June 21, 2017

From Poe to McPhee, the Friends of the Library Book Sale Is a Casino of Possibilities

It’s only fitting that signed editions of several of Princeton native John McPhee’s acclaimed works — part of what the New York Times called “a grand pointillist mural of our time and place” — are among the items of special interest at the upcoming Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale. During a library ceremony honoring him some years ago, McPhee confessed that when he was a boy he’d borrowed a book and failed to return it (“Well I lost it”). In donating signed editions of all his works to the library’s Princeton Collection on that occasion he was in effect repaying his debt. He then gave the idea of repayment another turn by claiming that he’d written all those books to make up for the one he’d lost. 

$15 to $662,000

Once upon a time in a New Hampshire book barn a man looking through some ephemera on farm implements and fertilizers found a stained, worn, paper-covered volume with the title Tamerlane and Other Poems. The author was identified only as “a Bostonian.” The publication date was 1827, the price $15. After some hesitation due to the sub-par condition, the man bought it, figuring an item that old must be worth something. When he discovered that the Bostonian was Edgar Allan Poe, he took the book to a Boston auction house, which examined it and sent it to the New York office in an armored car (my italics). According to a story in the March 29, 1988 Washington Post, the man said he’d never read anything by Poe in his life (“I really don’t know too much about books”). At the time the book was valued at $300,000. In 2009, what appears to have been the same stained copy sold at auction for $662,500.

Booksale regulars have a version of that story in the back of their minds every time they walk into a casino of possibilities like the one opening its doors at the library this Friday. While no one expects to make their fortune, the mere idea of a six-figure score puts a glow on the event. Customers who know the market may also be aware that their best chance of finding anything rare by Poe is in bound volumes of Godey’s Lady’s Books like the ones featured in this year’s sale: “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” in the January-June 1844 volume, “The Oblong Box” and “Thou Art the Man” in July-December 1844. A recent search of online rare book sites showed that a dealer was asking $500 for a copy of that volume, perhaps counting on the pop culture clout of “The Oblong Box,” which inspired the horror movie starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

The Godey’s Environment

“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” shares the typographically dense pages of the April 1844 issue of the Lady’s Book with “Anemone,” a poem (“And loth its beauty to disclose/It often hides its modest head”); “The Dear Girl of the Free: A National Melody” (“How bright are those eyes where the summer-time beams/Like a glory hung over the blue”); “The Loved. The Lost,” a poem by the Rev. John Pierpont; six chapters from “The Night-Blooming Cereus” by Mrs. A.F.N. Annan; and “Go, Forget Me” (“Oh can I e’er forget thee, Mary”), among others of a similar nature. There are full-page engravings accompanying “The Pastor’s Visit” (a family parlor) and “The Promenade” (two smiling mantilla-clad Spanish maidens). The issue closes with a hand-painted plate of the latest fashions in which three comely women model, respectively, a dress of rich lavender gros des
, a dress of striped Balzarine, and a morning dress of white cashmere. Two of the ladies are standing, one with her face hidden by her bonnet while the third sits admiring herself in a hand mirror.

Now imagine a female of a certain age (like most of Godey’s readership, a number that peaked at 150,000) leaving “How can I e’er forget thee, Mary” for Poe’s Augustus Bedloe, whose teeth are “wildly uneven” and whose “abnormally large, and round” eyes (“like those of a cat”) grow “bright to a degree almost inconceivable; seeming to emit luminous rays, not of a reflected but of an intrinsic lustre, as does a candle or the sun; yet their ordinary condition was so totally vapid, filmy, and dull as to convey the idea of the eyes of a long-interred corpse.”

Imagine ladies with eyes for a dress of rich lavender gros des Indes venturing into the “delicious aspect of dreary desolation” shrouding the Ragged Mountains with a man addicted to strong coffee and morphine (“which he swallowed in great quantity and without which he would have found it impossible to exist”). As the journey begins, the mist is “thick and peculiar” and the path “excessively sinuous” until the morning’s morphine has “its customary effect — that of enduing all the external world with an intensity of interest. In the quivering of a leaf — in the hue of a blade of grass — in the shape of a trefoil — in the humming of a bee — in the gleaming of a dew-drop — in the breathing of the wind — in the faint odors that came from the forest — there came a whole universe of suggestion — a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought.”

A “Universe of Suggestion”

This is where Poe gets my undivided attention, whether it’s April 1844 with the Civil War a decade and a half away or a June morning in 2017. Only the man who wrote “The Raven” could come up with the jinglejangle combination of “rhapsodical and immethodical thought” on the way into “a vast plain,” a “majestic river and “an Eastern-looking city” of innumerable streets that “crossed each other irregularly in all directions” and “absolutely swarmed with inhabitants …. On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandas, of minarets, of shrines, and fantastically carved oriels.” Not to mention “idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners, and gongs, spears, silver and gilded maces. And amid the crowd, and the clamor, and the general intricacy and confusion … there roamed a countless multitude of holy filleted bulls, while vast legions of the filthy but sacred ape clambered, chattering and shrieking.”

The Princeton Parade

After the exotica of the Ragged Mountains, it’s reassuring to find an item of local interest in the score for “The Princeton Grand March,” arranged for the piano forte and “respectfully dedicated to Mrs. Catharine E. Stockton, Lady of Captain R.F.Stockton, United States Navy.”

Blame it on Poe’s lust for excess but the notion of a Princeton Grand March has me envisioning a parade of Princeton notables winding around Nassau Hall and through the campus. Headed by Washington and Einstein, the procession of luminaries from all fields, sports, politics, literature, science, music, would terminate where else but at Poe Field, named for John Prentiss Poe, Class of 1895, who left before graduation to become a soldier of fortune and died fighting with the Black Watch at the Battle of Loos in World War I. John was one of six Poe brothers, all cousins of the author, all students at Princeton. Less than 40 years after Godey’s published “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” the brothers Poe launched an illustrious era in Princeton football, and it was none other than Edgar Allan Poe, Class of 1891, who led the 1889 Tigers to a perfect 10-0 season while being named quarterback on the first college football All-America team. Legend has it that when a Harvard man asked a Princeton man if Edgar Allan Poe was related to the great Edgar Allan Poe, the Princeton man replied, “He is the great Edgar Allan Poe.”

Putting Poe in Play

In John McPhee’s essay on lacrosse “Spin Right and Shoot Left,” after quoting a pro midfielder (“There’s no room for nice guys on face-offs”), he lets it be known that Edgar Allan Poe was the face-off man on the 1888 Princeton lacrosse team. While we know he can’t be referring to Poe the poet (as he’s quick to admit), McPhee has briefly shared with us the notion of the author of “The Raven” as a no nice-guy face-off man.

That’s the beauty of Poe. He’s somehow always available, always of use, forever relevant to the odd twists and turns of life, none more than his own, particularly the afterlife of fame. Take the story behind “The Raven,” which was composed around the same time he was writing “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” Destitute, he submitted the poem to Graham’s Magazine, where it was rejected. According to the account in Hervey Allen’s Israfel, the magazine’s staff passed the hat “out of commiseration” for the author and collected $15. Online dealers are currently offering first editions of The Raven and Other Poems for $12,500 and $7500.

It costs only $10 for an early view of the library book sale, between 10 a.m. and noon on Friday. Admission is free from noon to 8:30 p.m., on Saturday between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., at the Friends Bookstore during regular library hours.