Have you a Tamerlane?

I feel fortunate to have caught the Morgan Library's Poe exhibit while in New York City during the Baker Street Irregulars weekend. Scott Monty and I paid our respects to "Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul." It was worth the trip, with selected manuscripts, letters and scraps in Poe's own hand, plus a nice overview of early editions of his works. (The exhibit ends Jan. 26, so if you watch to catch it, hurry.)

Front cover of Tamerlane and Other Poems, 1827, from page 18 of Starrett's Penny Wise & Book Foolish.

Though not mentioned in the exhibit, there were several Poe/Starrett associations alluded to in the exhibit. Here is the story behind one such connection.

The exhibit held not one, but three copies of Tamerlane, Poe's first published book. Only 12 copies are known to exist, so the Morgan has good reason to call Tamerlane "one of the rarest books in American literature." (Wish I could show you the copies, but photography was not allowed in the gallery. There is an illustration in the Poe catalog published by the Morgan, should you want to see for yourself. The illustration here is from Starrett’s book, Penny Wise & Book Foolish.)

The exhibit materials describe the search that was sparked with an article in a summer 1925 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, which described the Poe book in some detail and gave tantalizing hints about its great value. The Saturday Evening Post article sent people all over the country to their grandparents' bookshelves and storage trunks in the hopes a real Tamerlane would turn up.

While there were many false alarms, an Ada S. Dodd of Worcester, Mass., came up with the genuine item and wrote the author of the story, whom the Morgan fails to identify: Vincent Starrett.

Sadly, Starrett was on a trip at the time the letter was delivered and when he got back, the book was sold to a dealer, who then sold it to Owen D. Young. Young was an executive for General Electric and spun off a division known as the Radio Corporation of America or RCA. As such, he was no doubt much better equipped to pay the nearly destitute Mrs. Dodd the princely sum that a rare Tamerlane in excellent condition would draw. The volume now resides with the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. (The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore keeps a census of major Poe works, including Tamerlane.)

Starrett, recalling the episode years later for his memoirs, Born in a Bookshop, recalled that the Tamerlane story “made a considerable stir in the nation.” Starrett says:

Cover of The Saturday Evening Post for June 27, 1925

I had been looking for a copy for a long time without success, naturally enough, since there were then only four copies known to exist in the world. It occurred to me that what was needed to call the elusive item out of hiding was plenty of publicity, so I tried the provocative piece on the Post first and it sold the first time.

The problem with Starrett’s plan is that it worked only too well.

The editors of the Post forwarded me literally hundreds of letters from excited householders who had turned out their attics in quest of the book. … Everybody who found an old volume of Poe containing the poem was certain he had found the correct first edition and wanted to know where he could sell it for the figure named ($10,000). I spent a very busy few weeks answering letters and explaining why the books offered were not the books sought by collectors.

Starrett would never have another chance to buy a Tamerlane.

The story of Starrett's failed hunt became a book lover's legend and has been recorded by others besides Starrett, including Charles Goodspeed in his book, Yankee Bookseller. Anyone who has missed out on a desired book through misadventure or bad luck can no doubt relate to Starrett's anguish when he learned that his attempt to flush out a rare book resulted on the volume always being just outside his reach. (How many times have I felt a pang when a book dealer says "I had a big collection of Vincent Starrett for years, but someone just bought a few weeks/months ago"?)

By the way, I'm still hunting a reasonably priced copy of the June 27, 1925 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

I would also like to have a first edition copy of Tamerlane.

Check your attic.

Then email me.