The Park Avenue Armory is a vast preserve of space and air on a cramped island. I can imagine no better place for the Fifty-Seventh New York Antiquarian Book Fair of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). Open tonight and through the weekend, it boasts more than two hundred dealers, tens of thousands of items, and combined hundreds of years of experience and scholarship. More important, it offers oxygen to a reading public choking on alternative facts—among the most insidious of which, often repeated in print, is that print is dead.
This year’s fair illuminates a shift toward literary properties that live and breathe—manuscripts, letters, and original material, much of it defined by context. This is the stuff through which authors speak to us as they did to their publics and to one another; today their words sting in much the same way and in many of the same places.
Imagine rare-book dealers as hunter-gatherers of primary source material, heading out with spears and sacks, returning with troves that speak to our present political moment as much as they do to the past. Book collecting has grown from a traditional quest for bibliographic completeness—such that one collection could be more or less the same as another—into a hybrid of subjective, curated material contributing to larger questions: What was happening in the life Sylvia Plath while she wrote the Ariel poems? Why did Hemingway answer a call to social justice when he had seemingly sold out to Esquire? How real is Moby-Dick? When Duke Ellington wrote Black, Brown, and Beige, was he making a patriotic statement?
Below, some highlights from the fair.
“I have the consolation of being no doubt the only woman who will know the early years of a charming genius. On my skin. Like a Belsen label.” —Sylvia Plath
This trove of letters from Sylvia Plath to her former psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher (later Barnhouse) will change the face of Plath scholarship, enlarging her reputation as a feminist icon and introducing her voice on the trauma of domestic abuse. Plath writes to Beuscher—her closest confidante after her move to England with Ted Hughes, and the model for The Bell Jar’s Dr. Nolan—of physical abuse and psychological torture at the hands of her husband. The archive, on offer from Ken Lopez, comprises fourteen letters, along with interview tapes and notes, photographs of Plath with her children, and more from the files of a would-be biographer. Lopez writes that “nine of the letters, totaling twenty-eight pages, were written after Plath discovered Hughes’s infidelities and their marriage disintegrated, during the last seven months of Plath’s life”; these are, he says, “the only documents extant of that time in her life, written by Plath and seen from her perspective.” (Booth C27: Ken Lopez Bookseller, Hadley, MA; $875,000.)
Ernest Hemingway: “Your tactics re immigration? God damned impractical!”
In a lengthy personal letter from June 1936, Ernest Hemingway addresses the treatment of political refugees by the United States. His words on the deportation of illegal immigrants—specifically political refugees—resonate all too well in 2017:
As I see it the principal difficulty is that a political refugee now cannot enter legally since he must make an escape from his own country therefore his is always liable for illegal entry and you’ve got to find a legal way to pass him on somewhere else or provide for asylum of political refugees. Otherwise you are simply going to publicize an endless series of deportations which is o.k. if anybody wants martyrs but god damned impractical as tactics. (Booth A33: Schulson Autographs, New York / New Jersey; $23,000)
The context for this micro-jeremiad seems to include public pressure on the novelist to engage politically. Claudia Strauss-Schulson tells us that the “correspondence between Hemingway and Abner Green began when Green, using his pen name Paul Harris, wrote an open letter to Hemingway in The American Criteria in December 1935. He implored Hemingway to stop writing drivel for Esquire and instead to write on more important issues. The letter was distributed by The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born … Hemingway became the Co-Chairman of the Committee of Sponsors.”
Duke Ellington: “I’m Brown but I’m Red, White & Blue.”
Not unrelatedly, in this unpublished manuscript—a single leaf, including piano accompaniment and the following lyrics—Duke Ellington makes a musical patriotic statement heard only once in his lifetime:
Say I’m Brown but I’m Red White & Blue
My folks are patriots thru and thru
Why we’ve got lots of pride and we’ll fight for our side
Cause we’re Brown and We’re Red White and Blue.
Gabe Boyers (Booth B9: Schubertiade Music & Arts, Newton, MA; $6500) explains, “If asked to identify Ellington’s magnum opus, many Ellington authorities would point to ‘Black, Brown and Beige,’ which traced in music the journey of African Americans from Africa to the new world, slavery, emancipation and beyond. When the piece received its Carnegie Hall premiere on January 23, 1943, it was, at forty-eight minutes, Ellington’s longest extended work, but when it was given its dress rehearsal the night before at Rye High School, it was two minutes longer.” Those two extra minutes were accounted for by “I’m Brown but I’m Red, White & Blue.” Several members of Ellington’s inner circle urged him to drop the lyrics from future performances.
Shakespeare: Prince Hal at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and more
You’ll find at least two Shakespeare Folios: a 1685 Fourth Folio (Booth C25: Biblioctopus, Los Angeles; $175,000.) and a 1632 Second Folio (Booth C23: Buddenbrooks, Newburyport, MA; $185,000.). Don’t ask why one is more expensive than another; ask instead what the ideal copy of each would look like. If you want the Henriad to come alive, look at the Bradmore manuscript, a holograph translation of an account of medical attention rendered to Prince Hal on the battlefield (Booth D1: Maggs Brothers, London; $312,500.). According to Robert Harding, head of their Early British department, it’s a
manuscript of the 1446 Middle English translation of the Philomena [Nightingale], a surgical-medical treatise written originally in Latin by John Bradmore (d. 1412), one of the most English famous surgeons of the early 15th Century. It includes the famous account of how he saved the life of the young Prince of Wales (Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, the future King Henry V), who had been hit in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. The shaft of the arrow was pulled out leaving the head or bodkin buried six inches deep in the Prince’s skull. Bradmore invented a special screwed instrument (illustrated by a drawing in the manuscript) that was inserted into the wound and gradually withdrew the arrowhead. It is one of the most famous examples of battlefield surgery in English medieval history.
Copies of Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light (Booth B3: Sanctuary Books, New York; $35) record the labors of bookmen Dan Wechsler and George Koppelman on a copy of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie (London 1580) to conclude that it was annotated by Shakespeare. There’s also a swatch of midcentury wallpaper inspired by Romeo and Juliet—neither beast nor foul—that attests, however modestly, to the Shakespeare’s influence in every aspect of modern living (Booth E17: Honey and Wax, New York; $250).
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
A first American edition of Moby-Dick is the closest you’re likely to come to a first edition this year (Booth D1: Maggs Brothers, London; $25,000). You’d think this U.S. edition should be the true first—and that it would look like something more—but it’s not, and it doesn’t. The UK edition is a lovely three-volume production with gilt whale tails on the spine, but it’s a nearly impossible get. And though the U.S. edition lacks some of Melville’s edits included in that UK edition, there’s a consolation prize: it does include a lot of text the British publishers removed for the sake of propriety.
But how fantastical, or realistic, are Melville’s reports? A whaling journal from the same time and place—early 1850s New Bedford—will help you make sense of the day-to-day struggles aboard the Pequod (Booth D23: Ten Pound Island Book Co., Gloucester, MA; $6500). The proprietor George Gibson writes, “The voyage … included mutinies, fights, collisions with other ships, a fire, and frequent desertions. … Low lights include—Aug 24, crew drunk, boatsteerer nearly kills cook. Sept. 23, mutinous letter, man refuses watch. … Dec. 5, mutineers in prison in Rio, ship new crew. Jan 21, 1854, whale destroys larboard boat, escapes. … May 8, boy falls from main topgallant mast”—this last evoking a painful chapter in Moby-Dick.
The scattered embers of original material cast a lifelike glow on the more traditional grails of antiquarians, which abound as well. Individual untouched first editions of Lolita and Ulysses, in various levels of “fine” condition, inhabit a number of booths, testifying to the aesthetic and political labors behind them. Both titles were issued as paperbacks—the former to be read and discarded and the latter to be cherished in your own library binding.
In the vast crucible of the Armory’s main hall, the ABAA convenes the living ecosystem that these individual artifacts and cultural archives create and share, and invites you to travel in it as Thoreau did in Concord. Approach the books and manuscripts, prints and photographs, and the people in them. Ask how the items came to be, and how they came to be there—and how the dealers did, too. If the price is out of reach, ask about a gateway item in the same realm—if not a letter by Virginia Woolf, perhaps a condolence letter to her sister on her death (Booth D13: Peter Grogan, London; various price points).
Don’t put on blinders between booths. Dealers are arranged by lottery, not by interest area, and you’ll miss out on some compelling material by doing a hard-target search. You think the Australian firm Asia Bookroom (Booth 32A) will have nothing for you? They may or may not. But as this is only their second visit to the New York Fair since 1969, give them a warm welcome! This year they’re bringing along, as the proprietor Sally Burdon told me, “some quirky views of the United States as seen from East Asia,” such as an 1854 underground Japanese news-sheet (or kawaraban, a woodblock broadside) comparing America and Russia, in which it’s reported that Americans choose their most brilliant person to be their leader ($1600). So you never know.
Pages breathe as they turn: Keep the conversation going, between you and your dealers, you and your collection. Make sure the items within your collection are still speaking to each other. I’ll do my part by tweeting some of the show’s standouts. Until then, I’ll leave you with this, in advance of the opening: The Hajji Ahmed World Map, from 1559, in six sheets totaling about three-and-a-half feet square. It was purportedly prepared by a Tunisian slave in Venice to win his freedom from his master.
Sarah Funke Butler is a literary agent, with a specialty in literary archives. She spent more than twenty years working with remarkable manuscripts, rare books, and archival treasures at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller.