Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Merle Johnson's High Spots of American Literature

Johnson's High Spots, in sadly
damaged condition.
Off on vacation to the surprisingly horsey horse country of Northern Virginia last week, of course I toured various antique malls and bookstores. I bought more glass than books, as it turned out, and none of the books was especially exciting (though for a moment I thought I had found a rare first state dust jacket of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca: but it was a later state, as it turned out).

I did, however, come across a copy of Merle Johnson's High Spots of American Literature. Published in 1929 in a limited edition of 750 copies (my copy is number 509), the book has become, in some ways, a kind of high spot of American bibliography and book collecting, known and appreciated for its role in defining the field of collecting American literary first editions in the twentieth century more than either its completeness or, in some cases, its precision.

My copy, as the photo no doubt shows, is not in good condition: it has seen some rough handling in its 86 years, though it was a very attractively produced book in its day. But at twenty-five dollars, I thought it would be a great book to own.

Some of the character of Johnson's assessment of American literature can help illuminate, I think, why this idiosyncratic book can still be valued: "Poe's Tamerlane," he writes, "is perhaps the scarcest American book of a renowned author. Yet it has no place in a list of great and readable books" (6). On the other hand, writing of the manuscripts of many of the classics in his list, Johnson writes: "Dr Rosenbach predicts the greatest value for American manuscripts in the writings of Herman Melville and Eugene O'Neill. I respect the Doctor's sage judgment but it seems to me that 'The One Hoss Shay,' 'The Raven,' 'The Red Badge of Courage.' 'Snowbound,' 'The Last of the Mohicans,' 'The Sketchbook,' 'Ben-Hur,' 'Tom Sawyer,' among others, would all step ahead of his choices. Melville and O'Neill have created no characters that live in the popular mind" (107). The popular mind, it seems, has changed.
Title page.

And yet, as little known as "The One Hoss Shay" might be today (though I am fairly certain I recall my dad reading it aloud when I was a child), Johnson's judgment is, in other ways, surprisingly accurate. Writing of what he calls "so-called 'realistic' books of the present generation," Johnson seems almost prescient in his comment that "We list our Dreisers, Lewises, and Andersons, full of hope for the future, realizing their insight and power, but unable to foresee if, or no, 'Pollyanna' may be a household word years after their names have been forgotten" (7). English majors, perhaps, may know of Dreiser, Lewis, and Anderson, but "Pollyanna" has will almost certainly sound far more familiar to many Americans' ears.

It's a book about books: how could I not find it fascinating?

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