Friday, November 27, 2009

Longfellow's receipt

In 1880, the revered American poet and scholar, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), bought a book printed in Pennsylvania German from H.L. Fisher, a York, Pennsylvania lawyer and poet. Fisher evidently self-published the book and had pre-printed receipts ready for the sales.

I have in my collection the receipt he made out to Henry W. Longfellow for his purchase of a copy of 'S Alt Marik-Haus Mittes In D'r Schtadt, Un Die Alte Zeite, a centennial poem in Pennsylvania Dutch.

So what interest did Longfellow have in some obscure German language book from a Pennsylvania lawyer who liked to write? That was one question I had when trying to determine if this were really the same Longfellow (how many Henry W's could there be?).

I don't know of any specific interest in Fisher. That may be forever lost to history. But in researching Longfellow and Fisher and related people, places, and events, I discovered a bigger picture about Longfellow and his collecting and scholarly pursuits that puts his Pennyslvania German acquisition into a better perspective.

Longfellow's ability in the ancient classics, while studying at Bowdoin College in the 1820s, led the trustees to establish a new chair of Modern Languages and offer the position to Longfellow. But first, he was instructed to study in Europe to prepare himself in the langauge and culture of France, Spain, and Italy.

Before setting sail, he met with George Ticknor in Boston. Ticknor's strong recommendation that the young graduate include Germany in his itinerary sowed the seeds of Longfellow's lifelong interest in Germany and its literature.

Longfellow returned after a few years to Bowdoin College to teach and later was offered a similar position at Harvard on the condition that he travel again to Europe, at his own expense, and attain more expertise in the German language.

His love and scholarly pursuits of German were lifelong and just a few years before his death, the receipt above indicates that he was still reading and studying German. I don't know the extent of his interest in Pennsylvania German or if it were something he aspired to late in life. But he knew enough to select a title from Fisher, "whose admirable contributions to Pennsylvania-German literature easily place him among the most gifted and fertile writers in the dialect." That attribute to Fisher is from a 1902 Pennsylvania-German Society publication article, Metrical Translations from the German and English Classics and from the Irish and Scotch Dialects into Pennsylvania German, by Thomas C. Zimmerman.

I consulted two biographies of Longfellow to learn more about him and attempt to find any connection he had to Pennsylvania German literature: New Light on Longfellow, with Special Reference to His Relations to Germany, by James Taft Hatfield (Houghton Mifflin, 1933) and Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, by Charles Calhoun (Beacon Press, 2004).

I wound up reading both and recommend them, as well as Harvard's Houghton Library site, Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200 for anyone interested in his life. There's a lot more to the man than Hiawatha and other anthologized relics from an immense, albeit faded (in popularity), American literary legacy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Russian Bookmark

I found a bookmark the other day, which I can't read, in a book that I also can't read. Both are in Russian language, printed with the Cyrillic alphabet.

I took a semester of Russian in the early to mid 1990s, thinking it might come in handy with my writing/editing work at NASA. It didn't.

Some of our astronauts, civil service personnel, and contractors were taking courses in Russian and traveling to Russia for work with the International Space Station. It couldn't hurt in that environment to have some knowledge of the language and culture of our Russian counterparts, right?

Well, Russian for me was a "painful" language to learn, so yeah, it did "hurt." I was also taking Spanish just because I liked the language, excelled at it in grade school and later grades, and I wanted to get reacquainted with it.

Spanish was a cake walk. Russian was an ordeal. About all I remember is a chunk of the Cyrillic alphabet and some of the sounds associated with individual symbols. Maybe enough to do some transliteration with the help of my Russian language books and the Internet. Conjugating verbs? No recuerdo nada en Ruso. But I don't have the time to spend translating this, or attempting to. Maybe some day.

Anyway, the bookmark is still pretty cool looking. Pretty unique, too, for my collection. And the book has interesting looking foldout maps. Maybe I'll stick it on ebay for a buck and say if you can read it, you can have it cheap. Unless it turns out to be some rare first edition, in which case it will stay with my bookmark. But how would I know?

Maybe I better get that Russian language book out...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Iceland bookseller and literary postal history

A bookseller from Iceland more than fifty years ago created this bit of ephemera with a double-biblio angle for my collection--books and philately (bibliophemera and bibliophilately).

This is an interesting postcard from the Icelandic bookseller Snaebjorn Jonsson & Co., The English Bookshop, in Reykjavik. They sent this postcard to Scott Publications, Inc., a publisher of stamp catalogs and other publications pertaining to stamp collecting (I used to get their catalogs when I was a kid).

Of interest is the identification of a bookseller in Iceland and the Icelandic history depicted on the stamps used to mail the postcard. The history deals specifically with antiquarian books and manuscripts.

The two stamps on the postcard are from a 1953 set of five issued to commemorate Iceland's literary heritage.

I've been researching these stamps and the literature depicted on them for the better part of this year. The leads have been hard to come by, but just as I had pieced together the start of this post, I discovered Leona Rostenberg's research.

The late Ms. Rostenberg, a well-known rare book dealer and stamp collector via her passion for books, wrote in 1978 an article for the American Philatelic Society titled, Bibliately ...a new philatelic word, for a new scholarly philatelic topical, the history of books on postage stamps. That article was reprinted in book form, a copy of which I now have.

The coined term bibliately seems to have given way later to bibliophilately (which I prefer), or maybe I should say "amended by.' Larry T. Nix offers on his excellent site some distinction between the two terms.

By whatever name, for collectors of this topical, Rostenberg's book is an indispensable resource and reference guide. Her research, once I discovered it, addressed most of my questions pertaining to the two stamps on the postcard and others in the set I learned of later. Quoting from her article on Icelandic stamps:
During the thirteenth century Iceland's Bishop Brand compiled a paraphrase of the historical books of the Bible which was completed through Exodus Stiorn, one leaf of which is reproduced on a one-krone Icelandic stamp.
That one-krone (Kr.), or króna, stamp is the one on the left on the postcard.

The two stamps on the postcard are from a set of five issued in 1953 (Scott 278-288) to commemorate Iceland's literary heritage.

Photo from Jay Smith & Associates

The two stamps depicting an open book, the 10 Aur. (Aurar) in black and the 1.75 Kr. in blue, depict the manuscript of an early law book. As for the 10 Kr. and 70 Aur. stamps, the leads grow cold. They depict Medieval manuscripts, perhaps a representative depiction of the Icelandic eddas and sagas rather than any particular manuscript.

Back to the bookseller who started all this... Snaebjorn Jonsson was a writer, publisher, and bookseller, whose English Bookshop is referenced in the return address on the postcard above.

From a Time Magazine issue of December 6, 1926, I learn that Editor could also be added to Jonsson's resume. He is referenced as having edited the first first Year Book of Iceland. The writer of the Time article seems equally taken with Jonsson's physical attributes as with his wordsmithing abilities, describing him as follows: "...a blond, curly-haired, strapping, virile, industrious Icelandic clerk and translator to the Danish Ministry of Industries."

I can't speak to the "strapping, virile" qualities, but "industrious" is quite evident from the pieces of business history that fall into place researching this man. In 1927, following up on his editing work of the Year Book, he wrote the Primer of Modern Icelandic. He became a publisher (Snaebjorn Jonsson & Co.) and branched off into bookselling, with The English Book Shop.

So this postcard proved to be a nice little piece of ephemera that offers a bit of insight into the literary, philatelic, and bookselling history of Iceland.


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