March 15, 2017

Bryn Mawr Book Sale Musings on the Ides of March With Shakespeare and Scott Fitzgerald 

The cover image of Fitzgerald’s Thoughtbook shown here is from the recent University of Minnesota reprint, subtitled A Secret Boyhood Diary, which is available in Kindle and paperback; the copy in Collector’s Corner is the much rarer 1965 Princeton University Library edition of the facsimile of Fitzgerald’s handwritten journal. For more information on the book sale, visit bmandwbooks.com.

It’s so quiet a moment you can hear the earth turning. “Here’s the book I sought,” Brutus says. “I put it in the pocket of my gown.” He’s talking to his servant Lucius in a scene near the end of Act IV of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Let me see, let me see, is not the leaf turn’d down where I left reading? Here it is, I think.”

We’re in Brutus’s tent, it’s “the deep of night,” and we have no idea what he’s reading. All we know is it’s a book, with the place marked by turning down the edge of a page, a familiar everyday human gesture that makes the moment intimate and real, whether it’s 44 B.C. or 1599 when the play was performed or now, on the page today, March 15, 2017, The Ides of March, the day Caesar was assassinated.

Brutus hasn’t long to live and he knows it. He’s about to be visited by Caesar’s ghost, and Shakespeare has him misplacing a book, asking his servant to help him find it (“I was sure your lordship did not give it to me”) and then, after humbly admitting “Bear with me, good boy, I am much forgetful,” asking Lucius to play “a strain or two” of music. Here’s the mighty Brutus who delivered the “unkindest cut of all” to Caesar and he’s gently deferring to a servant boy, “I trouble thee too much, but thou art willing,” and again “I should not urge thy duty past thy might,” and yet again (in case you doubted his impending fate) “I will not hold thee long. If I do live, I will be good to thee.” And when Lucius falls asleep, ever gentle Brutus, the quiet reader, goes out of his way not to wake him (“Good boy, good night”). Then, at the very moment he finds where he “left off reading,” the “monstrous apparition” descends upon him.

It’s All About Reading

The scene with Brutus and his book suggests a hushed Shakespearean state of mind conducive to an appreciation of the timeless pleasure of reading celebrated every year by the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. With this great community event only two days away, what better occasion to think about reading? I mean deep, blissed-out reading, the total absorption in a text bound between two covers like the 80,000 or so that are, to put it crudely, up for grabs this Friday when the dealers and first-comers will make their customary dent in the massive stock after paying $25 for the privilege of a day-long preview.

Thinking Fitzgerald

Of the rarities in this year’s Collectors Corner, one with special Princeton associations is The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published in facsimile by the Princeton University Library in 1965. However, a book that means much more to me in the afterglow of that moment with Brutus is one of the great “thoughtbooks” in American literature. Edited by Fitzgerald’s old friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson, The Crack Up is titled after the essay of the same name. What makes my own copy of the 1956 New Directions paperback a potent example of the tenuous notion of “value” in a world of secondhand books is that I’ve kept this battered volume, a Christmas gift from my mother when I was 17 (the spine barely holding together its 347 pages ) for all of my adult life.

The DNA of a Poet

Fitzgerald’s Thoughtbook shows Scott recording his moves in teenage society, measuring one girl against another, with regular entries about where he stood in this or that one’s affectations in relation to this or that male rival. Kept between August 1910 and February 1911, the journal was completed two months before he entered the Newman School in Hackensack. Some typical entries:

“Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15.”

“I am just crazy about Margaret Armstrong and I have the most awful crush on her that ever was.”

After fearing that a rival had Margaret’s heart, he records how she tells another girl “she liked me best. All the way home I was in the seventh heaven of delight.”

However rudimentary, here are intimations of Zelda and Scott in real life and the triangle of Daisy, Gatsby, and Tom in The Great Gatsby. The notebooks in The Crack Up, on the other hand, abound with glimpses of the poetry indispensable to Fitzgerald’s novelistic identity:

Suddenly the room rang like a diamond in all four corners.

The sea was coming up in little, intimidating rushes.

A soft bell hummed midnight.

The nineteen wild green eyes of the bus were coming up to them through the dark.

Several impressions closer to home:

New Jersey villages where even Sunday is only a restless lull between the crash of trains.

Parts of New Jersey … are under water, and other parts are under continual surveillance by the authorties.

Then there’s this one: Bryn Mawr coverlet.

So far I’ve been unable to find a Bryn Mawr alumna who knows what this could relate to; the most obvious source might be Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie, who went to Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore but not, it seems, the college in suburban Philadelphia that co-sponsors this week’s community book event.

Bringing Shakespeare to Melville

As soon as I realized that Town Topics would be coming out on the Ides of March, I wanted to read Julius Caesar, grateful for the excuse to take out volume VI of The Dramatic Works (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company, 1836), the Holy Grail I used to dream of finding at Bryn Mawr in the days when I was a book sale regular. The quest began 30 years ago when I read in Jay Leyda’s invaluable Melville Log how Melville, whose eyes were “as tender as a young sparrows” had been unable to comfortably read Shakespeare until he found this very edition with its “glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”

Thanks to the Net, I was finally able to get my hands on the edition that gave Shakespeare to Melville as he was about to embark on his most Shakespearean work, Moby Dick. A book dealer in Ohio had it listed for $150. Each of the seven volumes still carries the bookplate of the Mount Union College Library, the pocket in back still holding a borrower’s card with the title typed at the top and the handwritten names of four students (Williams, Brummer, Moffet, and Montgomery) who checked it out between 1958 and 1968. For book dealers, the ex-library aspect, even though the books are in excellent condition, would take hundreds of dollars off the value. On the collector’s site addall.com I found one edition, “professionally rebound,” listed for $498.89. For me, the library binding and the check-out card with the students’ names add to the edition’s character, though more than anything else, what gives these books a value beyond price is knowing that almost 200 years later I’m following the same tactile/visual route taken by Melville, experiencing the texture, atmosphere and substance of the page and shape of the words. It’s almost as good as holding his copy.

Light to Read By

Finally, in addition to that hushed scene between Brutus, his book, and his young servant, there’s a line in Act II of Julius Caesar that illuminates my sense of the reading experience at its best. Once again it’s night and Brutus is about to open a letter Lucius has handed him: “The exhalations whizzing in the air give so much light,” he says, “that I may read by them.”

The white glow I read those words by the other night was provided by a humble little booklight. I was leaning on one elbow, all darkness around me, and there it was, the improbable idea of reading by the light of “exhalations whizzing in the air.” I read the line again and then again. The whole play seemed to be poised on those words at that moment, and so it was, since the letter is urging Brutus to follow through on what he’d already been contemplating (‘Speak, strike, redress!’). I looked for a note at the bottom of the page on the Elizabethan usage of “exhalations,” but none was there. It didn’t matter; it would have been out of place, presumptuous, like annotating magic.