Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Book Curse that Curses the Book, ca. 1899

It's the holiday season around these parts, and for various reasons, I haven't been very busy writing blog posts. But today, I thought I'd share a book I've had for the better part of two decades: not a new acquisition by any means.

But the story I will tell here is not just about a book. It is also about something else that has intrigued me recently: the unbelievable power of internet searching for letting us find the pieces of an otherwise lost or unknown story. Internet searches, I've started to think, can sometimes offer incomparable moments of serendipity, if only we can manage to connect what begs to be connected.

But to return to the topic with which I began:

Reed & Kellogg's Higher Lessons
in English
Back when I was living in Colorado, I frequently found myself teaching a class which included sentence diagramming as part of its content. So when I ran across this 1892 copy of Higher Lessons in English, by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, I had to have it. It is a book that uses so-called "Reed-Kellogg" diagrams, familiar from my own elementary school days, with clauses laid out on horizontal lines, with subjects and predicates separated by a vertical bar, and with modifiers slanting down from the words they modify. And these were the very type of sentence diagrams I was teaching my college-level students. And I still think that maybe there's a place for this mode of grammatical analysis.

I stopped teaching such diagrams years ago, but I've held onto the book because it's one of the few books I've had that has an honest-to-goodness book curse in it. And it has not one, but two!

Book curses, if any of my readers have not encountered them, are inscriptions by owners that are intended to make sure that books are not stolen away by readers or borrowers. They are highly traditional, going back at least to the middle ages, and one of the curses in this book has all the markings of coming from a real tradition:

Ed Cassedy's Curses; the bottom four lines
probably composed and written before
the top five.

Don't steal this book for fear of shame
For here you see the owners name
He will chase and catch you too
And then will beat you black and blue
       Ed Cassedy

A quick internet search on the phrase "steal this book for fear of shame" will, indeed, turn up references to a number of similar book curses, though usually (or always) consisting of something like the first two lines alone. The final two lines are probably Ed Cassedy's own composition.

A later page in the book suggests that Ed Cassedy (he signs in full as "Edwin Gray Cassedy") used the book while he was in the eighth grade in 1899; apparently the book had been handed down from his sister, Carrie C Cassedy, from Canon County [Colorado], who signed the book on September 2, 1893, when it was probably new. 

[Sidebar: As I was composing this little blog post, I was unsure of the spelling of Ed's name, given the impreciseness of pencil script and his own inconsistency in dotting the letter "i"; my internet search for "Edwin Gray Cassidy" turned up exactly one link, to an oral history interview with  Pittsburgh-born artist Sue Fuller, and I happily send my readers down that particular rabbit hole, because it seems clear that Sue Fuller is, indeed, talking about the same guy, her uncle. But probably, you should also make your own search for "Edwin Gray Cassedy," which will allow you to trace at least part of the later life of the author of my book curse. Like Sue Fuller, Ed Cassedy also turned out to be an artist.]

Anyhow, the eighth-grade Ed Cassedy seems to have reconsidered the reasonableness of cursing the borrower or thief who might take the book from him, writing the following couplet above the four line poem already quoted:

Dont steal this
book and \then/ bring it
back but stick it
in the stove and
burn it black.

In this little addendum, Ed Cassedy prays that any thief or borrower destroy the book, rather than return it. The curse is no longer aimed at the book thief, but at the book. I suppose that many schoolchildren, over the years, have similarly hoped to be spared the tyranny of their books, but I don't recall seeing a purselike this one before, and I find it both clever and charming, in a kind of rough-and-tumble Wild West way. 

This book is a humble, humble book. But somehow, in the completely unpretentious additions that Ed Cassedy made to what started out as a traditional book curse, something remarkable happened. Not every little verse--or curse--that makes it into a book transforms it so marvelously  I think, nor does every internet search I perform turn up things as interesting as the searches I've pointed my readers to here. 

But some of them do.