January 30, 2010

What's Wrong With This Picture?

"He owes $14,000 in back rent, has $14 to his name, he's been out of work for two years, his landlord is evicting him, he agrees he should be tossed. He's got a rare book collection of 3,000 books worth, by his estimate, $1,000,000. What's wrong with this picture?

Irving Leif, 62, the Jersey City citizen whose story hit the Jersey papers the other day, we learn, is a graybeard trust-fund baby. Disbursements to him supplemented his income as Chief Information Officer for the state of New York's Department of Banking.

The chief missed, evidently, the info on banking and money.

Anytime a book collector is faced with a financial crisis the question arises, Should I sell my books? And most collectors will do anything they can to avoid deascensions for dollars or any other reason, particularly if, as Leif, you've spent forty years amassing the collection and insist that it be kept intact.

I have experienced a similar situation. The period 1988-1999 was one of great difficulty and there were times when I had to consider selling my books. It was a wrenching decision - and my collection was no where near the size or value of Leif's. I resisted, muddling along somehow, finding money someplace else, or just letting debt slide as I hunkered down in my house of books. The books comforted me; they were my friends. I think I also had the inchoate sense that to sell was to admit failure, not as a collector but as an adult. My self-worth was directly tied to the collection.

But there comes a time, and it came for me, when an extremely cold shower and hard slap are necessary to awaken dormant reality. The books have to go. It was, without over-dramatizing the situation, one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make. I made it and began to sell off, a few books at a time, the whole of my collection to a dealer I knew and trusted, William Dailey.

And then the most amazing thing happened: My life opened up. It was as if I had been clinging to a sinking rock to keep it (and myself) afloat. When I let go, I rose to the surface, alive and able to breathe.

I've become superstitious about establishing a new collection; I don't want to mess with karma. The comfort I feel amongst rare and antiquarian books is satisfied by my work in the trade; I'm surrounded by them. every day. I don't need to own them.

I know what Irving Leif is going through. But he has to go all the way through, sell some if not all of his books, and get on with his life before the books completely consume him. He is where no book collector should ever be: In that dark, fragile space where the Gentle Madness of book collecting that Nicholas Basbanes has written so well about gets overwhelmed out by full-blown bibliomania.

A potentially homeless person, dead broke yet with $1,000,000 worth of books. This is a psychopathology that needs to be addressed. Mr. Leif has the sympathy of book collectors all over the world; this is a very sad story. But only up to a point.

Mr. Leif could have been saving his trust fund money and living off his income. He could have carefully sold off some of his books when things began to get tight, rather than wait until crisis threatened all. In this, or any, economy, a 62 year-old out of work person faces a rough road toward another job. Downward employment mobility is no party but the world will not come to an end.

There is nothing noble about saving one's book collection at all costs. We admire the fool for love but not the idiot."

Original source here .

January 28, 2010

Historical Society of PA Going Digital

Great news for researchers. "The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is launching a massive project to make its collections available online." Full story here. Looks like the Civil War stuff will go online first.

January 24, 2010

The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens

By the time the Civil War started, Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) had already lived quite a successful public life. At forty-three years old, the diminutive Stevens had served as a US Congressman as well as the first governor of the Washington Territory (1853-1857). His education had been obtained at West Point, where he graduated first in his class of 1839 and then went on to serve in the corps of engineers. During the 1846-48 war with Mexico, his bravery earned him several brevet promotions. Following the war, Stevens wrote a book about his exploits titled Campaigns of the Rio Grande and Mexico, with Notices of the Recent Work of Major Ripley (New York, 1851), which is a rare book in its own right.

Once the war came about, Stevens obtained a commission as colonel of the 79th New York Infantry, also famously known as the Cameron Highlanders, who were well known for wearing their Scottish kilts on dress parade (though not in battle). A promotion to brigadier general soon followed as did a transfer to the South Carolina coast where Stevens and his men took part in actions at Port Royal and James Island. He continued to climb the command ladder and by the time the battle of Secessionville took place, Stevens held division command. That command was transferred back to Virginia as part of the IX Corps under John Pope during the ill-fated Northern Virginia Campaign of 1862. On September 1, 1862, only two days following the Union disaster at Second Bull Run, Stevens was shot in the head and killed instantly while leading his men in a charge at the Battle of Chantilly. By that time, Stevens was considered to be one of the brightest stars in the Union officer corps. Following his death, he was posthumously promoted to major general effective as of July 1862.

Also present and wounded at the Battle of Chantilly was Stevens’s son, Hazard (1842-1918), who, like his father before him, was serving with the 79th New York. In the decades following the war, Hazard would set about writing his father’s biography, which was ultimately published in 1900 by Houghton Mifflin as a two-volume hardcover set. According to George H. Tweney, "In some respects, this is a somewhat biased account of the life of the first Territorial Governor of Washington Territory. It covers all details of Stevens' life, including his career in the Mexican War, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Governor, as Indian negotiator, explorer, railroad surveyor, and one of the principal figures in the settlement and growth of the northwest." On the other side of the coin, David Eicher writes in his Civil War bibliography (#583) that the work “draws on official documents, contains many excerpts of letters, focuses primarily on military matters, and maintains objectivity.” While that may be the case, the reader is almost two-thirds of the way through volume two before the Civil War commences.

The first edition was bound in heavy blue cloth with the spine lettering and top edge of the sheets in gold gilt. The title page and copyright page should both state 1900 as the year of publication. In conducting research for this post, I discovered the pictured copy, which is the only set I’ve ever seen in dust jacket. As all serious collectors will know, the presence of those jackets, though quite plain, will add substantial value to the set. This is the preeminent work on Stevens and written by one who was in position to know what we wrote of. An important work and desirable book for any collector of the Civil War or Pacific Northwest.

January 16, 2010

The John S. Copley Library at Sotheby's

A preview sampling of the John S. Copley Library of original manuscripts, letters and paintings is on display through next Saturday at Sotheby’s, 1334 York Avenue, at 72nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 606-7000.

Included in the upcoming auction material are letters from Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe to an abolitionist colleague and a letter from a frustrated Lincoln to George McClellan dated May 25, 1862 (click picture).

Full article here.

January 10, 2010

How To Search Worldwide Book Auction Listings Instantly

"Another year for book auctions is about to begin, which is a perfect time to remind everyone of the amazing search and informational tools the Americana Exchange provides for free. Auctions are an outstanding source for collectible books and ephemera, often at great prices, but only a small percentage of book collectors take advantage of the opportunity. They don't know how. AE is here to help."

Great article and online tool! Click here to read it in its entirety.

The Letters of Major General James E. B. Stuart

Anyone coming to this blog or with a general interest in the Civil War will certainly know of Confederate cavalry general James Ewell Brown (“Jeb”) Stuart. Arguably the most famous horseman produced by the Civil War, Stuart served the Confederate army in the East with valor and even some controversy from the time of his promotion to brigadier general in 1861 up until his death at the battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1864.

"Jeb" Stuart has been the subject of no less than four biographies and numerous staff memoirs over the past 140 years with gallons of ink and countless trees turned into paper to tell of his various exploits. Therefore, as one of the most colorful and important generals in the Civil War, it might be considered surprising to see that Stuart’s personal letters were never published by a major publishing house or university press as was the case with any number of less important general officers. (This would not include the Letters of General J. E. B. Stuart to His Wife, 1861, a 30-page effort published by Emory University in 1943.)

The Letters of Major General James E. B. Stuart was published by the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society in 1990, four years after the society had published the letters of John Mosby. This venture resulted in a 1000-copy hardcover limited edition bound in blue cloth. The 400+ page book was edited by Adele H. Mitchell and featured an introduction by Stuart’s great grandson, J. E. B. Stuart IV. The work is divided into four sections: Stuart’s early years, as a cadet at West Point, on the western frontier, and wraps up with the Civil War years. Context and editorial annotations are scarce, all of which seems to give the book a vanity press or self-published feel. Nonetheless, it must be considered an integral primary source for anyone studying Stuart or the eastern theatre's cavalry operations. For the book collector, while not a difficult title to come by, it has clearly appreciated in secondary market value since it first appeared twenty years ago. You'll note that there are more than a handful of copies for sale via the internet.

The book was obviously deemed important enough to be included in In Taller Cotton: 200 More Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher and Collector, which appeared in 2006. In it, the editors remark that Stuart’s letters “reveal the mixture of adolescent love of attention and hard-headed military ability that formed elemental parts of his personality. All serious students of Stuart’s career should read these letters with care.”

I've added a video link below that discusses Stuart's final days.

The Fall of J.E.B. Stuart - Civil War

January 4, 2010

A Brave New World for Book Auctions?

"Yet it remains an uncomfortable truth that book auction prices have declined "irreversibly" 33% since 2007. The bubble burst in December of 2008, and those who bought in the years 2006-2008 will feel a degree of pain if they wish to sell; prices are not bouncing back.

But the market is righting itself. The far sighted will get back into the market now. And dealers who have yet to lower posted prices while they continue to sell at deep discounts will pay as confidence shifts to those who have the good sense to accept reality and post real-world prices.

I suspect that we'll start to see more more auction sales conducted in this manner in 2010. This was Bloomsbury's most successful sale ever, exceeding its prior record by 50%. That fact alone will open eyes, wide."

Interesting story about how Bloomsbury Auction House is adapting in these turbulent times. Buyers and sellers take note.

January 3, 2010

Hard Tack and Coffee

As a jovial nod to our Civil War ancestors, and to my chosen avocation, I thought it might be humorous to celebrate the New Year with some hardtack and coffee, rather than hors d’oeuvres and bubbly. My wife was not amused nor impressed. So I decided the next best thing was to post about the famous book titled Hard Tack and Coffee; or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life.

Few titles are better known or cited more often than John Billings’ 1887 standard work about day-to-day life in the Union army as experienced by the common private. With so much ink and paper devoted to the ramblings and recollections of high ranking officers, this book stands as a wonderful comparison as to what life was like at the other end of the ladder. In a writing style that is homespun and conversational, Billings describes to the reader the more mundane aspects of camp life, such as how fireplaces were made, types of tents used, what picket duty and marches were like, as well as the ingenuity of the common soldier.

According to findagrave.com, Billings was born in Canton, Massachusetts [in 1842], a few miles outside Boston, where he was trained as a mechanic in his father's workshop. He was eighteen years old when war broke out in 1861, however his father refused to let him enlist until the summer of 1862, when he was given permission to join the 10th Massachusetts Artillery. Joining as a private, he was promoted to corporal in 1864. After he mustered out in 1865, Billings taught school in small towns around Boston for over 60 years before retiring in 1926. Though teaching was his formal profession, the Civil War became his avocation. He joined several veterans organizations after the end of the war, and in the 1870s began writing a comprehensive history of his unit, relying on his diary and close to three hundred letters that he had written to his parents during the war. The resulting book, The History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery is considered one of the best sources of information about what life was like in the Army of the Potomac.

In 1881, while vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he spent the evenings at his hotel with several other Union veterans telling a group of boys about the mundane details of military life. Realizing that there was no book about these minor details of life in the Army during the Civil War, he decided to write his own book on the subject. The subsequent work became Hard Tack and Coffee, and recorded the daily routine and common experience of the soldiers, often thought to be of no interest by the veterans themselves. Many historians consider this book one of the most important books written about the war, since it captured the routine and minor facts of daily life during the war, providing a detailed look of the ordinary soldier. Hard Tack and Coffee proved to be a best seller and has been reprinted eight times, continuing to be one of the best books about the common soldier on that war. Billings died in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1933 at the age of ninety. The rank of Colonel on his grave marker is an honorary rank bestowed on him for his books and contributions to veterans after the war.

Reviews and criticism were universally positive. Nevins described the work as “The best source for the army life and feelings of a Federal soldier; this delightfully written and humorously illustrated work has rightfully become a classic.”

The first edition was published in 1887 by George M. Smith and Co. of Boston and featured six color plates along with over 200 drawings. Bound in brown cloth, it offered gilt lettering on the spine and cover though the cover image was printed in black. It is not a rare book in the first edition though, of course, condition will play the biggest role in the asking price. It has also been reprinted many times making reading copies plentiful. Regardless of one’s budget, this is a classic that belongs in every Civil War library.