Richard Le Gallienne: Thomas Bird Mosher – An Appreciation

Le Gallienne, Richard. Thomas Bird Mosher — An Appreciation. Portland, ME: Mosher, 1915. Previously appeared in the Forum 51 [January 1914], pp. 124-29; and also appeared in the Index to The Bibelot (1915).

Criticism has latterly been promoted to a place among the creative arts. Somewhat tardily, it has become recognized that the contemplation of one work of art by what may be called skilled enthusiasm results not infrequently in another. There is necessarily an artistic principle at work in all appreciation, for appreciation implies selection, and may be defined as selection creatively vitalized by praise. Then taste actively employed must result in some form of personal rearrangement of its objects which gives one the sense of a new harmony. Thus an individually selected library often becomes the artistic embodiment of its owner’s personality. A real book-lover, that is one whose books are each and all sensitively related to himself, is known by the books that he buys. His library is a microcosm of his individual cosmos. The catalogue of a man’s library is a form of autobiography. Now, this principle has been carried one step further in our time by one who has shown us that not only the criticism and collection of books may belong to the creative arts, but the publication of them also. The history of printing and book-selling records other instances of a like nature. Pickering and Moxon and Russell Smith, to mention only two or three recent names, are examples of publishers who impressed their businesses with a personal artistic character. But none of these better deserves the description of creative publisher than Thomas Bird Mosher, of Portland, Maine. Many publishers we have who know and love and publish good literature, and take pride, too, in the building of beautiful books. But such books are only a small part of their general output. Their catalogues are impersonal, omnium-gatherum, lists of unrelated volumes. There is evident in them no selective principle, save that of a general merchant to purvey such creditable wares as the reading public is likely to purchase. You do not say immediately as you take up one of their books: “This is a Pickering book!” or some one’s else as the case may be. Their name on a title-page stands for nothing distinctive, nothing beyond general respectability, or the reverse. With Mr. Mosher it is delightfully different; and, as a result of twenty years’ devotion to a certain personal ideal of literary appeal and perfection, he is able, with perfect propriety, and without need of explanation, to entitle his catalogue–“The Mosher Books.”

As one looks back over Mr. Mosher’s publishing career, one is struck by the fact that he began right away as he meant to go on. Already the line he meant to mark out for himself was clear in his mind, the result of a well-defined maturity of taste and judgment. For I believe I am right in thinking that the first issue from his press was an edition of George Meredith’s Modern Love–at that time of day all but unknown outside the secret society of fanatic Meredithians. I remember well the grateful surprise and curiosity with which in London I received Mr. Mosher’s present of that now rare imprint. It is always delightful to catch the windfall of a beautiful book, as it were, out of the air; and then one was thankful to this unknown enthusiast oversea, first, for having discovered for himself that great unappreciated poem, and then for his courage in reprinting it. “Portland, Maine,” meant nothing to me in those days, or I should have been still more surprised at this good thing coming out of that particular Nazareth. Even more exotic to me would have seemed another publication that soon followed–Andrew Lang’s translation of Aucassin and Nicolete.

Andrew Lang was very angry over that act of charming “piracy”; never, in fact, got over it. Possibly, I take an immoral view of such so-called literary piracy; yet it seems to me mere childishness, when one has neglected properly to protect one’s literary property, to complain if some one exercises his undoubted legal right of taking a fancy to it. Actually, I rejoice no little that so much exquisite literature would seem to have been thus left unprotected; for in that neglect has been the opportunity of Mr. Mosher’s enthusiasm, and by reason of it many lovely things that, in the indifferent hands of their “legitimate” sponsors, stood a fair chance of oblivion, have been rescued and displayed for our “delight in widest commonalty spread.” One English writer, at all events, who had the common sense to take this view of Mr. Mosher’s “piracy,” William Sharp, has had good reason to congratulate himself on his association with “The Mosher Books”; for it is hardly too much to say that the fame of Fiona Macleod, in its inception, at all events, was largely due to that devoted appreciation in far-away Portland, Maine. So William Sharp would have been the first to admit.

But Mr. Mosher as an exquisite Claude Duval of publishing is but an almost forgotten parenthesis in his career. If, as Kipling says, he has taken his good where he found it, ‘t is all to the gaiety of bookmen, and here I am not so much concerned with the so-called piracy as with the creative taste which inspired it. Of this creative taste Mr. Mosher’s catalogue is one really exquisite expression. The Bibelot is the other. The catalogue has the charm of a delicately made anthology. It is indeed a garland of fragrant names, names that “bring a perfume in the mention.” It is a veritable “box where sweets compacted lie.”

Every book-lover knows the evocative power that lies in the mere names of his favorite authors, and the titles of his favorite books. As he looks around his shelves, and his eyes fall upon them, gleaming in morning sun, or evening lamplight, what a music of association streams out to him from the well-loved backs. There is no need to take them down. Those names and titles are eloquent to him as the faces of familiar friends — aye, no few of them are as the faces of passionately loved women. They thrill him through with an indescribable imaginative ecstasy: as Justin Huntly McCarthy sang of Omar Khayyám, one can say “my youth lies buried in thy verses.” They hold so much of our lives, as a poignant gloss, between their leaves. Some of them have been pressed close to dead bosoms, and still keep their perfume. That Theocritus, that Villon, that Keats, that Well at the World’s End!

Now, in his catalogue, Mr. Mosher has collected more such names than I know where else to find together. Often I take it down and turn over its leaves, as I would walk in a garden of old-world flowers; or press to my nostrils some pomander of precious evocative spices. It is at once a lachrymatory, a honey-pot or a potpourri jar, for in it are collected together, as in precious vials, all the tears, all the honey, all the blossom of literature. Or, to compare it again to a garden, how one admires the charming, conceited arrangement of the garden, its quaint walks, and the inscriptions scattered here and there on dial and bower. It is the catalogue raisonné lifted into the region of poetry. It is a similar triumph in bibliography to that of Villon or Rossetti in poetry, when of a string of beautiful names they make a new harmony, the names of the fair ladies of old time, or of the five handmaidens of Mary —

whose names
Are five sweet symphonies
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.

So Mr. Mosher has brought together the names whose mere mention at once suggests the beauty, the passion, the pathos of existence, all that in literature which we connect especially with such writers as Theocrites, Villon, Omar, DeQuincey, Pater, Morris, Rossetti, and with such books as The Greek Anthology, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The Vita Nuova. Yet his garden is not all set with elegiac or epicurean blooms, it is not without its austerer walks, and sturdier sunlit groves, over which preside such names as Milton and Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold and Browning, Meredith and Whitman.

To the making of the library which this catalogue represents Mr. Mosher has brought not only the creative selective taste of a rare lover of literature, but the delight in the fair craftsmanship of books which marks the bibliophile, so that his issues are become proverbial for the exquisiteness of their format. Still, while thus solicitous for the outside of the platter, it has grown more and more evident that his publishing has had a deeper purpose than either the production of dainty editions, or the commercial gain resulting from their purveying, and that he has combined with both those very proper aims a certain missionary enthusiasm for the dissemination of the more spiritual and exquisite forms of literature. Long ago (1895) in his prefatory note to the first issue of The Bibelot–to me the most fascinating miscellany of lovely thought and expression ever compiled–Mr. Mosher thus defined a purpose which he has pursued no less in his book-publishing than in the little magazine in question: “To bring together the poesies of other men bound by a thread of one’s own choosing is the simple plan of the editor of The Bibelot. In this way those exotics of literature that might not immediately find a way to wider reading, are here reprinted, and, so to speak, resown in fields their authors never knew.”

The tiny, delicately worded prefaces to each issue of The Bibelot revealed that Mr. Mosher possessed a sensitive pen of his own, and these and the occasional introductions to his catalogue vibrate with a passion for literature that speaks for itself, and clearly differentiates Mr. Mosher from his publishing brethren. With what a “sad sincerity” Mr. Mosher has devoted himself to his dream, some words of an almost valedictory wistfulness from a recent “foreword” of his bear witness. He has been quoting one of Whitman’s affirmations of the spiritual nature and destiny of man. “And would you,” he says. “call this a lost point of view? If it is, then my scheme of things has an insubstantial value, and any ‘tidings of great joy’ I thought inherent in the books I have chosen to offer you is but a mirage of the mind, the baseless fabric of a vision that fades and leaves no trace.  .  .  .  At times I may have unduly insisted upon the fact that it was not merely a commercial adventure with me, but the possession of ideals in book-publishing, with the implication that the thing done was for a purpose beyond itself: ‘seeing finally with inexorable vision the way that life comes and the way that life goes whatever may happen with words.'”

Recently, in a volume called Amphora–a sort of private breviary of prose and verse–Mr. Mosher has included several such little essays of his own, among them one which I find especially delightful for the glimpses it gives of the bookish ardors and adventures of his youth– “The Books I shall not read again.” “No! I shall never again read books,” he says, “as I once read them in my early seafaring when all the world was young, when the days were of tropic splendor, and the long evenings were passed with my books in a lonely cabin dimly lighted by a primitive oil-lamp, while the ship was ploughing through the boundless ocean on its weary course around Cape Horn.” This glimpse of bookish seafaring is as tantalizing as it is fascinating. I want some more of those old memories. Won’t Mr. Mosher be persuaded to take his pen in hand and go seafaring and book-faring once more? I am persuaded that he could write us a new Bibliomania with a spiritual-human thrill in it entirely missing from the old.

Richard Le Gallienne. Thomas Bird Mosher An Appreciation by… Privately Printed for Their Friends. Portland: [The Mosher Press], 1914. Reprinted from The Forum for January 1914 with the permission of Mitchell Kennerley. This appreciation was again reprinted at the end of The Bibelot’s Index Volume and in the 1914 Mosher catalogue. Le Gallienne was a British poet, author, and essayist/critic whose career included relationships with John Lane of The Bodley Head, Mosher, Elbert Hubbard of the Roycrofters, and the New York literary society.