05_rev_Chen

Book Reviews

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Due to space limitations, it may not be possible for all books received to be reviewed in RBM. Books or publication announcements should be sent to the Reviews Editor: Amy Cooper Cary, Raynor Memorial Library, Marquette University, 1415 W. Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53233-2221, e-mail: amy.cary@marquette.edu, (414) 288-5901.

The Pioneer Americanists: Early Collectors, Dealers, and Bibliographers. J. Kevin Graffagnino, Terese M. Austin, Jayne Ptolemy, and Brian Leigh Dunnigan, eds. Ann Arbor: The Clements Library at the University of Michigan, 2017. 230p. Hardcover, $50.00 (ISBN 9781881606093).

Editors J. Kevin Graffagnino, Terese M. Austin, Jayne Ptolemy, and Brian Leigh Dunnigan seek to turn Americanists’ attention back to the origins of their field, before the titans of twentieth-century industry built our country’s major collections with the wealth of the industrial revolution. By devoting a book to the earliest collectors, dealers, and bibliographers of Americana, the editors argue that the field was already motivated by nostalgia; they assert that embedded in this history of bookmen is a narrative of how “middle and upper-class America: white, Protestant filiopietistic, and male” chose recent history, an intriguing insight in the time of “Make America Great Again” (11).

Graffagnino, Austin, Ptolemy, and Dunnigan are well situated to provide such an overview. All are administrators at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. Graffagnino is the Director; Austin, the Head of Reader Services; Ptolemy, the Reading Room Supervisor and Curatorial Assistant; and Dunnigan, the Associate Director and Curator of Maps. Although the editors are from the same institution, their expertise reaches far beyond their library’s doors.

Graffagnino’s introduction, “Bibliotheca Americana: The Rise of a Collecting Specialty, 1700–1900,” outlines the major firsts of early Americana: the first manuscript (Christopher Columbus letter, 1483), the first printing press (Mexico City, 1539), the first book auction held in America (Boston, 1713), and the first auction dedicated to Americana (Boston, 1844). Each of the sixteen subsequent chapters, coauthored by the editors, are dedicated to a bookman born between 1600 and 1832: White Kennett, Isaiah Thomas, Peter Force, John Carter Brown, Samuel G. Drake, James Lenox, John Russell Bartlett, William Menzies, Lyman Copeland Draper, George Brinley Jr., Henry Stevens Jr., Joseph Sabin, Samuel L.M. Barlow, Robert Clarke, Henry Harrisse, and Hubert Howe Bancroft. Each profile includes a portrait or photograph, short biography, excerpts from pieces about the subject’s activity in the rare book trade as well as brief recommended reading lists, notes, and bibliographies.

The Pioneer Americanists’ primary strength is evident in its outlines of the networks connecting dealers, auctioneers, private collectors, and institutions. I was fascinated by the rivalry between collectors James Lenox and John Carter Brown and sympathized with the care that bookseller Henry Stevens Jr. needed to take to maintain his connection with both men and their wallets (92–93). No doubt many contemporary rare book dealers and curators would empathize with Stevens. Furthermore, I appreciated the efforts to ensure that the chapter biographies remained objective. Although every biography felt the need to reaffirm how well regarded each man was within his community, some individuals, like Sabin and Harrisse, came across as less likable than the others. As a result, this volume would be a welcome starting-off point for a digital humanist interested in network analysis of the early American book trade.

A secondary strength of the volume is its frank acknowledgment of when its subjects engaged in practices that would now be considered unethical or discriminatory. Lyman Copeland Draper, a curator for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, collected both personally and professionally in “what later generations would consider a clear conflict of interest” (133). Henry Stevens Jr., an American book dealer who settled in London, “marr[ied] damaged pieces of rare items to produce ‘perfect’ copies,” a practice vilified by today’s preservation librarians (153). And few of these bookmen showed interest in collecting materials by or about women, people of color, or the working class (11).

The editors anticipate one inevitable critique: the bookmen they chose to include are not diverse by sex, race, or class. The editors justify their selection, stating that while women “were the backbone of the era’s historical institutions, and a considerable number carved out lengthy and distinguished careers … they toiled in professional obscurity with no opportunity to rise to leadership positions” (12–13). No people of color are included; readers learn African American participants in the rare book trade collected on behalf of organizations rather than privately. As The Pioneer Americanists is dedicated to individuals, identifying and discussing these organizations’ activities fell outside the scope of the volume (16). Class is tricky too; even if an individual was born into a working-class environment, becoming a notable collector required gaining access to significant disposable income and free time.

Scholars of print culture and practitioners in the field of special collections would find The Pioneer Americanists a good starting place to learn more about the subject. This overview of major early collectors and collections serves as an appetizer to meatier tomes such as John Hruschka’s How Books Came to America: The Rise of the American Book Trade (PSU UP, 2011) and volumes 1 and 2 of A History of the Book in America (American Antiquarian Society and Cambridge UP, 2000; UNC Press, 2010) as well as the numerous monographs devoted to regional histories of American print culture. This new volume is of most use to scholars and practitioners who want to learn more about institutional collecting history, as it outlines how historical societies, academic libraries, and other organizations used the dissolution of private collections to enhance their holdings. However, as The Pioneer Americanists is the size of a coffee table book and is beautifully illustrated by images from a variety of repositories, its format suggests that it is largely intended for display, possibly in the personal homes of collectors who aspire to compile the next great Americana collection themselves. As the cover image is pixelated, an odd mistake considering the high quality of the images inside the text, those who want to show off the volume might wish to remove the slipcover first.—Amy Hildreth Chen, University of Iowa Libraries



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