transpositions, and such, this edition has a condensed version of the entire story, in comic book form, on the front and back covers – is this a first?  Two books for the price of one?  A book within a book?  Can you judge this one by it’s cover?  Will the real Candide please stand up!

Of course, these days, a work has only to be produced to become something else, perhaps its opposite.  Movies become “books,” become comics, pop songs, and the other way ’round.  Old books turned into old movies are remade, the books republished with the movie stars on the cover – an endless merry go ’round of meaning and farrago of nonsense.  Think of Planet of the Apes and The Bridge on the River Kwai,  (discussed here) two blockbuster movies adapted from texts by one man, that somehow got their logic inverted.

Candide is, at bottom, a cry of anguish by an intellectual enraged that the world doesn’t accord with his notions of justice – compassion is not much in evidence – but its redemption is its exuberant hilarity.  In the end, I think it was Rousseau (did he have a sense of humor?) who was closer to understanding mankind’s place in the universe – see his exchange of letters (and here) with Voltaire on the Lisbon earthquake/tsunami.