How to Build a Poor Man’s Morgan Library

Strouse, Norman H. How to Build a Poor Man’s Morgan Library. [Limited Edition]. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Library Associates, Christmas 1966, pp. 4-11. This address was delivered at the luncheon of the Syracuse University Library Associates on May 20, 1966 after the dedication of The Mayfield Library. It is based on a talk given before the Book Club of Detroit seven years earlier. Strouse mentions how his various facets of book collecting were grounded in his introduction to fine printing through The Mosher Books. The following are his comments:

Let us plant, then, the first slim root. Thomas B. Mosher, of Portland, Maine, published his first small catalogue in 1895. Facing the title page is a quotation from John Ruskin on the subject of books, and it opens by saying, “A Book is essentially not a talked thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence.” Then Ruskin ends with both a promise and an admonition “Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men -by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short.” In the foreword, Mr. Mosher informs the reader that only four years earlier he issued his first volume which incidentally was George Meredith’s Modern Love, its first publication in this Country, and that he had gone into publishing believing that a In the field of accomplished book-making,” as he put it, “there was a reviving interest that demanded satisfaction, and so far had not found it.”

Then, after a choice quotation from Emerson, Mr. Mosher proceeds to announce a new project in these words “Mr. Mosher takes pleasure in announcing for the Fall season of 1895, the initial volumes of THE OLD WORLD SERIES, in which such acknowledged masterpieces of Literature are presented as to render the name chosen a peculiarly appropriate one.” The first of what would prove to be a fifty-two volume series, published over a period of twenty years, was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, rendered into English verse by Edward Fitzgerald. The second was the exquisite old French love story, Aucassin and Nicolete beautifully “done into English” by Andrew Lang, and thereby hangs a tale to which we will come in a moment. My first introduction to Mosher took place about thirty-two years ago, when I was browsing through a book store on Olive Way in Seattle, and a kindly old Scandinavian dealer by the name of Munson called my attention to one of The Old World Series of Mosher’s, and suggested that for a young man of obviously modest means the books of this press provided the ideal solution to my yearning for fine literature presented in a format of visual satisfaction. The purchase was quickly made (the price was fifty cents, as I recall); the book devoured that evening; and as I scoured the Seattle bookstores, other Mosher imprints followed, and a new world of great writers and wonderful ideas opened before my mind Swinburne, Tennyson, Stevenson, Walter Pater, Robert Bridges, George Gissing, the Brownings, Emerson, William Morris, A. E. Housman, William Blake, the Rossettis (Dante Gabriel and Christina), and a gentle horde of others.

Largely through Mosher books (and I have over three hundred different Mosher titles in my library today) the pattern of my collection began to be shaped. The world’s finest literature, presented when possible by the world’s finest printers. I could not have guessed during these early days that this would lead me into the history of printing, early printing and into the pre-incunabula era of medieval manuscripts.

Nor could I have foretold that the progressive exposure to related herds would cause sudden forays into new territories which would result in significant subsidiary collections of Carlyle, Ruskin, the Panama Canal, autograph letters of Presidents, fine bindings and fore-edge paintings. I admit that it might be difficult to convince others that all these interests are directly related to the main issue, but there isn’t a bibliophile alive who doesn’t possess his own peculiar brand of logic.

But I would like to return to Thomas Bird Mosher. His father was a sea captain, and Mosher himself spent five years at sea before he settled in Portland, Maine, and went to work in a law stationer’s office. Is it any surprise, then, that he became a famous pirate! I have a collection of clippings from the English press of 1896, a number of which are headed “An American Pirate.” They have to do with the controversy that developed over Mr. Mosher’s reprinting of Andrew Lang’s translation of Aucassin and Nicolete without permission. Lang, who was well-to-do and somewhat of an intellectual snob, published his beautiful translation for limited sale only. It was printed by the Chiswick Press on Japan vellum in 550 copies, plus 63 large paper copies. The subscribers were assured that no additional copies would be printed.

Mr. Mosher, who deeply admired the translation, felt that there was no justification for keeping it out of reach of the ordinary reader, and took the most direct corrective step he knew of, which was to publish it himself, complete with the original headband at the top of the Introduction. This came to Mr. Lang’s attention through a critical review in the London Critic, which prompted an attack by him on Mosher in the columns of that same publication. Mr. Mosher wrote a most remarkable defense, including this rather unique approach to piracy: “Because your Aucassin was literature, I laid hold upon it; because you and your publisher abandoned it on the high seas, as flotsam and jetsam, I rescued it and brought it into port, that it might not become forever derelict and lost. It is mine because I found it! Shorn of all ‘artistic and typographical grace’ this book might have been [a] dead failure…; issued as I issued it here, where we are not all rich amateurs as with you, it found acceptance and will continue to do so.”

Mr. Mosher’s practice of charming piracy continued, to the delight of his growing list of customers, and to the tolerant amusement if not the tacit approval of his victims. Among the latter were Robert Bridges, George Meredith, Richard Le Gallienne and A. E. (George William Russell). In addition to a complete set of the clippings pertaining to this delightful episode, I have the true first editions of Andrew Lang’s book, which caused the trouble, in both the ordinary and large paper formats. But of greater collector’s interest is the first item of the twenty-one I will show you tonight-the original manuscript of Richard Le Gallienne’s essay, Thomas B. Mosher An Appreciation. In this he speaks of Andrew Lang’s anger over Mosher’s act of piracy, and goes on to say:

“Possibly I take an unusual 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 someone 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…. If, as Kipling says, he has taken his good where he found it, it’s 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.”

About eight years ago, a large section of Mosher’s personal library came to auction at Parke-Bernet, and included in it were many of his own personal copies of books he had published, some on pure vellum and even unbound sheets. Fortunately, my bids through my book dealer were of sufficient strength to carry the day on most of the important lots, including Mosher’s own copy of his first book, the large paper edition on Japan vellum. Among my many prizes, however, was a small, paper covered pamphlet printed for his friends by the great typographer, Bruce Rogers, as a Christmas gift in 1909. It was titled IV Sonnets these being by Wordsworth. It was inscribed, “To the Aldus of the XIX Century from an amateur printer” and signed “B.R.” Following up what I considered an inspired hunch, I sent the pamphlet to Bruce Rogers with a request that he re-inscribe it to me, which he did in these words, “Inscribed forty years later for Norman H. Strouse,” signed “Bruce Rogers, October House, New Fairfield, Conn.” In B.R.’s reply it became apparent why he was willing to do this. Curiosity got him. He had never seen this item at auction, and wanted to know what I had paid for it! What an association item!

Few people know, it seems, that Bruce Rogers drew some decorations for Mosher, and that the Mosher printing of A.E.’s Homeward Songs By The Way is included in the B.R. Bibliography under his “Incunabula.” Through Mosher I was introduced to many of those fugitive bits of literature which do not come to the attention of even the most avid reader today George Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp, Symond’s Wine, Women and Song, William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball, Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, and Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, to name but a few redolent titles. As I have browsed through English book catalogues across the years, I have picked up the first editions of many of these works which had come to Mosher’s eye as “flotsam and jetsam” to excite his pirate’s soul.