Alphamu

Alphamu. “Thomas Bird Mosher (1852-1923)” in The Calcutta Review — An Illustrated Monthly. Vol. 9, No. 3 (Third Series). Calcutta, India: Calcutta Review, December 1923, pp. 459-465. This monthly literary periodical was distributed through agents in London, New York, Bombay, New Delhi, Patna, and Calcutta.


Thomas Bird Mosher, for nearly half a century publisher of rare editions of books in belles lettres and dean of the world’s book lovers, died on the 31st August, 1923. Beginning life as a book-keeper Mr. Mosher lived to establish a business which has no equal. He was a writer of fine discernment, a critic and an authority in the branch of literature to which he devoted his life.

Mr. Mosher occupied a unique position, in that he was so busy supplying the people of distant lands and places with books that his townspeople were scarcely familiar with him. Beloved by the comparatively few who were privileged to know him in the City of Portland, Maine, U. S. A., where he practically spent his life, his name is a household word in the cities and towns of the West and South, in which there is apparently a greater demand for books of the quality published by Mr. Mosher than in Portland. It might even be said in this connection that the distinguished bookman was better known in Australia and in India than he was to the people of Exchange Street, where in 1871 he entered the publishing business as a clerk in the store above which his office was afterwards located.

It was here, however, that Mr. Mosher was able to throw himself into the work which made life for him “the sunlit road,” which he declared he had found it. Here he lived surrounded by his books, pictures and bric-a-brac, receiving his patrons and friends from the literary centres of the world, attending to his immense correspondence and to a still greater extent finding companion-ship with the great men of letters of the past. Broadminded and with a literary outlook of the widest, he was also ready to welcome the good work of men of today, as well as to help preserve and to send down the productions of the great authors and scholars of the past. His own scholarship was exact and comprehensive along special lines and it would be hard to set any bounds to his field of literary observations and research.

Mr. Mosher was born in Biddeford, September 11, 1852, the son of Benjamin and Mary Elizabeth (Merrill). He was educated in the public schools of Biddeford and Boston and in 1906 Bowdoin College conferred the honorary degree of A. M. upon him. He married Anna M. Littlefield of Saco, July 2, 1892. He is survived by his wife and two sons, Harrison Hume and Thomas Bird Jr. and by one sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Cowan of Biddeford.

He began publishing choice and limited editions of books in belles lettres in October, 1891. His work of editing and publishing the Bibelot [titles not italicized in this article] was begun in January, 1895; he thus completed a reprint of poetry and prose, largely from scarce editions and sources not usually known, in twenty-one volumes with index, in 1915. He edited and published an American edition of The Germ, 1898; Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, 1899; Rossetti’s Poetical Works, 1902. The first absolute facsimile reprint of Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayy├ím of 1859 was produced by Mr. Mosher in 1902. He also edited and compiled a bibliography in Old World editions of Fitzgerald’s entire texts of Omar.

It is of interest to know that the first time Mr. Mosher ever heard a word about the Rubaiyat was in 1879 and the man who quoted “the moving finger writes” was a doctor of medicine, F. H. Gerrish, of Portland who was very well known in the medical profession. It was in a little lecture room in Congress Street on the subject of hygiene that the latter quoted those four lines, and from that time to the last day of Mr. Mosher’s life, as it were, Omar was with him. “I think I need Omar every hour,” he was fond of saying.

At that time Mr. Mosher’s day had not dawned. He was a hard working bookkeeper who was carrying burdens and had not seen his way to publish the “Mosher books,” or indeed any books except the ordinary folios used in his professional career. From 1882 to 1890 he was one of the partners of the firm which was known as McLellan, Mosher and Co. Leaving Portland in 1879, he returned to Maine and went into business with the late Reuel T. McLellan in 1882.

He came in touch with the particular interest which proved to be the ruling hobby of his life through wanting to publish things according to his idea of how they should be published. He intuitively felt that such work would have place. Then, too, expression was doubtlessly a motive,-the impulse which shows itself in the desire for good workmanship. These combined with perseverance, the faculty which gives one the power to accomplish a piece of work without allowing one’s self to be turned aside from purpose, either by the initial difficulties involved or by the obstacles that multiply as one progresses with his task, led to the goal.

Mr. Mosher’s first book was Modern Love by George Meredith. It faithfully reproduced the text of 1862 and was later revised with other poems by Meredith in his Old World Series. The closing words of that poem better than anything else, tell what Mr. Mosher tried to do as a publisher, as he once said,-“To throw that faint, thin line upon the shore.” He considered the greatest achievement of his career to be, not his Bibelot, by which he was best known, but the reproduction of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in the author’s memorial year. Mr. Mosher not only had the extremely great pleasure of publishing this book, but he had an equal amount of gratification of seeing the edition sold out without a word of advertising, although this interest was in no sense from the commercial standpoint. It was simply a case of “throwing out that faint, thin line upon the shore.” His last published work was Odes, Sonnets and Lyrics of John Keats.

Mr. Mosher once made the statement that he rarely ever read the newspapers for the reason that he could not indulge in the habit without enfeebling his taste for literature, although he admitted that his early dreams were of a newspaper.

He claimed it was his father who gave him his greatest education when he allowed him to go to sea for five years. He often declared that he was grateful to his father for saving him from a college education. He attributed his love of reading to the fact that having little school training, he needed and loved literature.

Mr. Mosher published nearly 500 titles reproducing upon the finest papers, by means of the most beautiful fonts of type and in the most artistic bindings, some of the most exquisite editions of literary works. Thus the best traditions of English literature have been preserved, and through “the faint, thin line” which the Portland publisher eminently succeeded in throwing, these traditions should and undoubtedly will pass into the possession of coming generations whose pleasure it will be to cherish them and whose duty it will be to perpetuate them. Much also might be said of Mr. Mosher’s cultured home life, and of the gaiety, optimism and irony, combined in his delightful personality. He lived profoundly, which indeed was the secret of his producing greatly. But it is as a publisher of unique volumes, as an editor and poet that he will be remembered, and this will be as he wished, if one may judge from the preface of one of his own works in which he wrote in part as follows:

“To you who have bought and loved my books and know what they have signified during the past years I need give no stronger assurance as to the tenor of my way than is set forth in these solemn affirmations. To believe that literature is the lasting expression in words of the meaning of life, has been and will ever remain an ideal as long as I am permitted to publish at all.”

“And when the curtain comes down for the last time, I want not a few half-wearied spectators and a fast emptying house, but a still appreciable audience.”

“I know the night is near at hand,
The mist lies on the hill and bay,
The autumn leaves are drifting by,
But I have had the day.”

Wilbur Needham has made the following fine attempt at appreciation of the rare spirit which pervaded all that Mosher did:

[quotes Needham’s three-part article, in toto, from the Chicago Evening Post]

The latest books which Mosher lived to place in the hands of his readers were in his best style. One of these is “a Freeman’s Worship” [sic] with special preface by Bertrand Russell, the other is “a Children’s Crusade” [sic] translated from the French of Marcel Schwob in the same format as originated by him.

We are delighted to find that although no more new books will be published in these series, the Mosher books will be reprinted as called for. Truly may the words of William Watson be applied to Mosher:

In light, in night, in twilight,
I sought for very Thee:
But my light, was it ‘Thy light?
I sought, and nought could see.

I strove by inward eyesight
To gaze on things to be:
But my sight, was it Thy sight?
I gazed, and nought could see.

Along Thy starlit highway
Thou lead’st me, bound or free!
If my way, then, be Thy way,
O whither lead’st Thou me?