Whitmore Rare Books has released their Catalogue 26. Whitmore describes their business as “offering literary first editions and other books of merit.” That means a variety of subjects can be encountered, but what you will find is important in its field. You will recognize most of the authors you meet in this catalogue and likely their works as well. Here are a few of the items to be found in these pages.
We will start with a very old book that comes from a book much older than printing. The title is Britanniae Utriusque Redum et Principum Origo... The author was Geoffrey of Monmouth and this first edition was published in 1508. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in the first half of the 12th century. He likely was either born or grew up in Monmouth, Wales. His book is a history of very early Britain, centuries before even his own time. He is the main source of information about King Arthur. Shakespeare based some of his plays, such as King Lear, on Geoffrey. King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin are best known from his writing. The only problem is that it was all or almost all made up. Most historians are highly suspicious as to whether there ever was a King Arthur, let alone one to whom these tales are attributed. Scholars in the 16th century were already writing off these once believed tales as essentially fiction. There are pre-Geoffrey references to a King Arthur, but even the oldest of these was written at least three centuries after he supposedly lived. Contemporary sources are lacking. Geoffrey used some of these sources, but then expanded on them to create fantastic tales that have little to do with reality. Still, they have been popular stories for many centuries and in that sense an important part of history. Item 26. Priced at $17,500.
King Arthur is a classic English fictional character. Now here is an American one, though a very different and less heroic character. His name is Huckleberry Finn, and he came from the imagination of Mark Twain. Many consider the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885, to be the classic American novel. I cannot imagine a better choice. Twain captured the place and time, mid-19th century American South, as if he were a camera. Huck is a boy of around 13, son of a drunkard who sleeps wherever he can find a place (besides his home). He misbehaves by all contemporary standards, vulgar, a thief, truant, a smoker, dirty, you name it. He is also free, which other kids admire about him. In the book, he travels up the Mississippi with Jim, a runaway slave, who also seeks his freedom. Whitmore notes that Huck is “a metaphor for a young and rebellious nation, as well as its individualist inhabitants.” Item 74. $27,500.
Jack Kerouac emerged as one of the most notable American authors of the 20th century, after he went out on the road. In 1943, he was still in a naval hospital for mental illness. He was only 21 years old, and had not started serious writing. However, he was filled with confidence. He wrote to his old friend Ian MacDonald with an update on his life. Kerouac says, “I am in an enthusiastic mood and I feel like pouring out this zest and transmitting it to a worthy listener...I have been thinking in this hospital – and I have devised new plans for my life.” He continues, “I have been defeated by the world, with considerable help from my greatest enemy, myself, and now I am ready to work. I realize the limitations of my knowledge and the irregularity of my intellect. Knowledge and intellection serve a Tolstoi -- but a Tolstoi must be older, must see more as well -- and I am not going to be a Tolstoi. I will be a Kerouac, whatever that suggests. Knowledge comes with time. As far as creative powers go, I have them and I know it.” He did, and his road trip brought them out. Item 41. $19,500.
Here is another man who headed out on the road, but it was centuries before motorized vehicles. He had to walk – almost 2,000 miles by his account. His name was Thomas Coryate. He was a minor figure in the court of James I where he imagined himself a wit. Others saw him as a buffoon. In 1608, he decided to set out on a tour of Europe. That sounds ordinary today, but in those days, there was no such thing as tourists. People traveled for business, diplomacy, maybe exploration, but not for leisure. His father had left him a lot of money, enabling him to embark on a journey through 45 cities and 7 countries, though also by boat and horse at times. He published this account of his travels in 1611 – Coryats Crudities. Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy...Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of Germany and the Netherlands...We will lean on Pforzheimer here for a review of his book: “There probably has never been another such combination of learning and unconscious buffoonery as is here set forth. Coryate was a serious and pedantic traveller who (as he states in his title) in five months toilsome travel wandered, mostly on foot, over a large part (by his own reckoning 1,975 miles) of western Europe. His adventures probably appeared to his contemporaries as more ridiculous than exciting, but at this remove, his chronicle by its very earnestness provides an account of the chief cities of early seventeenth century Europe which is at least valuable as it is amusing. It was probably his difficulties with the booksellers which induced Coryate to solicit the extraordinary sheaf of testimonials prefixed to the volume...Among his panegyrists appear the names of Jonson, Chapman, Donne, Campion, Harington, Drayton...each contributor vying to mock poor Coryate with solemn ridicule.” Item 8. $15,000.
The law can be a seriously dry subject. Most people cannot understand it, which makes it hard to get their respect. William Blackstone set out to make it understandable when he wrote his Commentaries on the Laws of England, four volumes published in 1765, 1766, 1768, 1769. Today, most people know it simply as Blackstone's Commentaries. The law is something of a jumble of hard-to-understand written laws and case law decisions by judges filling in the gaps. Blackstone weaved it all into an understandable whole. I don't know whether the general public fully appreciated his efforts but it has been and remains required reading for lawyers and judges. Even today, it is regularly cited in court decisions. Item 3. $17,500.