While I was sitting at my desk this morning and cataloguing, I harkened back to the one axiom to which I cling as a bookseller: research on a book or pamphlet creates value.
The bookseller takes an item and does his utmost to create as many reasons as he can to suggest the title might be worth the interest (and money) of a discerning collector or librarian. An otherwise unremarkable piece becomes, with a little historical context, suddenly emblematic of diverse cultural forces.
One of my favorite instances of this phenomenon was the digging I had to do about three years back to sell a supposed tenth edition of Adolf Glassbrenner’s Berlin wie es ist und — trinkt. Von Ad. Brennglas. “Eckensteher.” Mit einem Titelkupfer. Zehnte Auflage (New York: Wilhelm Radde, 322 Broadway, Heinrich Ludwig, Buckdrucker, 1845), an unassuming little unbound duodecimo pamphlet that included a humorous frontispiece signed “Strong.”
Much as I would have liked to have ignored the thing, I had paid a few bucks for it and it wasn’t doing me any good just sitting there, and happily a cursory bit of research suggested the pamphlet in this edition was not listed in the usual online resources like OCLC or the Library of Congress catalog. This led me of course to that bookseller’s Homeric epithet “curious and fugitive.” (The tag is a poetic dodge that allows you to avoid claiming that it’s completely unknown and unrecorded, for how can one disprove the existence of the black swan’s twin?)
The title was a bit of popular contemporary satire from Berlin that had almost certainly been published for the local immigrant market in New York, but was apparently a whimsical speculative sideline on the part of the publisher, the German-American homeopathic pharmacist (and sometime publisher of popular books) Wilhelm Radde, who was at that Broadway address and “was the agent for the Central Homœopathic Pharmacy of Leipsic” (King’s History of homoeopathy and its institutions in America, 1905). This was an early title to go out under Radde’s imprint, and he evidently catered to a market for cheap popular literature (German school books, almanacs, editions of Undine, etc.). Ludwig, the printer, appears to have published a handful of German children’s and religious books in early-mid 19th century New York. The frontispice, depicting a loafer (“eckensteher”) drowsing off his inebriation beneath a dripping downspout, is signed Strong–perhaps T. W. Strong who (to judge from Hamilton’s Early American Book Illustrators and Wood Engravers 1670-1870) was active in New York at this period and who, though apparently not himself blessed with the good fortune to be German, had worked before on projects with German-Americans.
The specific market forces that had conspired to summon this little piece of cheap American publishing out of the void had some 165 years later meant that the little thing in my hand could be said to be of interest to institutions, and indeed it was; it ended up in a research library where it awaits the interest of some discerning scholar of the transatlantic cultural exchanges of the German urban immigrant, or the elasticity of contemporary medical ethics in light of the profit motive, etc. etc.
The example above of course is all by way of digression, since the piece I have in hand this morning is a single issue of a weekly newspaper issued in 1831 in Taunton, Mass., a copy of the Village Fire Fly of November 21, 1831 (pictured above, and published with the genial epigraph, “Laugh and be Fat”).
This copy came into my hands on my trip to New England last November, when I noticed a dealer had penciled something to the effect of “Story like Poe?” across the upper margin. Indeed, the unsigned tale “The Man Buried Alive,” seems as though it could have been written by Poe–it’s a vivid first person narrative of the sensations of a man presumed dead (but who is of course in a sort of trance) who is then brought back to life by grave robbing anatomists on the dissection table after the application of a galvanic charge:
When they had satisfied themselves with the galvanic phenomena, the demonstrator took the knife, and pierced my on the bosom with the point. I felt a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout my whole frame; a convulsive shuddering instantly followed: and a shriek of horror rose from all present. The ice of death was broken up; my trance ended.
This little 4-page paper measuring barely nine inches seemed a curious place for an early appearance of a possible Poe tale (or an American Gothic tale), but who knew whether or not any copies of the Village Fire Fly still existed outside the one in my hand? So I added it to my stack of things to buy and moved on to some other ill-informed purchase.
So after some two or three months I finally got to this niggling little problem piece and started digging. First of all, the esteemed American Antiquarian Society (perhaps the best place to start when you have an American imprint before 1876) has a complete file of the 52 published issues of the paper, so I wasn’t going to be able to sell this piece on the strength of being completely unknown. (I held out hope that I might still be able to deploy “curious and fugitive,” and after locating only online versions, I just might slap that label on.)
So that led to the questions, who was the author of this cheerful little piece of taphephobia, and was it original to the Fire Fly?
Alas, though the story bears striking parallels to Poe’s account of the supposed burial and revival in 1831 of one Edward Stapleton in London, recounted by Poe in his 1844 story, “The Premature Burial,” a little digging traces the story here published back to its first unsigned appearance in Blackwood’s Magazine as “The Buried Alive” in October, 1821, after which it was then collected in the popular Scottish author John Galt’s anonymously-published The Steam-Boat (1822). (Given its inclusion in The Steam-Boat, I would dispute the 1997 Poe Encyclopedia, which under its entry for Blackwood’s Magazine attributes the 1821 article to Poe.)
Se even though we’ve figured out the story is a reprint and is not even American, we can at least salvage some comfort that Poe scholars nearly all seem to agree that the anecdote behind the Stapleton story was indeed lifted straight from this story and amplified by Poe. Also, passing reference in a couple of sources suggests the Galt version had in fact been in circulation among American periodicals in the 1820s and 1830s. Poe does not seem to have acknowledged the debt to Galt’s version, and in fact pokes fun of the story in passing in his satirical “The Psyche Zenobia (How to Write a Blackwood Article).” But the story was circulating through the American system and feeding the sources that inspired some of Poe’s macabre masterpieces; Poe’s genius was to take something coursing through the culture and transform it into art.
Of the Village Fire Fly, AAS notes that it ran to 52 weekly numbers through April 16, 1832, and per an 1883 history of Bristol County, the paper was published out of the offices of the Advocate. Besides the macabre story, the 4-page sheet includes humorous squibs (“Why is a cook like a barber?”) and public notices.
All of this research to catalogue a minor byway in American literature recalls Mark Twain’s assessment of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper,
Style may be likened to an army, the author to its general, the book to the campaign. Some authors proportion an attacking force to the strength or weakness, the importance or unimportance, of the object to be attacked; but Cooper doesn’t. It doesn’t make any difference to Cooper whether the object of attack is a hundred thousand men or a cow; he hurls his entire force against it. He comes thundering down with all his battalions at his back, cavalry in the van, artillery on the flanks, infantry massed in the middle, forty bands braying, a thousand banners streaming in the wind; and whether the object be an army or a cow you will see him come marching sublimely in, at the end of the engagement, bearing the more preferable fragments of the victim patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place.
Has the act of researching this piece, with my flags flying and forty bands braying, really added value? Have I disproved my fundamental axiom? Indeed, what I had bought in hopes of being a possible unrecorded piece of Poe (or at least Poe-iana) turned out to be something somewhat less than a unique Gothic snowflake. But as colleague Kenneth Mallory pointed out in an earlier thread on social media today (where I had essentially complained that this piece wasn’t sufficiently unrecorded), the discussion and complaint was “probably the most attention it’s ever gotten.” And indeed, my hope is that the weird confluence of social forces that brought the paper to this point will make the title of interest to somebody else willing to pay for the minor delights and disappointments encountered in the cataloguing of it.
(You may see the final product of the cataloguing here.)