My task this morning is to ask, and try to answer, the question of whether new directions for book collectors remain. Does anyone here imagine I'm going to surprise you by saying: "No, there aren't"? Some of you may already suffer from a sense of fin-de-siècle exhaustion, but my own case, I must confess, is not far advanced.
You all know, as I do, that many other people in our field--notably the writers collected in John Carter's 1934 anthology, New Paths in Book Collecting, and in Jean Peters's 1979 "sequel," Collectible Books: Some New Paths--long ago made some "new directions" not only well-worn but also well-blazed paths. In one sense, all I have to do here is say, "Yes, new directions can be found by those who seek them"; recommend that you all look again at those two books; pause significantly; nod sagely; and disappear from this podium. That way, we all get back to the coffee and try hard to wake up.
Fin-de-siècle exhaustion? No.
Sunday morning exhaustion? Yes.
Some of us might prefer such a course of action. Alas, the energetic people who organized this affair seem dead set against it. So I'm going to do something else. I could--but I won't--simply list a slew of "new" fields, enumerate their (no doubt many) virtues, and suggest reasons why you should pick one or two of them. As a listener to many other speakers during a long and, you may be astonished to learn, often dyspeptic life attending conferences, it has been my unhappy but frequent observation that, rhetorically, lists are surprisingly boring. I don't know why. I love my own lists. Yet even so, I find other people's lists remarkably unexciting. I extrapolate from that feeling to the guess that my lists might interest others less than they interest me. In any event, my interests aren't your interests; my knowledge and imagination not wide enough for others as they might be for me.
Frankly, the single best collection I've ever seen--and my job has given me the chance over many years to see a number of very fine collections--was formed by people who knew things I did not and built a collection that it would never have occurred to me to suggest. I refer to the Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, a collection formed over the past two to three decades to document the intersections of the visual and the verbal, in arts both printed and pictorial. Two Miami collectors, Ruth and Marvin Sackner, almost single-handedly--well, double-handedly: there are two of them--invented a collecting field, and simultaneously defined an intellectual one, that had not existed till they came along. I mention them to remind you that literally nothing limits collecting other than collectors's own imaginations. No limits--not even financial ones. The Sackners happily added items that cost less than ten dollars in times when those were the sorts of amounts they could afford or when this just happened to be the price of the books or other items they wanted. They discovered that, after you don't get it the first time around, the ten dollar item is often less findable than the five hundred dollar item. Moreover, in a collection of the sort they created, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts--and more valuable, too.
But the Sackners's collection is a separate story for another place. This morning I intend to follow in the wake--the distant wake, I fear--of those writers in John Carter's and Jean Peters's stables who described potential "new paths" in book collecting. I'm going to take a somewhat oblique path towards that goal, however, and begin not with description but with a story. Or part of a story.
Set north of the Ohio River in the area where Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky come together, this story takes place in the years before the War of 1812. The part of it I'm going to tell opens with Parson Donaldson, a Presbyterian minister, on his way to Cincinnati, then a village of about 2,000 people. Riding his nag, he is, when we meet him, deeply engrossed in his own thoughts, "eagerly engaged in 'laying out' a speech with which he intended to rout false doctrines and annihilate forever incipient fanaticism"--by which the parson means both "progressive 'new-side'" and "zealous" Presbyterians and "ranting . . . ungrammatical circuit riders," that is, Methodists. "The fate of Zion seemed" to Donaldson "to hang upon the weight and cogency of the speech which he meant to deliver at Cincinnati."
Riding along, accompanied by these important thoughts, the parson happens to pass, without noticing him, a young man from his own village named Morton Goodwin. Morton is about to be hanged for a crime--horse thievery--which he did not commit. Goodwin, his senses undistracted by the joys of theological disputation and sharpened by the looming prospect of their own immediate demise, does see the parson, however, and shouts out for his aid--at "just . . . that moment . . . [when the parson] had reached the portion of his argument in which he triumphantly proved that his new-side friends, however unconscious they might be of the fact, were of necessity Pelagians, and, hence, guilty of fatal error." So excited by his theological meditations is Donaldson that he fails completely to hear Goodwin's cries and, as a result . . .
But I don't want to spoil anyone's Sunday morning by telling a sad story!
A nice man, though anxious to hang Morton and get it over with, does go after the parson at Morton's entreaty, brings him back, and, as a result--the parson recognizing as Morton's the horse he had been accused of stealing--Morton lives. Yet Morton's punishment, if I may use that word, is not entirely over.
In a little while Morton sat on his horse listening to some very earnest words from the minister on the sinfulness of gambling and Sabbath-breaking [which, unlike horse thievery, are two sins which Morton has indeed recently practiced]. But Mr. Donaldson, having heard of the Methodistic excitement in the Hissawachee settlement, slipped easily to that, and urged Morton not to have anything whatever to do with this mushroom religion, that grew up in a night and withered in a day. In fact the old man delivered to Morton most of the speech he had prepared for the Presbytery on the evils of religious excitements. Then he shook hands with him, exacted a promise that he would go directly home, and, with a few seasonable words on God's mercy in rescuing him from a miserable death, he parted from the young man.
This is, as you have guessed, not a story I made up. I am telling you only a few of the incidents that take place in the seventeenth chapter, "Deliverance"--a title James Dickey also liked--of the book from which I learned this story. That book is a novel, so the story doesn't even have the virtue of "truth." It's . . . just a story.
The novel is called The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age. It was written by Edward Eggleston, who, when he published it with Charles Scribner's Sons in 1874, had long ago left his native Indiana and was living in what was still the city--and not yet the borough--of Brooklyn. There he was for a while himself a minister. Some of you may know Eggleston--although I'd bet that not many of you do. One of his books, The Hoosier School-Master, remains in print, in a paperback edition published by the Indiana University Press in a series called The Library of Indiana Classics. One of my colleagues at Penn assigned the book to her class. I noticed it in the bookstore; thought, "Gee, I've never heard of this one"; bought it; took it home; planned to look at it for ten seconds and then put it on the shelf for a very rainy day--and then made a fatal error. No, not Methodism! I started to read it. To my surprise, I loved it. After I'd finished it, I toddled my aging body to the third floor of my library where we keep our English and American literature, found my way to the Egglestons, and read some more. And some more. And kept on liking what I read.
This all must sound very roundabout, perhaps--but, I think, it really isn't. How do we find new areas to collect, and what is the point of collecting anyway?
Eggleston hit me at the right time. Together with another of our speakers this morning, I'd recently done some traveling in Indiana. There, in downtown Indianapolis, on a sunny June afternoon, two miles south of the intersection of I-65 and I-70, heading northbound in the fast lane, I encountered--in mid-leap, as he was jumping the median strip after having successfully negotiated three lanes of southbound traffic--Bambi. This was not a meeting, I am sorry to have to tell you, that did Bambi any good at all. It also came very close to opening up three good positions at major research libraries in California, New England, and a middle Atlantic state of some local significance. It is certainly fair to say that Indiana made an impression on me at this time.
It made a different impression a few days later when, in Madison, a town on the banks of the Ohio River, my traveling companion and I returned from a late and surprisingly delicious dinner, ambling back along the river, watching and listening to barge traffic in the darkness. I lack the skill to evoke what walking along the Ohio River on an evening like that meant to me, a New York City native who occasionally still suspects that everything else really is Hoboken--but who, a first-generation American both of whose parents were born in Europe, also feels as if he is forever embarked on an exploration of the United States.
And when, some time later still, I was speaking with emeritus Penn professor of English Gerald Weales, Gerald mentioned that he was working on a series of studies, perhaps to culminate in a book, about Indiana writers--Gerald is a Hoosier as well as an Indiana novelist--I was not only surprised to discover that I didn't think this idea completely loopy but was also intrigued enough by it to follow up on the Eggleston I had now read and to branch out to reading other Indiana writers.
Indiana writers? "Good grief," you may be thinking, "he cannot be serious." I regret disappointing you. I am serious. Whatever can have possessed me?
Although my father was born in Europe, the exploration of America that I describe myself as undertaking is one he undertook before me. When he grew up, his specialty was American literature, a subject he taught in secondary schools and in college. A good boy, I chose, as my form of Oedipal rebellion, to study English literature instead. "Take that, Dad," I must have thought; or words to that effect. I doubt that the old geezer was especially perturbed by my wee little declaration of independence; and it sometimes seems to me that I have spent the rest of my life discovering that he was right, after all. I suppose that's the reason I picked up The Hoosier School-Master, when I ran into it, in the first place, and even--to my eventual consternation--read it.
"Consternation"?--because I loved it, although neither in theme, style, nor those aspects of literature I have been taught to call "literary" was this a book I "ought" to have liked. Eggleston published it in 1871, three years before The Circuit Rider. Its setting is not the pre-1812 Ohio frontier but rather rural Indiana around 1850. A young man comes to a school district to crack some sense, perhaps even some education, into the thick skulls of the local turkeys: his "culture" against their "rustic bestiality." It's episodic, it's melodramatic; its characters are starkly good and bad. What's to like?
Well, for one thing, I learned things from it. Eggleston views Indiana as "the west"--a point of view now very hard to recover, but one that, as I read the book, seemed valid (or at least interesting). His "old west" closely resembles the "new" trans-Mississippi west that tends to be all that nowadays gets remembered. I also liked Eggleston's evocation of the values of "muscular Christianity" as a force that both civilized the American frontier and helped to form a significant aspect of the American "national character" early in our history. Not myself Christian, I could (in one sense) hardly care less about this second point. As an American interested in the history of his country, however, I was fascinated. I'd "known" this stuff intellectually, of course. Anyone who takes a class in American history knows it. I'd never felt it before, however, and, from that point of view, Eggleston made a difference.
I might add that, a person of unbelievably low taste, I also liked Eggleston's stories. What can I say, after I've said, "Uh, duh"?
By the time I got to Eggleston's much more explicitly Christian The Circuit Rider, I was ready.
How shall I make you understand this book, reader of mine [Eggleston apostrophizes us at the beginning of chapter 25 of that later book], who never knew the influences that surround a Methodist of the old sort. . . . [How could I make you] perceive the possibility of a religious fervor that was as a fire in the bones. . . . You have never been a young Methodist preacher of the olden time.
True enough; and I never will be, either--although I am enchanted that someone asked me, after yesterday's tour of Penn's Special Collections Department, if I'd ever been a hellfire-and-damnation preacher! But Eggleston's story of two young men on the Ohio frontier before the War of 1812 takes both of them, although by different routes, through sin to conversion, and after conversion into the Methodist ministry. Both become circuit riders in various midwestern locations, one of them, for example, in "the wilderness of Michigan" (although he never actually reaches Michigan). Eggleston was himself an itinerant Methodist minister in the upper midwest during the 1850s, although in the 1870s his Brooklyn church was, Arthur Schlesinger tells us, "creedless." His novel shows how his ministers's lives interact with those of the people they grew up with; gives us some sense of the impact of their ministries; and, on top of all this, he also writes what he says is, "from the first chapter to the last, . . . a love-story." It is. The result is another lovely book.
I could say more about Eggleston, speak about his 1878 novel Roxy, for instance. Set in an Indiana town that feels a bit like Madison, or maybe Vevay, where Eggleston was born, it is a love story about two people for whom conversion and the living of truly Christian lives are the central issues they face. Or should I speak about his later work as an American historian? One of the founders in 1884 of the American Historical Association, of which he was later to be President, he wrote The Beginners of a Nation and The Transit of Civilization, a book which, in its 1959 reprint, carried the introduction by Arthur Schlesinger already mentioned. All this might interest some of you and bore others. Why, in this context, am I telling you about Eggleston at all?
For the past year and a half, I've been reading--and, dare I confess it, buying--Indiana writers. I bumped into my copy of The Transit of Civilization just this past week. It cost me one-thirty-five. You can figure out where the decimal point goes at your leisure. My reasons are no better--and, perhaps, no worse--than those I've already mentioned: some startling, even dangerous, travel in that state; a pleasant colleague working the same fields for his book; and my memory of an evening in Madison that, even at the time I was experiencing it, I could have thought reeked of a sentimental nostalgia I would laugh at in anyone else. Well, maybe.
In fact, as some of you may already have guessed, my point is not to urge you to collect "Indiana writers" at all. Were I to stand here urging you to view that as a "new" collecting field, you'd not merely regret being here on a Sunday morning, you'd stop being here on a Sunday morning, and go find the coffee. My point is a bit different--although I must admit that I really am enthusiastic about the Hoosiers I've been reading, and I will continue to use them in what follows as representative examples of what I really am speaking about.
In the first place, how do we decide on subjects to collect? Desultory reading, the willingness to pick up and dip into, odd books that cross our paths, are, for me at any rate, the primary way in which I discover my interests. How could I know I might be interested in Indiana writers without reading one or two--or five or eight--of them? My assumption here is that a collecting field in which one is not interested misses the point. This stuff should be fun--and it should be fun not only because of the thrill of the chase but also because, once the beast is in hand, it's a lion, not a shrew. It doesn't matter whether it's a lion only for you (I really don't expect many folks to find Indiana writers their cup of tea): but if, for you, it's not a lion but a shrew, then it's time to hunt another beast.
In the second place, what do we collect for? Perhaps some of us do collect just for the thrill of the chase. If, knowing ourselves, we know that to be our case, then old fields are just as good as new fields. For instance, trying to build, at this late date, a great collection of fifteenth-century European printed books would be a real challenge. In that sense, it would be a rewarding collecting field for a hunter, not only because of the price of such books--their "trophy value"--but also because some of the greatest exemplars are virtually unattainable at any price. I am aware of only one Gutenberg Bible that remains in private hands. The next specialist in incunables who owns one is going to have had a merry, as well as a fairly expensive, time convincing some institution or other that it needs his or her money more than it needs that old book. On the other hand, the chances of finding something genuinely new in the field are, at this late date, while by no means impossible, certainly rather slim.
But the hunt motive can, I believe, satisfy only in part. Those collectors build the most satisfying collections whose objects were not only interesting to acquire but also become the bases of scholarship and learning, sources, that is, for the cultivation of new knowledge. They may (like my earlier example, the Sackners's Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry) even make new knowledge possible by defining a field and making it an arena of collecting and inquiry both, as, hitherto, it had not been. We gather things together because we think that a whole may illuminate things that parts cannot. As the collector Michael Zinman has pointed out, in what he calls the Zinman "Critical Mess" theory, "If you accumulate enough of anything together, at some point the accumulation takes on a life of its own, and one of importance, too." Your accumulation will enable you to learn things you could not otherwise have known, and produce something of value.
Collecting, in short, ought to be fun. It ought also to be an intellectual exercise, its purpose the creation of a gestalt which could not have been comprehended before the collection came into existence.
Indiana writers? There are a lot of them--and surprisingly interesting they are. They illuminate the history of their region. They recall a past and a landscape now irretrievably lost to us. They illuminate and expand our view of American history--in Eggleston's case, how early Methodist and other itinerant preachers helped, first, to civilize a frontier society cut off from most other sources of civilizing influences. Second, he recalls an era, now nearly impossible to comprehend, when sectarian differences, such as those that divide Presbyterians from Methodists, could seem so significant that a Presbyterian parson might ignore the imminent demise of one of his own flock while meditating theological doom on the Methodist enemy. Here, brought to life, is a sense of the rich variety of middle American history that few other narrative sources provide. And yet these writers are not historians, at least, not the ones I have read. (Eggleston becomes a historian, to be sure--but I only got my copy of one of his histories last week and haven't read it yet.) My Hoosiers are creative writers whose stories, novels, and poems provide more than any history alone can provide. (I've stolen this view of history from the Defence of Poetry written by Sir Philip Sidney, a sixteenth-century English poet--but I think he might just possibly have been right.)
Nonetheless, as literature, these Indiana writers and their works are--like almost all so-called "regional" American writers and literatures, my "real" topic this morning--badly neglected.
It is, I know, a broad generalization, yet I believe it to be true, that, on the whole, American history and literature are not broadly constructed collecting fields but rather quite narrowly constructed. Thus, for example, "Americana" collections tend to concentrate on what are perceived to be the two main "heroic" periods of American history, first, the era of initial voyages and travels, and, second, the era of western overland expansion. A few special topics attract collecting attention, notably, the Revolution and, of course, the Civil War. Topics such as African-American history, abolition and slavery, various wars, native Americans, and various immigrant cultures--Irish, Jewish, Asian--attract additional attention, joined of late by some who are interested in, say, the growth of women's suffrage or, more generally, women's rights, or by the culture of the 1960s.
American literature is conceived on an even more severely constipated basis than its history, and, I think, with complete lack of critical self-consciousness about these restrictions. Essentially, if a book by an American writer doesn't concern the eastern seaboard, the California coast, or a very few places like, let us say, Chicago, it might as well not exist. Indiana is distinctly out of that orbit of guaranteed significance. So are a lot of places. And, outside the arena of "modern firsts" (or partly outside it), collectors pay as little attention to the bulk of such literature "from the margins" as do reviewers, academics, and, it sometimes seems, book-buyers and -readers, as well.
We all know, of course, that this is an era when enormous amounts of critical, scholarly, and reading attention are being paid to previously marginalized writers, especially women. Even such long-dismissed "regionalists" as Willa Cather, a Nebraska writer long a specialized taste only, have benefited from this boom, and Cather herself is one of the women whose newly-attained canonical status has been proclaimed by her inclusion in The Library of America series. Are any Indiana women writers recipients of comparable reassessment and republication? In fact, can anyone name a female Indiana writer?
I am tempted to develop here an excursus on female Indiana writer Gene Stratton Porter. Freckles and The Girl of the Limberlost retain a certain following, particularly among women readers. "Girlie" books, they are not much read by little boys. Her novels include books about World War I (The Keeper of the Bees), naturally-grown medicinal drugs (The Harvester), "family values" (Michael O'Halloran), feminism (A Daughter of the Land), male homosocial relationships (At the Foot of the Rainbow), and other topics that one would have supposed capable, in theory, of attracting readers. Once upon a time, they did: she was a huge bestseller in the early twentieth century. But now her books seem to have disappeared altogether from general consciousness, and--especially since they remain in print in Indiana paperbacks--completely without reason. I say this as one of very few people I know who has read nearly all of her novels. Stratton Porter's subjects include the "Americanization" of immigrant populations; "purity" of food and drink; the importance of family life in the upbringing of the young; the merits of the Irish--as you can see, they are often very curious subjects indeed. As I hope I suggested in indicating that one of her novels deals with male homosocial relationships--others also deal with this theme on the side, as it were, and she seems almost to have read Eve Sedgwick's now-classic scholarly treatment of literary homosociality before sitting down to write her own books some eighty or so years before Sedgwick wrote hers--her treatment of such themes is often more than merely "curious"!
But I will not spend a great deal of time on Stratton Porter. She is just one more instance--and I have many of them--of writers whose interest has gone unnoticed by a literary and academic establishment that has, it seems to me, lost much of its capacity for old-fashioned curiosity. Knowing in advance there is nothing to find, we do not bother to look. Particularly do we not look among the discarded old books of our own past.
In fact, inclusion in--relegation to--the ranks of the merely regional has not proven to be a blessing for most women writers. Cather's new canonicity depends on her removal from "regionalist" ranks due to the discovery of "universal" values in her work--"universal" values that, we must presume, were not there when she was just another regionalist. Janice Holt Giles, a 1940s-1950s Kentucky novelist, is--like Stratton Porter--as dead as a doornail, which seems to be the case even though the university presses of Indiana and Kentucky have reprinted both Stratton Porter and Giles. (Parenthetically, it may be worth mentioning that regional male writers also suffer neglect. Who here has read Kentuckian James Lane Allen? A Kentucky Cardinal, a love story drenched in an acute sensitivity to the natural world derived from Allen's real appreciation of Henry David Thoreau, but translated from New England to a border state, is a thoroughly lovely book. Who knows it any longer?) What may be among the best American bildungsromane about a girl's coming of age--among the best, at any rate, known to me--is Mildred Walker's 1944 Winter Wheat, set in Montana. Its setting proved the novel's kiss of death--although, as Kentucky has reprinted Janice Holt Giles and Indiana has reprinted Gene Stratton Porter, so Nebraska has reprinted Walker, and it would be interesting to know whether any of these series is selling to a current generation of readers.
In theory, the margins are now areas of intellectual interest and critical concern. In truth, because most academics have the intellectual curiosity of week-old mackerel, and in any case find it easier to teach what they themselves have been taught, the vast and disturbing changes that canon warriors are so quick to discern as among the causes for the intellectual disarray of the modern university are almost nowhere to be seen. The rhetoric of change serves only to appall conservatives while at the same time it masks a dull and unreflective sameness to the curriculum that dynamite itself might do little to dislodge. Or, to put this another way, we--collectors, academics, readers--behave as if American literature were so vast an arena of riches that we can afford to throw most of it away. My father, for whom America's literature was a vast arena of riches to be explored and savored, along with the country from which that literature had arisen, would have been amazed by this indifference. I doubt that he would have understood it. I certainly do not understand it at all.
I am not proposing Indiana writers per se as a "new path" for collectors. I have used them, instead, as representatives of American regionalists generally--writers of the kinds of books I call, in the privacy of my own thoughts, "dead books"--books that have fallen into oblivion, are rarely if ever read even by so-called specialists, are relegated even by large research libraries to off-site storage facilities (literal "margins"!), but which might, if recovered, prove to offer real rewards. Who will do that recovery? Academics? Don't hold your breath.
For collectors, however, such books offer real rewards. They offer, for instance, the thrill of the chase. In the late 1960s, I read a book by Terre Haute-born writer Janice Davis Warnke, The Narrow Lyre. Published in New York in 1958 by that fly-by-night publisher, Harper, the book is one it has taken me some thirty years to find--although find it I did, at long last, just last month (on, of all places, the web). Too obscure to be worth cataloguing, its author is known, if at all, only as a sometime contributor to Opera News, the Metropolitan Opera broadcast journal, and as the writer of one other novel, A Pursuit of Furies, her 1962 reaction to the crushing of the Hungarian revolt against Russian domination during the height of the Cold War. (That novel is easy to find.) The Narrow Lyre is more or less the Indiana writers's equivalent of the ten-dollar book in the Sackner collection. It's a book easy to buy when it first appears . . . but, if you don't buy it then, you'll never see it again. That is the fate of a lot of regional literature, or of books marginalized not by geography but by gender, religion, class, politics, or whatever else has kept books from reaching their audiences. Sometimes it may simply have been wretched marketing. In other instances--as, for example, with one of the indisputably "great" Indiana writers, Theodore Dreiser--it may be a response to his non-Protestantism (Dreiser was a Roman Catholic) or to his non-Anglo background (Dreiser was of German background), that is, simple, old-fashioned prejudice.
Once neglect ends, however, such books as these offer other interests in addition to the thrill of the chase. If you're interested in such specialties as, say, children's books, regional literature offers many rewards. Maurice Thompson's Alice of Old Vincennes, for instance, is an extremely interesting and odd book about the early French settlement of Indiana during the American Revolution, "odd" because its author really doesn't quite know how to handle the fact that his story inescapably concerns Roman Catholics. Charles Major's Uncle Tom Andy Bill and The Bears of Blue River are fascinating books about boys, bears, and guns. One author whose name at least has survived, Booth Tarkington, evoked childhood memorably--though somewhat obnoxiously for modern tastes--in Penrod, Penrod and Sam, Penrod Jashber, and Seventeen.
Many of these books are illustrated, and often by some well-known (as well as by some lesser-known) names in American illustration history. Howard Chandler Christy comes to mind among the illustrators of Meredith Nicholson. Nicholson's books are also among many that sport quite interesting decorated bindings. As just one example, Nicholson's House of a Thousand Candles, published in Indianapolis by Bobbs-Merrill in 1905, has covers decorated by R. K. Richardson. (By the way, the cover of James Lane Allen's A Kentucky Cardinal, a book I mentioned earlier, was recently exhibited at the University of Virginia in a show of Calvin Otto's collection of decorated American cloth bindings.) Now almost completely unknown, Meredith Nicholson was once a great name not only in Hoosier but even in American letters. In 1952, five years after his death, he received bibliographical treatment by Dorothy Russo and Thelma Lois Sullivan in Bibliographical Studies of Seven Authors of Crawfordsville, Indiana. Since then, he has fallen into an abyss. When I first read him, I was the first person to check out his books since, at the latest, the year of his death, 1947.
If you're interested in publishing history--well, once upon a time, Indianapolis was a trade publishing location, and Bobbs-Merrill, in several incarnations, was the prime exemplar of that once-upon-a-time tradition. We know about the virtues of collecting, oh, say Knopf or New Directions or Ticknor & Fields. Who collects Indianapolis imprints?
I must emphasize that these Hoosiers are all examples only. Has Philadelphia a "regional" literature that anyone collects? Has Pennsylvania? or Cleveland? or Ohio? or Nevada? And might the literature of such places repay our attention?
Several people here today come from Ohio. Which of you has read Conrad Richter's trilogy about the settlement of Ohio, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town? Richter is another writer, now dead and buried beneath the regionalist label, who used to be thought quite important. He wrote, in fact, not only about Ohio, but also--and beautifully--about Pennsylvania and about "the west" (New Mexico; the "new" trans-Mississippi west, that is). When he was alive, he received about every honor an American writer could receive. Now he has been honored with oblivion. Is it a deserved oblivion? Without dusting him off, who can tell? I read Richter in tribute less to my father than to my mother, whom I remember reading his books year after year with immense pleasure. At the time, I thought she was an idiot. I knew better. I'm no longer quite so sure I was right.
Collectors who set out to explore the past of their own region, or of a region in which they merely have some curiosity, might discover a wealth of possible approaches to that region--fiction, poetry, and drama, of course; but also bindings; children's books; historical fictions; illustrations; travels or memoirs; association copies . . . and the thrill of chasing not only books that are occasionally so magnificently insignificant that they cannot be found for love or money but also may--occasionally--illuminate the American historical and literary past.
I think that is a project which deserves attention from American collectors. Modern firsts? They have their charms, but they are . . . well, common. The already canonical? They've already been done. European literature or history? Well, sure--one might even, for instance, look at Europeans's reactions to America, not only in the always popular sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, but even in the twentieth century. Paul Morand's 1930 New York, for instance, the response of someone who would later attain a certain kind of renown as a French collaborator with the Nazi occupation, has a certain attraction, despite this aspect of his past, for the New-York-o-centric me. Books like it might, and will, be found for other regions of this country, as well. The prospect of contributing to a re-evaluation of what we have thought constitutes the corpus of "American literature" should itself to be an additional attraction, as well as the prospect of providing primary materials, far too often neglected by institutional and private collectors, to assist in making possible just that kind of re-evaluation. I know of only one really good study of a regional writer, Louis Renza's book on Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett's tiny story, "A White Heron." Is that one study enough? I doubt it. There may others; but somehow I doubt that, too. "Bad" writers get bad critics. And in any case, despite the occasional bibliography such as Russo and Sullivan's, often the basic tools permitting the creation of relevant collections and providing scholars with the necessary preliminary facts are not easily found. For every seven writers in Russo and Sullivan, dozens of writers remain in the bibliographical wilderness. The collections and the tools to help tame that wilderness do not yet exist.
In short, lots of aspects of this field suggest that it might be fun, including the chances it offers any collector to slice it in umpty-dozen different ways. It might also offer the opportunity to collect something that is, too often for an American audience, still rich and strange: America's own literature.
My own exploration of Indiana--and I assure you, I have but scratched its surface here this morning--has brought me pleasures I could not have dared to predict when it began. The similar investigation of America in other of its regions--indeed, even in that one--remains to be undertaken. Any number of "dead books"--who knows how many?--remain to be breathed into new life. For me it has been a labor of sheer love--and thus, no labor at all. My parents's passions for the literature and the country to which they both traveled as small bundles beneath their own mothers's arms, have, it seems, been transmitted--as a Lamarckian acquired characteristic?--to their son. Might some of you also find the exploration of America's regional literatures a worthy "new path" at the start of the third century of this wonderful--and wonderfully odd--country's astonishing history?
send Traister e-mail concerning this page at
You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at email@example.com.
Return to Daniel Traister's
Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.