|Front cover, Crocket Comic |
In late 2013, I bought a box lot of old American almanacs at an antique auction in Ohio that I frequent. Most were from the early nineteenth century, and I really knew almost nothing about them when I purchased them. But almanacs were among the most widely published and widely owned American books in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Almanacs provided rural Americans and townsfolk alike with calendars and astronomical data, and they usually included edifying, educational, political, or polemical reading material for their users, too. Depending upon one’s inclination, one could purchase an anti-slavery almanac, an anti-masonic almanac, a temperance almanac, or even a phrenology almanac. Despite—or because of—their essentially ephemeral nature, many early almanacs are collectible (and collected) nowadays, as available and often inexpensive examples of early American printing, as records of popular culture, and in some cases for containing early examples of what we’ve come to call comics.
The almanacs in this lot, as it turned out, were very much a mixed bag, but the one I immediately spotted as most interesting was titled only “Crockett Comic Almanac 1840.” No author or publisher was given, and there seemed no obvious way to identify even the printer. But I knew that much of Davy Crockett’s reputation as a rough-and-ready frontiersman had been spread and elaborated by a variety of Crockett almanacs dating from the 1830s to the late 1840s, and that those books were very collectible indeed. My almanac was missing one leaf, and someone had snipped out a further joke or two, but it still seemed likely to have some value.
But it wasn’t listed in Drake, the standard bibliographic reference on American almanacs before 1850. A closer look revealed that the first interior page, listing the eclipses for the year, stated that they had been calculated for the longitude of Cincinnati, and it seemed likely that the book had been printed there. Still, I could find no record of any Crockett almanac printed in Cincinnati, and the Morgan online bibliography of early Ohio imprints had no record of such a book either. At last I turned to WorldCat, and was nearly frustrated there, too, but for a buried reference to an almanac with the same title bound in a collection of almanacs from the 1840s in the state library of Ohio. On my next trip to Columbus, I dropped into the library and called for the book, and I was delighted to see that it was the same as my own Crockett almanac. Further, I glanced through the other almanacs bound together with it, and I discovered that type batter on the eclipses page of another Cincinnati almanac enabled me to pin down the printer (and probably the publisher) with certainty. I had learned something.
The learning, and the sharing of what I have learned, have always been the things I love most about the academic life, and I am happy to say that it is truly part of my life as a bookseller as well. But also, it seems important to state clearly that the rare book trade is often, surprisingly often, a knowledge generating enterprise, not all that different from the academic world. And in these days when graduate schools and graduate programs in English in particular are trying to think how they might help guide students to so-called “alt-ac” careers, the rare book trade is one straightforward place where at least some of the skills of academia (bibliographic reference and description, paleography, knowledge of printers’ habits and practices) are used every day. But museum work, librarianship, and public history or folklore might make equally interesting futures for English graduate students, though it’s the book trade I know best, of course. Academics, it seems to me, need to understand and value all of these other knowledge-generating careers, if they have any hope of effectively communicating to their students that they have value.
Perhaps, however, it is hard to expect academics to give more than lip service to these alt-ac possibilities—which are employment and career options for both them and for their students, I might point out—when the MLA’s own annual house-organ styles itself Profession. As far as the MLA is concerned, there is only one profession, or only one that matters. Likewise, most academics, I’ve come to realize, are often not very good at even seeing, much less thinking, outside of the university box, and so I find myself telling stories like this one as often as I can, hoping without much hope that the academic world, and the MLA, might find a way to value more than one profession, to honor more than one knowledge generating enterprise. To my mind, there should be greater cross-over and cross-participation: booksellers and librarians should regularly be represented on MLA panels; humanities scholars should seek—even demand—joint appointments in their universities’ rare book rooms. If there is a crisis in the humanities, it seems to me, it is in part caused by the explicit and implicit messages that humanities doctoral programs send to their students: that there is only one profession that counts; that any sacrifice is worthwhile for the life of the mind; that it’s better to work as an adjunct than to leave “the profession”; that non-tenure-track teaching is a stage in one’s career, as if “graduating” to a tenure line were automatic.
The refrain (if such a term is accurate) of the Old English poem Deor, “Þæs ofereode; þisses swa mæg,” is often loosely translated as if it simply expressed the notion that “This too shall pass.” But of course, in the Old English, the promise is only that it may pass, and for Deor himself, there is no certainty at all that his current distress will reach any end while he lives. The truth is that the crisis in the humanities is no more certain to pass than Deor’s distress. Graduate students, after all, are canny enough to recognize when their teachers give only lip service to the possibilities of alt-ac employment, and thus graduate educators must learn to have an authentic respect for the learning that goes on outside “the profession” before any real solution to the crisis can be imagined.
Of course I sold my Crockett Almanac: I had put a lot of energy and a lot of hours into learning about it, and I was able to turn my learning into cash money: selling it it literally made my week. I find it odd, sometimes, to recognize that my livelihood is now tied to the whims of the American consumer (and the American consumer of luxury goods, no less!). But then again, isn’t that, also, true of academics as well?