The Poe Perplex: A Homeless Poet Worth His Weight in Gold Haunts the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale
Ten years ago, in the March 31, 2004 issue of Town Topics, I wrote my first column about the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale (BM-W), “Billy Collins and the Homeless Poets of Bryn Mawr.” By “homeless poets” I meant the ones whose books were left behind when the dust of the sale had cleared. Being the rare poet whose books sell well, Billy Collins was, and presumably still is, the obvious exception, as are collectible poets like Wallace Stevens. Yet here’s the storied, much anthologized Edgar Allan Poe, a perennial player in the American narrative whose market value is the gold standard of literature, and somehow the “homeless” idea applies.
What is it about Poe? What makes him seem to this day somehow disreputable, unstable, not quite to be trusted or taken at his word, the uninvited guest rapping at the door we’re not sure we want to open? Even now, he’s one of the most useful reference points to be cited or consulted whenever weird or unearthly or inexplicable events occur, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. If the author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination were around he’d be taking notes and perhaps already working out an updated sequel to that bizarre epic of death ships and disappearances, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which ends with the narrator and his swarthy companion in a canoe with a dead native rushing “into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.” And what do they see at the final moment but “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”
Lusting for Gold
When the doors open at 10 a.m. on this year’s Preview Day, Friday, March 21, the collectors in the crowd will be pursuing a dream volume or volumes while the dealers continue their high-stakes business mission, some having come from great distances looking for stock that could make a serious financial difference for them in the year ahead. At the same time, any book-wise, market-savvy dealer or collector who has paid $20 for the preview equivalent of a lottery ticket is hoping that this sale may finally prove to be the grand prize winner, the route to buried treasure, the “gold in them thar hills.” And of all authors, who do enlightened book folk think of in association with treasure and riches? Who is the “shrouded human figure” they see “at the final moment?” Who else but the author of “The Gold Bug”?
Consider the against-all-odds likelihood of a Poe first edition somehow slipping between the cracks in the form of a shabby ne’er do well, the tattered equivalent of the troubled, storm-wracked author himself, dying down and out on the streets of Baltimore. Let’s say you stumble on a copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, the two volume collection of Poe’s stories published by Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1840. Because of its condition, covers worn, spine faded, title all but illegible, a stain covering the author’s name on the title page, let’s imagine that the beggarly twosome turns up on the Old and Unusual table marked for $10. If you have even a clue as to the value of the decrepit item, your telltale heart will begin pounding, your hands will get moist, and your manner will become shifty and suspect even though you’ve done no wrong; the prize is in your hands, you fully intend to buy it, so pay no mind to the nagging of your conscience. If your life seems a constant scuffle after money, as Poe’s was, you’ll be morally within your rights. Better you than some billionaire bibliophile, you’re thinking.
But when the time comes to pay, it’s a challenge to appear casual. Twinges of dread and guilt undermine you. You may even sense the presence of a spectral Poe leering over your shoulder at the friendly female volunteer tabulating the cost of your various purchases (for even should you find nothing else worth buying, you need other ordinary books for cover, to dim the glow of the nugget, as it were.
What a moment when the volunteer opens the first volume of the treasure, sees the price, hesitates, ponders, furrows her brow — oh no! does she —, is she —, will she call on some higher authority for a price check? Poe’s definitely by your side now, whispering fancies of deception in your ear, urging you to prevaricate; if you have a veteran book dealer’s chutzpah, you’ll ask the lady if maybe she could take a dollar off, I mean look at the condition!
You die and come back to life as the volunteer closes the second volume and writes $10 on your tab, which for, say 12 books, comes to a total of $54, not a bad day’s shopping, seeing as how your ten-dollar purchase is being offered, in lesser condition, for $40,000 online.
“Got some nice bargains today, I bet,” says the smiling volunteer. To which you have all you can do to stifle an outburst of maniacal laughter. Poe is tickling your ribs and cackling. And so with a brave new world of possibility swelling in your breast, you take your time (easy, slow down, don’t run, you haven’t done anything wrong, you’re no thief) walking out the door into a mad, mad, mad new world.
What gives the imaginary situation a peculiar and uneasy moral resonance is knowing that Poe was paid nothing, not a cent, no royalties, for the book you will sell at auction for at least 20 grand after taxes. All the author got was 20 free copies. His hopes had been high. Writing to Washington Irving, the monied master of Sunnyvale, he humbly begged an endorsement he never received (“If I could be permitted to add even a word or two from yourself … my fortune would be made”).
It’s beyond irony. Poe’s fortune is made all right, but not for him, he whose first book Tamerlane and Other Poems, a 40-page pamphlet authored “by a Bostonian” in 1827, sold at Christies in 2009 for $662,500.
How does it happen that in 2014 the name Poe means spectacular numbers on the antiquarian market? Why this perversion of the typical American rags to riches story leading to no riches, nevermore, only the phantom semblance of literary glory and immortality? While small print runs of the original volumes can be factored into the equation (it’s said that only 12 copies of Tamerlane have survived), the reason Poe’s books command immense sums is the immensity of his legend, his tragedy, his fate, the depth of his misery, the curse and blessing of his greatness. The irony is embedded in his very identity — a poet without a “t” whose name in certain dialects can be mistaken for another mockingly pertinent word. In David Simon’s portrait of Baltimore, The Wire, “Poe” is heard as “poor,” one of the real-life public housing projects bears his name, and in Season Two a white tourist asking directions to the Poe House is told “Look around you — all the houses ‘round here are po’ houses.”
There you have him — homeless, down and out, poor, misunderstood, and worth his weight in gold.
A Preview’s Preview
Since this is a preview of the upcoming March 21-25 BM-W sale rather than a report after the fact, it was necessary for me to visit the PDS gym as the stock was being unboxed and assembled, a process that had only just begun when I stopped by last weekend. Fortunately, the tables devoted to the last half of Peter Oppenheimer’s extraordinary donation were already being filled. And what do you suppose was the smallest, shabbiest, most despondent, most truly forlorn-looking volume I found among the otherwise solid, weighty, well-taken-care-of, seriously scholarly ranks? Yes, here he is again in all his grubby glory, our creepy Kilroy, a rubber band holding him together since the front cover bearing his signature in gold is about to become fully detached. On the spine, the gold lettering stands out, clear, unfaded, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Down the spine also in gold is a William Morris-style arts and crafts embellishment. Across the bottom of the spine are the words “Plymouth Publishing Company.” In all the years I’ve been going to book sales and secondhand bookshops, I’ve never seen the name of that publisher, which is located, says the title page, at 7 West 42. If you know and love New York, you will try to picture what such an address would look like around the turn of the previous century, in the days before Times Square, when midtown was uptown.
At the top of the title page are three words that say it all for Poe, as good as singing his dark song: The Midnight Edition. Curious to see if any of the Plymouth Poes are available online, I could find only two, the first one from Old Church Books in Webster, N.Y., which is asking $30 for a copy “bound in burgandy [sic] leather with guilt [sic] paper edges.” That’s what it says, guilt paper in a volume of Poe. The text is “clean and mark free,” but “the top third of spine has been chewed on and is partly missing.” (Who or what did the chewing is best left to the imagination.) The only other copy in abebooks.com comes from Banks Books & Etc in Palmetto, Georgia. This one is a black hard cover, same size, gold on the top edge but “fly-specked on the other two.” Ah, but there’s a vertical crease in the backstrip; sounds very like the crack running through the House of Usher. This one is $70. Byrn Mawr is asking $6.
The first box I saw being opened in Collector’s Corner contained some familiar volumes from the magnificent Princeton University Press/Bollingen edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, something Peter Oppenheimer and I had talked about more than once in the bank vault housing Witherspoon Books, where Peter used to work. Speaking of the author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the prizes of the Oppenheimer donation is a 20-volume set of Purchase His Pilgrimes, which was among the chief works inspiring both the “Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Other volumes from Peter’s massive library include a three-volume set of Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; John von Neumann’s Theory of Self Reproducing Automata; and a two-volume set of William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.
Based on the concluding image of Arthur Gordon Pym, the illustration shown, from 1864 is by Yan’ Dargent.