Permanent Markers: America Made by Printing
Yale has one of the nation’s great collections of Americana – paintings, drawings, sculptures, and decorative arts in the Yale University Art Gallery and books, manuscripts, and historical documents in the Yale libraries and archives. The collection of Western Americana given to Yale by Frederick W. Beinecke joined collections gathered by William Robertson Coe, Henry Raup Wagner, Walter McClintock, Winlock W. Miller, Jr. and Thomas W. Streeter to make Yale a first-class research center in the twentieth century. Add to that the novels and books of poetry given by Owen F. Aldis that started the Yale Collection of American literature and you have a library possibly without peer. This section of the exhibition looks at how printed sources helped define America from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.
One of the first images of the new continent and its inhabitants is seen in a woodcut from the Basel 1494 printing of Christopher Columbus’s Letter on the first voyage (Carlo Verardi, Historia Baetica. Cristoforo Colombo Epistola de Insulis Nuper Inventis (Basel, Johann Bergmann, 1494).
“Insula Hyspana” is populated by natives equally curious and cautious. Teamed with this monumental work is a curious – and obvious – forgery created in Düsseldorf, Germany in the mid-1890s: My Secrete Log Boke, a spurious work purporting to be the log book of Christopher Columbus, which, according to legend, he threw overboard on his first voyage during a storm, and which was “found” washed up on the western shores of Wales four hundred years later.
The Bay Psalm Book, or The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Stephen Daye in 1640, is the earliest obtainable book printed in British North America and one of the high spots of American bibliography. The Yale copy is pristinely beautiful, having been trimmed and rebound in the mid-nineteenth century – which makes for a delightful display piece, but which obscures its history. Copies of the Bay Psalm Book are extremely rare because most were used until they fell apart.
Another treasure from the Taylor collection is The English-American, His Travail by Sea and Land, or, A New Svrvey of the West-India's . . . (R. Cotes, 1648) which boasts the first use of the word “American” in English.
Another Englishman’s view of the new world is seen in William Blake’s America: A Prophecy, his allegorical poem on the founding of the United States. The Yale copy is one of only four known that are fully colored.
Various Subjects Religious and Moral
A group of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books, landmarks from the Beinecke’s collections, contributed to the shaping of an American character. Cotton Mather’s Addresses to Old Men, and Young Men, and Little Children (R. Pierce, 1690), the earliest American imprint in the Betsy Beinecke Shirley collection of American Children’s Literature, contains one of the scriptural catechisms that were the staple of books for young Americans. More forceful and eye-opening is Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th 1741 (S. Kneeland and T. Green, 1741). This statement of eighteenth-century New England theology circulated in the small, inexpensive format of religious publishing of the period.
Two items encapsulate the story of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet. Her An Elegiac poem: On the Death of that Celebrated Divine and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield (Ezekiel Russell, ) earned her great reknown, eventually leading to the appearance, in London, of a collection of her lyric works, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (A. Bell, Messrs. Cox and Berry, King-street, Boston. 1773).
A charming broadside completes this section. The Poet’s Dinner Table, (O.A. Dorman) shows a puzzle consisting of a view of a table from above, on which are seen various plates and bottles, surrounded by sixteen chairs. Inside each object are riddles to the identities of the literary figures, or culinary items. In the middle of the table is a cartouche advertising the 223 different styles of account books kept in stock by one O.A. Dorman, residing at 215 State St. New Haven, Conn.
Mapping America & The American Language
A pair of geographies shows the progress in mapping the new continent precisely. Jedidiah Morse’s 1784 edition of Geography Made Easy: Being a Short, but Comprehensive System of that very Useful and Agreeable Science (Meigs, Bowen & Dana) was derivative of similar books and contained only a tiny map showing the barest information about North American continent. His much-improved and necessarily retitled The American Geography; or, A View of the Present Situation of the United States of America (Shepard Kollock, 1789) contains a bigger, more detailed and accurate map of the continent, justifiably earning Morse the title as the father of American geography.
The same movement from a generic work to an intentionally American one can be seen in the story of Noah Webster’s dictionary. Webster, like Morse, a graduate of Yale College, was originally known for his popular school textbooks: a grammar, a reader, and the ubiquitous “blue-backed” speller. In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which was produced in New Haven by Sidney's Press for two book sellers, Hudson & Goodwin in Hartford and Increase Cooke & Co. in New Haven. It was a monumental achievement in regularizing the spelling and use of words in the English language in North America, but soon after its appearance, Webster embarked on an even more demanding task. An American Dictionary of the English Language (Hezekiah Howe, 1828) expanded the dictionary to more than 70,000 entries encompassing words native to the new land. Accompanying these volumes is a rare survival – an 1826 subscription form: “S. Converse proposes to publish by subscription An American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, LL.D.” [New York, April 1826].
Friendships and Alliances
The story of American printing encompasses how the indigenous peoples of the Americas were proselytized and depicted in popular culture and proselytized. The Beinecke Library has deep and broad resources in this area, including schoolbooks such as A Primer for the use of the Mohawk children to Acquire Spelling and Reading of Their Own, as Well as to get Acquainted with the English Tongue which for that Purpose is Put on the Opposite Page (C. Buckton, 1786). This edition was printed for use by Mohawk schoolteachers in schools being maintained while the community was removed from New York to Canada. It includes a frontispiece showing an Indian instructor with pupils.
Another remarkable survival is an issue of Cherokee Phoenix and Indian’s Advocate (Isaac H. Harris,1828-29), the national newspaper that employed the syllabary created from scratch by Sequoyah, the first Native American to design a system for writing his or her language. A four page flyer advertising an exhibition of George Catlin’s work, Exhibition of Indian Portraits and Indian Curiosities (Applegate, 1833?), shows a view of Indians in the nineteenth century.
A Native American Religion
One of the uniquely American stories recorded in depth in the collections of the Beinecke Library is the history of the Mormons. While early documents of the establishment of Mormon communities are scarce, the key text is the first edition of the The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (E.B. Grandin, 1830). A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized According to Law on the 6th of April 1830. (W.W. Phelps & Co., 1833), which compiled Joseph Smith’s prophecies, is of equal rarity. Published in the frontier community of Independence, Missouri by William. W. Phelps, this book gathered texts that had originally appeared in his newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star. On view is a contemporary reprint (1835-1836) issued in Kirtland, Ohio where the Mormons moved following the violence wreaked upon them in Missouri. Another key publication dates from St. Louis in 1848, General Epistle from the Council of the Twelve Apostles to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Abroad, Dispersed throughout the Earth. The book was written at Winter Quarters (near modern Omaha, Nebraska) where Brigham Young had relocated the Mormon community (exiled from Nauvoo, Illinois). Fewer than a dozen copies survive.
This group of printed items shows the extent to which the printing press was a dynamic, even explosive component of American cultural, social, and political history, particularly on the western frontier, and how leading Mormons made extensive and effective use of the printing press to build their church, perhaps more than leaders of other "utopias".
Narratives and Rights
As the United States grew and changed in the nineteenth century, printed books and pamphlets played a major role in conveying the stories of various social groups that were coming into a greater sense of their freedom and rights. One of the most influential autobiographies of an African-American was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / Written by Himself (1847). Though this edition, like earlier printings, bears the imprint of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Office, it was, in fact, the only edition issued directly by Douglass from his office of the North Star newspaper in Rochester, New York. A year later Douglass also published a slim pamphlet that records the proceedings of a very early convention focusing on women’s rights, Report of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848, where he gave a speech.
Another kind of biography regained popularity in the 1800s: the captivity narrative. The genre dates back to 1682 and Mary Rowlandson’s story of her eleven weeks of captivity during King Philip’s War, but had a resurgence as Americans moved West in the nineteenth century. Three works describe the lives women who were kidnapped by Indians. James Seaver’s A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (J.D. Bemis and Co., 1824) revived the genre with its account of Jemison's life among the Seneca Indians after she was taken captive in 1755. Two other books are unique copies: Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty-One Months Servitude as a Prisoner among the Commanchee Indians. Written by He[rsel]f. (Telegraph Power Press, 1838) and Benjamin Dolbeare’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Suffering of Dolly Webster among the Camanche Indians in Texas, with an Account of the Massacre of John Webster and His Party, as Narrated by Mrs. Webster, published by M'Granaghan & M'Carty Printer in 1843.
An American Literature
The Yale Collection of American Literature was formed in 1911 by the gift of Owen F. Aldis, Y1874, of his collection of first and other notable editions by American writers of belles lettres. Noted for its bibliographic strength in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century writings, the collection includes first and other significant editions of virtually every major work of American literature published by prominent authors of the period. The writers of the nineteenth century helped shape a uniquely American literature, exploring a range of literary styles and considering specifically American subject matter. The centerpiece of American poetry from this period is Leaves of Grass, the lifetime project of Walt Whitman, in which he celebrate himself, and his fellow countrymen and women.
On view are a copy of the first edition ([Andrew and James Rome], 1855) on large paper, and a copy of the second edition ([Fowler & Wells, N. Y], 1856) bearing a gilt spine embossed with a quotation from an admirer’s letter: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career R W Emerson.”
Next to Whitman in the exhibition is a first edition of Charles Siringo’s A Texas Cow-boy; or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. Taken from Real Life (M. Umbdenstock & Co., 1885.), the first cowboy “autobiography” and a prime example of how low-cost books transformed American popular and literary culture after the Civil War.
The genesis of a cornerstone of American letters can be seen in the range of printed items related to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. First are two sources for the tale: Owen Chase’s non-fiction account, Narrative of The Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of The Whale-ship Essex, of Nantucket: Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale, in the Pacific Ocean: With an Account of the Unparalleled Sufferings of the Captain and Crew . . . (W.B. Gilley, 1821) and the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker, or, New-York Monthly Magazine (Clark and Edson, 1839) containing: "Mocha Dick, or, The White Whale of the Pacific: a leaf from a manuscript journal" by J.N. Reynolds.
The first American edition, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (Harper & Brothers, 1851), stands in contrast to the three-decker first British, The Whale (Richard Bentley, 1851), which was, in fact, issued one month before the United States version and is notable for its 600 editorial changes, including the excision of the epilogue, leaving the first British readers puzzled as to how Ishmael survived to tell his tale.
The bibliographic extent of Yale’s Moby Dick collection extends to the much-beloved Lakeside Press edition (1930) with illustrations by Rockwell Kent, a Photoplay edition: Moby Dick, or, The White Whale (Grosset & Dunlap, ca. 1925), and a garishly dramatic Classic Comics edition (Gilberton Publications, 1942).
America the Beautiful
Our exploration of how printing made America ends with two magnificent examples of multi-stage color lithographic printing, both from the bequest of Paul Mellon. The proof books from the firm established by Louis Prang in Boston preserve rare glimpses into the precise and painstaking methods of lithography, the juggernaut of nineteenth-century graphic printing processes. The 1872 book shows progressive stages of two prints: “On the lookout” and “Colorado cliffs”, while the 1874 volume treats four views of California landscapes in the same way. Together, the plates show how colors were built up over with as many as 26 separate litho stones to make radiant prints that modern technology can only approximate.
The exhibition gallery is closed while the library's building is under renovation.
Temporary Reading Room Hours
Monday - Friday: 9 am to 4:45 pm
The temporary reading room is located in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, across Wall Street from the Beinecke.