A lifetime with catalogues

Lincoln, Limited Editions and Luxury Clothing

Back in 2015, we peered over Starrett’s shoulder as he looked through some book catalogues.

Now we are going to peruse a sampling of catalogues where Starrett had a featured role as an essay writer.

First is the highly unusual clothing catalogue produced for the fall of 1929 by Oppenheim’s of Jackson and Bay City, Michigan, two cities that are about 130 miles apart. That Starrett would be asked to contribute an essay to the catalogue is unusual. That Starrett seems to have written something unique and not recycled an essay from another source is equally remarkable. While he was known as a stylish dresser (see the images by Gene Markey here and his iconic photograph here.) Starrett was not known as an expert in fashion.

But he is not being asked to discuss what types of bustles Jane Eyre wore, the kinds of hats that the Scarlet Pimpernel favored or what cheap bedclothes Jacob Marley wore as he lay dying. No, Starrett has the opportunity to opine about the then-current fashion in the types of fiction being written and read. You will notice mysteries make up more than half of the essay and mentions of both Doyle and Holmes are plentiful.

A few other observations:

  • Although the little Whitman essay is unsigned, I believe there’s a fair chance that Starrett had a hand in it. The brief few paragraphs sound like something that would have fit in his 1924 anthology, Et Cetera. And the Whitman image is attributed to John Doctoroff, a well-known Chicago portrait artist. It just so happened that Starrett lived in Chicago. Is that enough to say Starrett wrote this? No. But I’ll lean that way until persuaded otherwise.

  • I really, really want those clothes. Don’t they look great? Yes, I know the fabrics didn’t breathe, were heavy and hell to keep clean, but wouldn’t it be great to show up at a party in those duds?

  • Speaking of which, I want to lounge around in (most of) the lounging wear clothes on page 20. (Although those Celanese drawers don’t look very inviting.)

Staying in 1929, we have this catalogue in a more familiar venue: rare books.

Although to be fair, these are new books, handsomely printed and lovingly prepared in small quantities to ensure their status as rare.

Published by Covici, Friede Inc. in 1929, the booklet got out just before the stock market crash that would sweep away many of the customers who could afford the books promoted here. Friends of Studies in Starrett will recall that it was Pascal Covici, or Covici-McGee that published early Starrett poetry volumes like Flame and Dust and Ebony Flame, not to mention Buried Caesars., the anthology of Starrett’s work from Reedy’s Mirror..

In his introductory essay, Starrett asks a seminal question: How many books is a limited edition? Is it a print run of 50, or 100, or 250, or 1,000 copies? At what point does a press run simply become a run and not a limited run?

And are the first, and sometimes poorly printed, limited editions the “best” volume for a collector to pursue? Starrett notes that publishers of the ‘20s were issuing finely crafted editions that reproduced in more handsome fashion the first printings.

“We dress them up attractively and reissue them in lovely and durable dress, and if the collectors of tomorrow may not own a first edition, they may, if they are wise and foresighted, own a best edition. “

Practical advice for a booklet that promotes a series of “lovely and durable” reissues.

Starrett also offers a hope that surely he held for his own works:

"And when an author finds himself thus honored by the curious distinction of limitation, I think he should be properly impressed. It is somewhat of an accolade. If nothing else (and if he cares about survival), he will outlast his brothers in the sheerly physical matter of durability and dress. It is no secret, and no legend, that the average trade volume is printed upon an inferior quality of paper, and that it will disintegrate with the passage of time. One thinks of many such whose ultimate existence as dust it is possible to view with composure and a certain pleasure; but one also thinks of the finer flowerings and wishes them, with complete altruism, a longevity commensurate with their excellence."

The essay was so popular that it was reissued, in a slightly revised form, as An Essay on Limited Editions, a stand-alone booklet out of the Black Cat Press of Chicago in 1939, ten years after the Covici, Friede catalogue. It then had a third publication as a miniature book, once again by Black Cat Press, but this time in 1982. You can find out more about these two latter appearances here.

Two more before we end.

The 1944 catalogue for The Argus Book Shop marked its last Chicago publication. Ben Abramson, whom we discussed a bit here, was shifting his shop from Chicago to New York, in a move that simulated the transition so many Chicago writers had made a few decades before.

Starrett was a frequent customer of Abramson’s Chicago location, and used the few pages allotted to him to note that Ben Abramson broke all the romantic notions of what a book seller should be.

“There has never been anything antediluvian or even Victorian about the Argus Book Shop. From the first to last it has been a briskly modern emporium, and the least timid bookman of my acquaintance is Mr. Ben Abramson. I have never been struck by his corpselike pallor, he has never offered me tea and crumpets, he has never called his place of business “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe,” his rent is paid up and he has money in the bank, and when he quotes it is frequently from some such modern as James Joyce or Aldous Huxley or Francois Rabelais.”

When the Argus leaves town, Starrett says he will miss: “the personality , the human dynamo, the wearer of colored shirts, the seducer of pocketbooks, the garrulous, many-faceted Mr. Argus himself.” Even more, Starrett will also miss Abramson’s ability to draw impromptu bookish groups of talented writers, much like Pascal Covici did a few decades earlier.

“For when Mr. Abramson opened a bookshop in Chicago, he opened a sort of tavern for his friends, dispensing conversation instead of the more usual entertainment. That was the only flavor of antiquity about the Argus — a sort of eighteenth century camaraderie streamlined to our contemporary mood. It is that camaraderie that we shall miss.”

For the record, the covers have separated from my copy of the catalogue, which is initialed by Starrett, with what I call the “Starrett Smiley,” as you can see in the last of the four images.

This last catalogue isn’t a catalogue, but I’ve put it here because its two essays encourage folks to buy books, which is what a catalogue is all about, right?

The origin of this little publication needs some background: The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago is exactly what the name says: a shop that specializes in Lincolniana. (By the way, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop has moved from it’s North Michigan Avenue location, but is still in business, if you want to drop by.) The shop was founded in 1938 and was (and is) devoted to publications about the Civil War and the Great Emancipator. Among their techniques for selling books was the publication of this little pamphlet of just 19 pages which reprinted two essays.

The main essay is by R(obert) Gerald McMurtry (1906-1988), a Kentucky native and lifelong admirer of Lincoln. For most of his adult life, McMurtry was director of the Lincoln National Life Foundation, an archive and museum that was maintained by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

(By the way, the current descendant corporation of Lincoln National Life Insurance Company is LNC, the same folks who gave the money to name Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!)

But I digress.

Among his several contributions to Lincoln studies, McMurtry wrote an essay for the quarterly Lincoln Herald, published in February 1947, that extolled the value of collecting items associated with the country’s 16th president. While he is an advocate for Lincoln studies, McMurtry also cautions against the idea that ANYTHING with Lincoln’s name on it will be a big seller. Here’s how he says it:

“The impression is current that there are at least three thousand Lincoln collectors who will purchase every Lincoln title published. Going on the theory that a sale of twenty-five hundred copies will pay the publication costs of most books, some writers have attempted to lift the mortgages on the old homestead with a new Lincoln book. According to gossip, no matter how trifling a Lincoln book may be it can still pay its way This the uninitiated say, is the reason for the great number of Lincoln publications. Such a deduction is a fallacy.”

Hmm. Substitute “Sherlock” for “Lincoln” and that argument starts to sound awfully familiar, no?

At any rate, Starrett got involved in the discussion on June 1, 1947 in his “Books Alive” Column for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. He says that while McMurtry makes a convincing case for specializing in Lincolniana, Starrett already has too many of his own interests. Still, he admits to being tempted.

“In addition to serious historical and biographical studies, the litrature of the subject includes such bizarre items as almanacs, horoscopes, calendars, planet readers, phrenological journals, psychobiographies, dissertations on destiny mechanisms, and similar oddities.”

Oh, those silly Lincoln collectors. Starrett even notes that “some assemble oceans of newspaper clippings,” while gathering “manuscripts, photographs, sheet music, broadsides, relics, novelties, stamps (and) anything and everything that will enhance the interest of his collection.”

Wait a minute. This is striking a little close to home. Especially when he says:

“There is much to be said for a single minded devotion; a one-subject hobby in which to immerse one’s self, and let everything else go hang.”

Hmm. So long as he’s only talking about Lincoln collectors, and not those single-minded addicts who immerse themselves in studies in Starrett, I’m fine.