Not many of the books in our library were virgins when we got them. Emsworth is not unwilling to shell out for new books, but by the time we realize we want a book, the hardcover edition has usually been out of print for decades. Our library is full of books that used to belong to other people.
We feel connected to those people. They liked the same authors we like, and if they wrote their names in their books, they surely cared about books and were proud of their libraries. That’s all to their credit.
People used to put their names in their books as a matter of course. And they took care with their libraries: a sticker inside the front cover of an 1898 illustrated edition of James M. Barrie’s The Little Minister reads “Private Library of Bertha L. Field/No. 108.” Bertha catalogued and numbered the books in her library! A faded pencil inscription on the opposite page reads “November 23 – 1900.” Book owners used to be possessive, too: inside the front cover of our copy of Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front someone originally wrote, in pencil, “This book belongs to Lance Cox,” but those words were lined through by someone who wrote, underneath, “Says you — It belongs to me — Mary Jane Gordon.”
Of many of the original owners of my books we know only their names from their inscriptions. A copy of Frank Norris’s The Octopus was inscribed by “Bernadette Dickler/K.S.N., Summer 1915.” James Thurber and E. B. White’s ‘s Is Sex Necessary? was once proudly owned by Catharine F. Strowger. Sidney Torme, with prescience, once paid $3.50 for a new first edition of John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair. Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biograph, E. M. Forster’s biography of his great-aunt, published in 1956, once belonged to “Grace and Alfred Harris/Cambridge/April 1957.”
Our books have been all over North America. Theresa Agnes Cleary, of Chatham, Ontario, used to own a first Canadian edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. Everett V. McKay Jr. (1925-1990, as a Google search reveals), of Louisville, Kentucky, acquired John Steinbeck’s The Pearl on “16 March 1949.” Robert K. Coe, Jr., of Whitewater, Wisconsin, once owned J. M. Barrie’s play Quality Street. Hannah and Samuel Guggenheim, former owners of a 1939 edition of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, were fellow Rochesterians, though I didn’t know them. Another Rochesterian, Alice L. Connors, of 9 Penfield Road, once owned G. K. Chesterton’s 1922 book What I Saw in America.
Some names inspire curiosity. What kind of man might someone with a Dickensian name like Ira F. Jagger, of Albany, New York, once the owner of a first American edition of P. G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank, have been? We found him with a Google search: he was a trust officer in an Albany bank whose wife Olive wrote poems. He died in 1946, five years after he put his name in the Wodehouse book.
Other previous owners of our books have had various degrees of celebrity. Perhaps you’ve heard of Kingman Brewster? No, not Kingman Brewster, Jr., the law professor who was president of Yale during the troubled 1960s, but his father, Kingman Brewster, Sr., who bought a copy of Emerson’s Representative Men when he was a sophomore at Amherst College.
Using a quill pen, young Mr. Brewster signed his copy “Kingman Brewster/Amherst Coll./Alpha Delta Omega House/Sept 26th 1904.” We learn from the indispensable Wikipedia that Mr. Brewster graduated from Amherst with academic distinction in 1906 and from Harvard Law School in 1911, and that he is a “direct lineal descendant” of the William Brewster who came over on the Mayflower. Who did Emerson identify as “representative men”? Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakepeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. We especially recommend the essay on Shakespeare.
Academics tend to collect books. Cornelius Weygandt (1871-1957), an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, bought J. M. Barrie’s Courage, a thin volume containing the text of a speech given by the novelist and playwright at St. Andrews University on May 3, 1922. Dr. Weigandt had already made a name for himself with a 1913 book, Irish Plays and Playwrights, which is still in print and available on Amazon; later in his career he published a number of books on the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans. We look forward to adding a Weygandt book or two to our library.
But book collectors come in all types. Edwin Thanhouser, former owner of a 1928 printing of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey, made a lot of money running a motion picture company in New Rochelle, New York from 1909 to 1917 and later collected art; his Bayville, Long Island home was called “Shorewood.” He had a picture of the house engraved on a sticker that was pasted inside the front cover of the Wilder book (and presumably all the other books in his library); it reads “Edwin Thanhouser/Shorewood.” Just before the title page is the undated autograph of “Marie Thanhouser,” who was his wife’s sister, written with a fountain pen.
Occasionally an inscription gives a whiff of drama, often when the book was a gift. What else can you think of a (price-clipped) Christmas gift of Thomas Mann’s The Beloved Returns: Lotte in Weimar, inscribed “And May He Come/Very Soon — for You/Rudy dear/Christmas 1943.” Another wartime gift, apparently from a lady who’d been nursing a man long enough to know that he needed intellectual stimulation, was Albert Jay Nock’s 1943 book, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which was inscribed “With kindest greetings and best wishes/To our Prize Patient/Frank Smith/Desired — to needle his thinking & only a touch/Lilly Pulsifer.”
And consider this romantic gift of a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Basil and Josephine Stories, inscribed, on the inside cover, “To my Vicki — (see overleaf!), and then, on the overleaf: “September 9, 1973/For my Vicki — /with much love and a little nostalgia . . ./Your Clark forever.” The stories had originally been published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928 and 1929. Had Clark and Vicki read them together, 44 years earlier?
Another J. M. Barrie book, a 1916 American edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, was a gift to “Guinn Hale/from the officers of the O.S.T.S.” Could that have been the Old Smythetown Temperance Society? The imagination runs wild.
Some previous owners knew, or at least met, the books’ authors. August Wilson personally inscribed an edition of his play Seven Guitars “for Dr. Rosemarie Beston/with all best wishes./August Wilson/3-13-97.” Did they meet at a book signing? Was the playwright was a guest speaker at Rochester’s Nazareth College, where Dr. Beston served as president from 1984 to 1998? Oddly, she evidently didn’t want this autographed edition for her own library; in July 1997 she gave it to the college library, which eventually didn’t want it either.
And the library of distinguished composer David Diamond, a Rochesterian, who died in 2005, included the works of master playwright Edward Albee, most of which are now in our library. According to an 1999 biography of Albee by Mel Gussow, Diamond and Albee took “an almost immediate dislike to one another” when they first met in 1952; apparently Albee had made disparaging remarks about Diamond’s music. But in 1958 a mutual friend insisted that Albee send Diamond a copy of his (then unproduced) play The Zoo Story. “To Albee’s astonishment, the composer was unhesitating in his enthusiasm.” Diamond wrote Albee a long letter praising the play, offering to help peddle it to contacts in the theater world, concluding “PS/May I keep the copy you sent me?”
We don’t know what happened to Albee’s manuscript, but when The Zoo Story was published in 1960, Diamond got a copy and stamped his name it it. A year later, Diamond clipped and pasted a picture of a photo of Albee out of a magazine opposite the title page of his copy of Albee’s The American Dream. The friendship between the older composer and the younger playwright was alive alive 15 years later; in Diamond’s copy of The Lady from Dubuque (published in 1980) we found a telephone message, dated “Dec 18 11 56 AM ’75,” to Room 918 from “Ed Albee/221 3319.” We picture a New York hotel desk clerk pulling the message out of the slot and passing it along to Mr. Diamond. The composer kept a small “With the Compliments of the Author” card in his copy of Gussow’s biography, probably for a bookmark; he wrote a few words in the book’s margin at page 102 amplifying an anecdote in which the biographer had quoted Diamond.
It’s nice when you see that a book owner didn’t forget about a book once he’d first read it. A 1940 printing of Willa Cather’s 1922 novel One of Ours also has David Diamond’s raised-seal stamp on the title page. Many years later, in 1973, when the Post Office issued an 8-cent commemorative stamp featuring “Willa Cather/American Novelist,” Mr. Diamond licked one end of it and pasted it in his book on the opposite page. It’s still there.