The Adjective “Aframerican”

PS3525.A24785 Z46 1937

February has one extra day this year, and that gives us the chance to do one last post for Black History Month. While Christina Moody’s Tiny Spark is a favorite recent purchase, this inscribed copy of Claude McKay’s A Long Way From Home is a treasured gift to the Rare Book Collection from Mr. Theodore Jones.

The volume is the autobiography of the Jamaica-born writer McKay in the first edition, published in New York in 1937. Its original cloth cover with foil label is quite worn, but open up, and there’s a surprise, a wonderful page of inscriptions, one from the author to Naomi Davis, the alias of Frances Daniels.

PS3525.A24785 Z46 1937

Daniels, Mr. Jones’s mother, was a young African-American or – shall we say – “Aframerican” woman, involved in the literary and political world of 1930s Harlem. Mr. Jones tells us that she was associated with the People’s Bookstore and the Leftist periodical The Liberator, traveling on assignment to the Soviet Union.

Unknown is the identity of Henry, who wrote the first inscription on the book’s front free endpaper, from March 3, 1937: “To Frances, This taken of admiration and affection.” Author McKay adds the second and final inscription, addressing Ms. Daniels by her other name: “And now from the Author for this deliciously sweet Aframerican friend Naomi Davis by Claude McKay.”

McKay employed the adjective Aframerican, now fallen into disuse, extensively in his writings and in the title of his 1940s novel, Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life, published posthumously in 1990. The elision in the word perhaps pleased the ear of the accomplished poet McKay.

The RBC copy of  A Long Way From Home certainly proves that inscribed books have more than sentimental value. Its front endpaper transports us to a particular historic and linguistic moment at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, as only material culture can. Here’s to the association copy as documentary evidence for Black History.

Love Hidden Between Two Covers

PN6110.L6 C87 / William A. Whitaker Fund

Libraries often appear to be lonely-hearts clubs. Look around one most any day, not just Valentine’s Day. The act of silent reading is a solitary one. Sometimes, it can seem a bit sad.

But there can be love in libraries – hidden between two covers. The Rare Book Collection is noted for its strong holdings of English poetry, including love poetry. And we continue to add volumes, like this one, with amorous poetry from all periods, published in 1849 and purchased by RBC in 2011.

Looking for love in all the wrong places? The right place is Wilson Library and its Rare Book Collection. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Judging the 1855 Leaves of Grass by its Covers

Why collect more than one copy of a book?  Books have histories: How were they made?  Who owned them?  How were they used or read, and by whom?

The RBC holds two copies of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, and many other versions of the poem published in later editions. The first edition is one of the most sought-after American books of the 19th century.  One might expect to find two identical books with identical texts in the RBC copies.  But this isn’t so.

The unopened books have evident differences.  One has been “rebacked,” with a new leather spine added to the original cloth-covered boards.  Both books, however, are in what is known as “binding B,” with only the title appearing on the cover in gilt.  (In “binding A” the ruling on the cover also appears in gilt, as does the title on the back of the book, and the edges of the pages are also gilt.) Both books contain the yellow endpapers typical of “binding B.”

Spine view of "rebacked" 1855 Leaves of Grass (Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855b)


But even though both fit the description of “binding B,” there are slight but noticeable differences.  The “blind” stamping—that is the decorative impressions made on the covers—appear in slightly different places and upon very close inspection, one notices that they were made by placing the decorative pieces in different places.

Front cover view of "1855a" (Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855a)

Whitman bibliographer Joel Myerson (1993) describes the ornamentation of the front cover of “binding B” as “blindstamped triple-rule frame surrounding five blindstamped leaf-and-vine designs at top and bottom (the tip of the center ornament at the top has two leaves going to the left and one to the right, that of the center ornament at the bottom has two leaves going to the right and one to the left).”  This accurately describes one of RBC’s copies (above).  But in our second copy (below), the top center ornament has two leaves going to the right instead of the left, and the center ornament at the bottom has two leaves going to the left and one to the right.

Front cover view of "1855b"(Call #: Rare Book Collection Folio PS3201 1855b)

Whitman did not have all copies of Leaves of Grass bound when the book was printed in July of 1855 because of expense.  Existing records show that the 1855 edition was bound on no less than four occasions and by at least two binders: first by Charles Jenkin’s Brooklyn firm, who later subcontracted the bulk of the binding to the firm of Davies & Hands. An invoice shows that in December of 1855, Davies & Hands printed 169 of the books in “binding B,” and 93 more in January 1856.

The differences between RBC’s two bindings may well indicate these two different dates when decorative metal ornaments and the ruled lines that contain them may have been set up a second time upon the press used to emboss the covers.

Which goes to show that you can perhaps judge the history of a book (or a part of its history) by its covers.