No two books are alike. Not even within the same printing of the same title. There may even be an ultimate copy of every book. Outrageous statements? Perhaps, but hidden in the stacks of the MHS library are unique copies of books and perhaps some of those ultimate copies. Many collectors will attempt to get an author to sign their book to which I say “knock yourself out,” but that doesn’t add any information about the book or its author other than what the author’s penmanship looks like after signing 500 copies in a row. What I look for in collecting books for the MHS library, and thus for posterity, is when an author or owner adds value to the historical record. These copies are known in the rare book trade as association and presentation copies. Association copies are books owned by someone with an important connection to the work, while presentation copies are works the author or publisher gave to someone.
Take, for example, the MHS library’s copies of Lord Grizzly, Frederic Manfred’s novel about the ordeal of American fur trapper Hugh Glass. One copy was a gift from the author, signed by him on the half title with a full-page inscription on the front free endpaper. The comments ooze the confidence and bluster of this giant of Minnesota letters. About the book he writes: “I felt a gap or dimension lacking in my characters – I wanted to ‘feel them’ as having come from somewhere.” This is an especially interesting statement from someone whose books have such an association with place that a geographic name grew out of his works, “Siouxland.” Our second copy of Lord Grizzly is also extraordinary. Literary critic and historian of Minnesota literature John T. Flanagan owned this copy. Flanagan signed it, pasted a newspaper photo of Manfred in it, and corrected grammar. He asked questions (“word?,” “verb?,” “onomatopoetic?” ) and took issue with the author (“inexact” and “unlikely!”) in the margins throughout this copy of the book. This makes this copy more interesting, more informative, and more fun to read than an unmarked copy, and makes me grateful that Flanagan isn’t critiquing this post.
Another example: imagine coming into the MHS library and requesting a book of Robert Bly poems. Now imaging your surprise when you discover that Bly signed the book in the middle of his drawing of a mythical creature designed to play on the book’s artwork by Gendron Jensen. This is our copy of This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood. Like many writers Robert Bly often uses his presentation inscriptions to show off his visually creative side, enhancing the overall effect of his beautifully crafted words.
Five of the best examples of these superb books are currently on exhibit in the Minnesota 150 exhibit, and I urge you to come in and see them. They are: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient inscribed to former Governor Elmer Andersen saying, “… for all he has done for all the Lindberghs;” Ignatius Donnelly’s own copy of The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cypher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays, in which he has made so many corrections to the printed text that one has to wonder if he didn’t ultimately prove his theory that Bacon wrote the plays; a presentation copy of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street… with a lovely self-portrait; Margaret Culkin Banning’s The First Woman with an inscription written 30 years after the book was published stating, “This was written in my second feminist period…”; and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (mislabeled The Beautiful and the Damned in the exhibit) presented to an old friend of his “… herein called Anthony Patch.” This is an English major’s dream, to find the as yet undiscovered model for such an important fictional character.
- Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian