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Darwin Day: The Fossil Record of a Friendship

By Richard Oram

To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center.


Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries”—as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.


From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.


We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.


The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:


Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]


My dear Sir John Herschel


I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge


With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin


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World War II-era Armed Services Editions boosted troop morale and fostered a new generation of readers

By Richard Oram

The book, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, celebrates the importance of the Armed Services Editions. Published between 1943 and 1947, these inexpensive paperback editions were given to servicemen on the frontlines. As Manning points out, not only did the editions achieve their principal purpose of raising morale, they encouraged a whole generation of readers who retained their appetite for reading when they returned home. Possibly a few stopped bullets or shrapnel. It’s necessary to remember that the cheap paperback edition was still a novelty at the beginning of the war, having been pioneered by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany during the 1930s.


Armed Services Editions were made possible by a group of publishers called the Council of Books in Wartime. This group collaborated by eliminating royalty payments and arranging for the production and distribution of paperbacks in the most inexpensive possible formats. The Ransom Center has a couple of connections with these books. Although there are larger collections at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress, we own more than 1,400 of the books, most of them shelved together as a discrete collection in the stacks, while some are kept with other editions of our major authors, such as John Steinbeck. Because they were printed on poor-quality wartime paper that is now brittle and brown, each is protected in a simple acid-free enclosure, invented by the Center’s Conservation department in the 1980s, and called a “tuxedo case.” Students of publishing history can use the collection to study which books were most successful (Manning concludes that books with a touch of nostalgia or sex were particularly popular with soldiers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the best-selling titles, even though it was considered a flop when first published in hardback during the 1920s). The books were generally published in an oblong format, with the cover notation “This is the complete book—not a digest.” In all, some 125 million copies were produced.


Among the founding members of the Council of Books in Wartime was Alfred A. Knopf, the eminent literary publisher (the massive Knopf, Inc. archive is here at the Center). Ironically, Knopf was famous for encouraging high production values in his own trade books, but he immediately recognized the importance of encouraging reading and raising morale and contributed a number of series titles by familiar authors in the Knopf stable, including thrillers by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and more literary works by Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset.


In the postwar era, a number of paperback reprint publishers capitalized on increased demand for books, the availability of new outlets for cheap editions, such as chain department stores and drugstores, and Americans’ newly enhanced disposable income. Pocket Books debuted in 1939 and became well known after the war for its lurid covers, which, as Louis Menand points out in an illustrated recent New Yorker piece, graced not only the unabashed pulp of Mickey Spillane but also higher-toned works by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Ballantine and Bantam editions flourished, and the era of the mass market paperback had arrived. Nearly every prominent American hardback publisher developed a line of paperback books. Oddly, Knopf, Inc. was a holdout, arriving late to the game with Vintage Books in 1956.  But it was the Armed Services Editions that gave the American paperback its big push.


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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.


Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.


Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.


The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.


Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.


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“Great Gatsby” materials on display

By Richard Oram


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, now generally recognized as the closest approximation to “The Great American Novel” and a staple of the high school curriculum, is embarking on yet another new life. Today, a film adaptation opens starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it has already been described as one of the most stylish movies ever made.  Three previous movies and one television drama based on Gatsby reflect their time periods as much as they do the Twenties.

The film has sent the paperback edition soaring to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.  Yet the first edition (1925) was only a modest success, as Fitzgerald notes in a letter in the Ransom Center’s collection.  Although his literary reputation went into a swoon in the late 1930s and 40s, the novel was reprinted from time to time, though it was rarely regarded as an American classic.  More than a decade after the author’s early death in 1940, biographical and critical re-evaluations finally established The Great Gatsby’s permanent place in the canon of modern fiction. In the above slideshow, a group of editions from the Ransom Center’s collections shows its progress from first edition to the current movie mass-market tie-in.  Not for the first time in its history and probably not for the last, Gatsby has been born again.

A case of materials related to The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald are on display in the Ransom Center lobby through June 9.

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Image: The first edition of The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925). The dust jacket by Francis Cugat incorporates several themes of the novel, while maintaining a certain ambiguity. The eyes most likely belong to Daisy, “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of Jay Gatsby’s consciousness. The jacket was completed before the novel, and Fitzgerald was so fond of it that he claimed he wrote it into his book. Today, intact dust jackets are exceptionally valuable; both of our copies have been repaired.

Ur-Knopf: An early Knopf book is reunited with larger Knopf library

By Richard Oram

June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.

So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.

When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.


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