At a recent tag sale not far from my parents’ house, I came upon a thin, weathered paperback with a yellowing spine. It stuck out amid the other glossy hardcovers. The cover portrayed a stylized, vaguely Art Nouveau couple embracing passionately; an orange moon winked from behind a tree. This was Art of Love, by a Parisian Casanova. And just my luck, I’d found the “unexpurgated” edition.
Then I noticed, below the illustration, a line of much smaller print: “Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand.”
The flyleaf identifies the book’s publication year as 1933, its publisher the Jacket Library of the National Home Library Foundation. The editor’s note, by one Sherman F. Mittell, reads in part,
The jacket library was established to place before the American people the great books of the world at a nominal sum. To give good literature its largest possible audience at a price within the reach of all, required the fullest cooperative efforts of those who believed in extending our cultural facilities. It further required an eager response on the part of the public.
It is dedicated to Eugene O’Neill, “with esteem and appreciation.”
The National Home Library Foundation had only been founded a year before this misleading Cyrano saw the light of day. Mittell’s ambitions included not just the dissemination of affordable classics, but also “to urge the reading of good literature through printed announcements, radio broadcasts and newspapers; and to these ends to provide for the delivery and holding of lectures, exhibits, public meetings, classes and conferences, calculated to advance the cause of education and promote the general culture of the nation.” The original trustees listed in the back of the paperback include O’Neill, Havelock Ellis, and Albert Einstein.
After Mittell’s death in 1942, the NHLF fell into chaos—or, as its current Web site tactfully puts it, “the Foundation’s substantive program came to a halt and its assets became the subject of protracted litigation.” It didn’t really get going again for another twenty years; today, it’s a nonprofit that awards grants toward literacy. (Interestingly enough, the current president is Lynda Robb, LBJ’s elder daughter.)
Keep in mind that Penguin didn’t start producing their affordable paperback classics until 1935—so the Jacket Library’s publishers might be forgiven for employing a little marketing sleight of hand, especially during a Depression. And let’s not forget that there’s a whole school of thought that maintains that Cyrano’s injunctions were inspired by Ovid’s Art of Love, so. Would the average schoolboy, hoping to score a French seduction manual, know any of this? Probably not. But who knows? Maybe he opened this volume and got some great literature out of it. Because on one score, the cover does not lie: the text is, indeed, complete and unexpurgated.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.