Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In the October Moon, by Dallas Lore Sharp

Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929) was an American nature writer and a professor of English at Boston University.  His 1908 book The Lay of the Land is considered a landmark in the American conservation movement.  His books were very popular, and were prescribed reading in some elementary schools.  His writing is beautiful.  It expresses all the wonder of moonlit nights and chilly mornings, and the thrill of new discoveries.  When he writes about animals, he sympathizes with them without anthropomorphising them.  They are fellow travelers due respect.

The essay "In the October Moon" is included in his book Wild Life Near Home, published in 1901.  John Burroughs said of the book "of all the nature books of recent years, I look upon Mr. Sharp's as the best." Excerpts from this book were collected in a small volume called A Watcher in the Woods, published in 1910 and intended for schoolchildren.  My copy of the latter book has, stamped in light blue ink on its title page, the words "Prescribed for eighth grade reading in the 1910 syllabus of the New York State Dept. of Education".  

Several people have owned the book before me.  Written on its pages is the name of someone who called himself "Junior" in 1913, then seems to have decided to call himself "Jimmy" in 1914.  These are written in indigo ink, in much better handwriting than mine, but a little awkwardly by the high standards of the time.  There's also a (later?) name, written lightly in pencil, of a lady named Elizabeth.  These are the things that change a book from a document into an artifact.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting

My father was an upholsterer and a Baptist preacher.  In his role as an upholsterer, people sometimes gave him unwanted furniture, which he'd then either sell, or keep for our own use.  One of the most memorable pieces was a large, glass-fronted cabinet; a bookcase made of cherry wood with an old, dark, gummy finish.  It stood about five feet tall and six feet wide, and lived near the front of my father's shop, in his "office", which was just a front corner by one of the display windows, with a desk and a telephone.

Most importantly, when my father acquired this cabinet it still contained a residue of books.  There was a three-volume People's Cyclopedia of Universal  Knowledge.  There were the six volumes of The Century Dictionary.  There were novels, like The Romance of an Old-Fashioned Gentleman by F. Hopkinson Smith, and The Cardinal's Mistress by Benito Mussolini (!).  There was a large, coverless book of photographs of places in Switzerland and Italy, from around 1900.  (Each page was thick cardboard, and there was one large photograph per page.)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there were few books in the houses I frequented as a child.  The books in this cabinet became my treasures.  I claimed them all; all except one volume of the Century Dictionary, which my father casually gave away to a curious visitor.  The loss still pains me.

One of the books in the cabinet was Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting (which I mistakenly read as "High Lofting" for many years).  It became the first "real" book (not a "Little Golden Book" or some such) that I ever read all the way through.  I loved this book.  I loved it so much I wept when I was done with it, devastated by the thought that the book was over.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Black Stone, by George Gibbs

George Fort Gibbs
In a typical used book store, well-known authors amount to only tiny islands in a sea of books by less familiar writers.  We know all about Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates and Hermann Hesse.  But what about the books in between?  What about F. Marion Crawford, Robert W. Chambers, and Frank R. Stockton?  These were once very popular authors, familiar to the reading public, but today they're effectively forgotten.  If their books were once popular, isn't there still some value in them though?  If nothing else, don't they tell us something about the readers who once enjoyed them?

George Fort Gibbs (1870-1942) is the archetypal Forgotten Author.  He was a talented and well-respected artist and illustrator, and the author of almost fifty novels. His illustrations were featured in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post. He created the cover illustration for the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.  He created murals for Penn Station and Girard College in Philadelphia.  As a "fine artist" he created lovely portraits that were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Gallery. Some of his novels were made into films (one of them, The Yellow Dove, twice!), and he co-authored the screenplay for a film version of the life of Voltaire.  He was  successful in many fields, and seems to have led a happy, prosperous life.

Yet today, you'll find few reference books that acknowledge his existence, and those that do only provide his birth and death dates and a partial list of his novels.