Being the second long installment on the subject of miniature Starrett books.
In 1938, Vincent Starrett convinced the folks at Normandie House to publish two essays under the title Oriental Encounters: Two Essays in Bad Taste. The essays were based on the experience he and Ray Latimer had while living in Peking a few years previously. The book is lovingly executed, and contains one of the best dedications Starrett ever wrote:
"TO THE THIRTY-ONE EDITORS who enjoyed one or both of these papers in manuscript, but regretted their inability to accept them for publication, this small volume is cheerily dedicated."
Anyone who has had a manuscript repeatedly rejected can appreciate the frustration and venom that lies beneath the “cheery” words that open Starrett’s little volume.
The two essays are hardly scandalous by today’s standards, but apparently were too “hot” for the publishers of the 1930s. The first “The Passing of the Eunuch: Some notes on an old Chinese custom,” reports on the roles eunuchs played in ancient China. Using a narrative sensibility built from Sunday family newspaper editors, Starrett managed to tell his tale with a vocabulary that would fit any mid-Western magazine. He even manages to describe the process with which the castration was performed with a balanced blend of reserve and distaste.
True, his essay would probably provoke chuckles, and perhaps disapproval, from dedicated historians who have charted the roles eunuchs played in the lives, wars and loves of the Chinese emperors throughout the centuries. Starrett’s essay appears to be a blend of contemporary history and old wive's tales, with each getting equal weight and validity. And by modern standards, Starrett’s descriptions are about as sensitive (the word “coolie” pops up to often for my tastes) as the 1930s-era depictions of African Americans in films. But there is no doubt that his fascination with “these strange semi-men of the orient,” was genuine and without any intention to ridicule.
Starrett concludes his essay by noting that a temple with retired eunuchs continues to exist near Peking, not far from a modern golf course where member of the “diplomatic corps knock little pellets into the surrounding countryside.”
“I have not heard that either group is acutely aware of the other’s existence. No doubt the paradox involved in this is worth a volume of philosophy; but if there is a moral to anything that I have written here, I am afraid that somehow it has been lost in the shuffle.”
The second essay is both briefer and earthier and deals with a subject that has been the fascination of school children and low comics since time began. “Old Movements in New China: A note on the economy of the East” is about how human waste is disposed of in some Chinese communities. And it ain’t pretty.
Starrett writes about the “honey-carters,” those men who acted as a human sewage system and carted fecal matter from the homes without cesspools to local waste dumps. Starrett went about the older residents of the city looking to put together an oral history of these necessary but overlooked workers.
“For the first time in print, as I believe, it is my privilege to unveil the secrets of the ‘honey-cart’ and reveal the habits of its industrious conductor.”
And so he does.
As I said, the larger of the editions of this book was published in 1938 by Normandie House in Chicago. It’s 9 and ¾ inches tall and 6 and ¼ inches wide. The cover is a bright orange and its interior pages are decorated with Chinese characters.
The colophon to this edition reads:
“This volume was designed by Norman W. Forgue and Douglas Rader. The typefaces are Linotype Medieval, and Ludlow Eusebius. The script face and Chinese characters were hand-lettered. 249 copies have been printed on Andria paper by the Black Cat Press. Completed in the month of September, 1938.”
The miniature version came along in 1975, published by The Black Cat Press, the same folks who would do the miniature edition of Essay on Limited Editions. It’s 3 inches tall and 2 and 1/8 inches wide. Unlike its big brother, the miniature has a very dark blue cover, but in most other major ways, it’s a smaller version of its much older original. For those who care to compare, here’s the colophon for the miniature:
“Typefaces used in this mini volume are Linotype Medieval, and Ludlow Eusebius…Script and Chinese characters hand lettered by Douglas Rader. Printed on Japanese Linen in a limited edition by offset lithography at Schori Press. Platework by Willem Muns and presswork by Larry DeVera…Bound by National Library Bindery under the supervision of Ralph D. Schnabel…Production by Ward Schori…Design and typography by Norman W. Forgue.”
There is one curious difference that I cannot explain. Compare the Chinese characters opposite the title pages in the two volumes and note that they have been reversed. Why?
So that’s a very long look at some very small Starrett volumes.
NOTE: Normandie House also printed one of my favorite little volumes of book love by Starrett, Persons from Porlock and Other Interruptions.