New Looks at Old Books

Over on Twitter, someone recently asked me the really fun question, “What are the oldest books in your collection?” I’m don’t really have many old books, but those I do have tend to be associated with — c’mon, do I really have to say it? — Washington Irving.

Let me talk about three in particular, going from newest (a relative term) to oldest — which also means saving the best for last.

The first, and most recent, is an 1864 “Artist’s Edition” of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which Irving’s short stories were illustrated “with 120 engravings on wood from original designs” by some of the most noted artists of the day.

What’s missing on the title page? Why, Washington Irving’s name, of course; “Geoffrey Crayon” was just one of many pseudonyms Irving would publish under during his long life. Not to worry, though — Irving’s authorship was one of the world’s worst-kept secrets on both sides of the Atlantic.

The signature you see here for Mr. Crayon is part of the book — it’s not an actual signature, in ink, inscribed on the page — but the handwriting is definitely Irving’s. The artwork in the book is gorgeous, and printed with care. Above, for example, you’ll see an illustration for the Sketch Book‘s first show stopper, “Rip Van Winkle.”

The book is also full of what we might today call Easter eggs — little in jokes, or sly nods at the reader. Take, for example, this illustration for Irving’s “The Voyage,” in which Crayon reflects on his ocean voyage from the United States to England, and warns travelers of the dangers of sea trips. The illustration features four gentlemen in conversation around a table during their voyage across the Atlantic — and the figure in the middle is Washington Irving himself, based on a popular engraving of Irving from the era (the equivalent of a modern author’s headshot).

Later, in the Sketch Book‘s gangbuster’s closing number, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an illustration is meant to convey the charming nature of the quaint old Dutch houses in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The picturesque home in the engraving is clearly “Sunnyside,” Irving’s beloved home in Tarrytown, NY — just down the road from Sleepy Hollow — which he had built in the Dutch style (and other elements, including the Spanish-influenced tower) in the 1840s.

The next oldest book in my collection is one of the first I bought when I began researching Washington Irving in the late 1990s: a four-volume biography of Irving — the first one, in fact — written by his nephew Pierre M. Irving, and published in 1862, just three years after Irving’s death.

The true gem in my collection, though, dates back to 1819 (I nearly added, “….which makes it more than a hundred years old” and then realized it’s actually more than two hundred years old. And it’s just sitting there on my desk like it’s no big deal). It’s a first printing of the fifth American installment of The Sketch Book, which Irving was publishing serially and simultaneously in the United States, where it would eventually run to six volumes, and in England (publishing on both sides of the ocean at the same time prevented his work from being poached by publishing pirates — the 19th century equivalent of copyright infringement).

This particular volume has a special place on my desk, and in my heart. If I could have only one installment of The Sketch Book, it would be this one — because it’s the volume in which Irving’s five influential Christmas stories first appeared. (They would later be bundled as “Old Christmas.”) If you’re wondering why we associate Christmas with yule logs and wassail, carols and gifts, sleigh rides and family parties . . . blame Washington Irving. He made it all up, and then told us it had always been that way.

Anyway, it was my fascination with Irving’s Christmas stories that originally got me started on my journey as a biographer. That makes a first printing of his Christmas stories pretty special.

Oh, and if you’re a collector of old books who’s wincing at the bookseller’s sticker on the cover, you can relax — Moses Thomas was one of Irving’s handpicked U.S. booksellers, selling The Sketch Book out of his shop in Philadelphia; it was Thomas himself who stuck it there.

Also, I do love that the printer is serendipitously named . . . Van Winkle

75 cents was considered almost insanely expensive for a book — it’s about 15 bucks today — especially because this was just one book in a series. When some American readers objected, Irving brushed them off. “If the American public wish to have literature of their own,” he wrote, “they must consent to pay for the support of authors.”

Amen, brother.

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