The story of Starrett's hunt for a rare Poe volume has become a bookdealer's legend.
Book hunting, as practiced by men like Vincent Starrett, is a solo sport like doing crossword puzzles.
As time and bank balance allowed, Starrett would wander from bookshop to bookshop, or spend long hours pouring over catalogues. He might talk with a proprietor or fellow hunter in passing to share gossip and news or rare finds. But the game as played by Starrett was a singularly singular one.
And then—when it came time to hunt the big one—he decided to change the rules, and recruited thousands to help him.
This is the story of what Starrett did, of the impact his decision had, and the ripples that continue to spread even today.
Here we go.
Chances are that some of you will know that it is the ultra rare booklet of Edgar Allan Poe’s first published poems. Years after Poe’s death, the booklet was considered a mere rumor, until a single copy showed up. Scholars still debated whether it was true or a hoax. Then another copy was identified and soon a handful were known to exist. (I’ve written a bit about this before here.)
For book collectors, having a copy of Tamerlane was like owning a moon rock.
“It is a book of no literary value, but it is rated highly in the book market,” says Charles Goodspeed in his 1937 memoir, Yankee Bookseller. “Even if Tamerlane is without poetic merit, its rarity and the fact that it was the first production of a great American writer combine to make it first on the want list of those who collect American authors.”
Or as Starrett says in his own memoirs, Born in a Bookshop:
“In those days Tamerlane was the outstanding rarity in the light of which all other rarities were appraised. 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.”
Starrett reasoned, quite correctly, that if there were four copies of Tamerlane in the world, there could be a fifth, a sixth or more. Finding a copy was the difficulty—if a bookdealer had one, word of its existence would have leaked out as he tried to sell it. And a dealer would ask a high price that could put it out of Starrett’s reach.
No, these holy of holies were no doubt tucked away on someone’s grandfather’s bookcase or tossed carelessly in Aunt Matilda’s steamer trunk long forgotten in the attic. It would be foolish to single-handedly go door to door searching for Tamerlane.
What Starrett needed was a scheme that would get dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people looking for the book on his behalf. He needed an army of book hounds, and enlisted them through the pages of the one of the nations most popular magazines of that day: The Saturday Evening Post.
“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.”
And here it what it looked like.
Was Starrett's scheme for flushing out a copy of Tamerlane a success? He thought so:
“To say that it attracted attention is putting it mildly. 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. This interest did not, of course, represent anybody’s interest in Poe’s second-rate poem, but in something worth ten thousand dollars, the figure I had named as standing for the book’s collector value.”
Just to give a little perspective, in 1925 you could buy a 1-pound chicken for 39 cents, a dozen eggs for a quarter and a rolltop desk for 28 dollars. The average house in America would put you back $6,000. So a little pamphlet that could bring in $10,000 was like finding a gold mine! No wonder people got excited. (The most recent Tamerlane I can find up for sale was auctioned by Christie’s for $662,500 in December 2009—still a gold mine!)
As David Randall says of Starrett's scheme in his biography, Dukedom Large Enough: Reminiscences of a Rare book dealer, 1929-1966, “Never in his wildest dreams had he (Starrett) imagined his article would turn up a copy.”
Starrett waded through all the letters he received in exasperation and disappointment. Any volume with Tamerlane printed in it was being confused for a true first by the hopeful masses. “I spent a busy few weeks answering letters and explaining why the books offered were not the books sought by collectors,” he reports.
His scheme had worked, but too well.
And then someone hit gold, as Starrett reports:
“A copy did actually turn up in an attic in Worcester, Massachusetts, and its delirious possessor wrote to ask me how to dispose of it. As luck would have it, her letter came one weekend when I was out of town and I had no opportunity to answer it for several days. Then I wrote in hot haste, assuming that she would hold the book until she heard from me.'
"I should have known better.”
We’ll pick up the story now with Mr. Goodspeed, the Yankee book dealer.
“The Worcester copy was owned by a woman living with her aged sister on the second floor of a small house in the heart of the city. The rent of the first floor eked out by needle-work comprised the support of the pair. In the mid-summer of 1925 Mrs. Dodd, the owner, was seated in her room reading the Saturday Evening Post. An article attracted her notice — “Have you a Tamerlane in your attic?” by Vincent Starrett.
Mrs. Dodd was living in an attic and she had a Tamerlane.”
As Starrett said, the women wrote to him, and then became anxious when she and her sister heard nothing right away in reply. Goodspeed picks up the tale:
“As days passed to weeks with no reply, the hopes of the old women faded, but on the advice of a friend they consulted the librarian of the Worcester Public Library. Mr. Shaw suggested that they should write to Goodspeed’s.”
Goodspeed admits he was skeptical when he got her letter.
“In fact I did not even trouble to go to Worcester the next day, but waited for the more convenient weekend. When, however, I found myself in Mrs. Dodd’s room and, with trembling hand, she produced her book, I got the first of the thrills which we both experienced that day, for a glance showed that she had was what I never expected to see — a genuine and fine copy of the most valuable book in American literature.”
After a discussion, Mrs. Dodd agreed to sell the Tamerlane through Goodspeed, who left for his shop in Boston carrying the valuable booklet. (BTW, that copy is now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and periodically goes on display.)
As if that wasn't bad enough for poor Starrett, this insult was added, again, according to Goodspeed:
“Half an hour after I left, Mrs. Dodd received an answer to her letter to Mr. Starrett. Unfortunately for him, he had been away from home and missed his chance at the book by thirty minutes.”
Thirty minutes. Imagine it. After years of yearning, months of research and writing, and answering all those letters that were nothing false leads, Starrett's hopes of owning a Tamerlane were shattered by cruelty of a half an hour.
Word of the rare find made the newspapers and dealers around the country were struck by how it was found and how it was sold. The deal between Mrs. Dodd and Goodspeed drew gossip and accusations from others in the book buying business.
“The various claims of its having been stolen, etc., are typical of the imposters who have always leeched on Poe,” laments Randall.
The tale of Starrett's failed attempt became bibliophilic legend, a prime example of The One That Got Away. Every collector who has heard from a dealer "I just sold a nice collection of So-And-So's work last week" can sympathize.
Starrett liked to tell the tale himself, and his friends and colleagues in the newsrooms of Chicago would repeat it every time a Tamerlane came up for sale, as you can see here.
The tale of Vincent Starrett and the Tamerlane that got away still lives.
Starrett always knew it was a longshot, as Rebecca Rego Barry recently recounted in the Introduction to her wonderful book on surprising finds by collectors, Rare Books Uncovered. She recounts the tale that Goodspeed and Randall and Starrett have told, as a reminder to all who hope to land the Big One.
But Rego Barry does not tell this tale to discourage us. No, it’s just the opposite. For 50 years, the world believed there were only 11 copies of Tamerlane around. Then a Massachusetts fisherman was “paging through a bunch of agricultural tracts and fertilizer catalogs in a New Hampshire antiques barn when he noted the word Tamerlane.” He picked up the booklet for $15.
Southeby’s sold it later than summer for $198,000.
“What this anecdote reveals is not only the depth of a bibliophile’s passion but also his or her belief in discovery — that Tamerlane, or any other desirable book or document might be lurking in a New England barn, a Virginia attic, or a Paris flea market is unlikely, but not impossible, and that sliver of possibility drives collectors, dealers and scouts,” says Rego Barry.
It’s the hunt that propels us forward, the faint light of possibility that one day, we could each find our heart’s desire somewhere on a bookseller’s shelf.
After all, as Starrett has reminded us, “When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.”
By the way, the web that surrounds Starrett, Sherlock Holmes and Tamerlane is intricate indeed. Starrett’s story may well have helped a second copy of Tamerlane to be identified, and Goodspeed once again handled its sale, this time to J.K. Lilly, Jr. of Indianapolis. It was Lilly who donated his incredible library to Indiana University and David Randall who oversaw its safe future. And it was the same David Randall who handled the “noble fragment,” the handwritten letter left by Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls.
“Of all the treasures the Lilly Library possesses, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rescue this first, should danger threaten,” Randall said in his book.
Even if they had a Tamerlane, I feel certain Starrett would no doubt have agreed.