Heritage Press: John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet (1948)

January 24, 2011 § 6 Comments

John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet (1948)
Sandglass Number unknown
Artwork: Paintings by John Steuart Curry
Introduced by Douglas Southall Freeman
Heritage Press Reprint of LEC #192/18th Series V. 7 in 1948

Click images for a larger view.


Front Binding – A fairly basic cover with John Brown’s Body boldly circled in the center in blue and gold.  I did some slight Photoshopping to remove a library UPC symbol from the cover, as this is not mine.  Django2694 has a treasure trove of information to share:

John Brown’s Body–better late than never, I suppose, but there is a considerable story behind this book that I haven’t had time to go into until now.

Along with the Monthly Letter, in my copy was an additional mailing from the LEC which went out with the Monthly Letter which mentions it thus:

“What he {Francis Meynell} did, in making a typographic plan for this American edition of a great American book, at this moment seems to us an object lesson in the work of a typographer. So we have decided to print, as a separate leaflet for inclusion with this issue of this not-always-Monthly Letter, the letter which Francis Meynell sent us on the twentieth of August in 1946; and, in addition, the forward which he later prepared for inclusion in the book itself.

For that reason we will not list the physical qualities of this book here. If you are not interested, you can throw the separate leaflet into the waste-basket; where, indeed, you may have already thrown it along with this Monthly Letter.”

The accompanying leaflet is a 7-page pamphlet titled “What a Typographer Does To/For/With A Book” It contains very elaborate notes on the font, layout, ornamentation, paper and embellishments. Meynell was the original advocate behind the LEC’s decision to produce this book (more about this later), and he had given much thought to how to present the poem in a way that would help the reader–who he assumed with some justification would not be normally in the habit of reading book-length poems. Thus he came up with his own “chapter headings,” as he referred to them–“Ellyat’s Tune,” and “Wingate’s Tune,” for example. It is a fascinating portrait of one of the great book designers of the 20th century approaching a text he really loved and determining how to set it in its best appearance on the page.

How much he was an advocate of this book becomes very clear when we fast forward 9 years. Francis Meynell is giving the Address on the Dedication of the George Macy Memorial Collection at Columbia University (Macy’s alma mater). After the expected eulogistic remarks, Meynell tells a personal anecdote which he feels is most illustrative of “Macy’s general attitude towards book-making.”

He goes on to say how he had written Macy in January of 1944 extolling the virtues of Benet’s John Brown’s Body, begging him to put it on the LEC’s schedule of publications and letting himself (Meynell) design it. Five weeks later Macy responds that he was delighted with Meynell’s burst of enthusiasm for the work, but adds “there are, of course, many other tellings of the John Brown story. I will arrange to send you God’s Angry Man, which seems a superior telling to me.”

There the matter sat for two years–or so it seemed to Meynell–when suddenly Meynell received a letter from Macy saying “you wrote me recently in a burst of enthusiasm for John Brown’s Body to say that you would like to plan a new edition typographically. The time has come, it is here.” This letter goes on to describe what was probably behind the impetus for the project–the completion of a series of paintings illustrating the poem by Curry. I think probably Macy commissioned these illustrations when the furore over Curry’s John Brown mural in the Kansas State Capitol building collided with his memory of Meynell’s burst of enthusiasm for a work Macy obviously did not think that much of. This letter ends with Macy urging Meynell to complete this design ASAP. When Meynell had not sent anything after four months, Macy telegrammed him, “I am very anxious to have the typographic plan for John Brown’s Body since the illustrations are languishing for reproduction.”

When Macy arrived in London to look at the plan, the two men came to an impasse over Curry’s illustrations. It seems obvious that they had been the deciding factor in Macy going ahead with the project, but Meynell objected, feeling that the poem was illustration enough in itself. They reached a rough compromise with deciding to put the illustrations in a pocket in the binding–not interleaved in the pages of the poem. But a year later, during which interval Curry had died suddenly of a heart attack, Macy wrote to Meynell that he had been puzzling over the inclusion of the illustrations and had almost wished it were possible to strike the book from the production schedule. Finally, he had decided to go ahead with an edition which would give Curry’s illustrations “the prominence which he expected to have” and says he therefore planned to proceed with an entirely new typographic plan made in the US.

An impasse followed in which “Cold War telegrams” were exchanged, and the long-standing friendship between the two men seemed on the verge of collapse until Macy visited London again, greeted Meynell with “his fantastically, his annoyingly, persuasive charm, the contest was over, and he had of course won hands down.” The book came out with Meynell’s plan and the extra letter which showcased Meynell’s design genius–and with Curry’s art reproduced as he had wished it. Even though one suspects Meynell still had reservations about this latter, he remarks several times in tones of admiration about Macy’s loyalty to the artist.

A few years later when Macy and his family attended a dramatic reading of the poem–a production that even ran on Broadway starring Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson, and Raymond Massey, and directed by Charles Laughton. Macy sent Meynell the playbill autographed by his family and inscribed “To our beloved Francis–we have looked on ‘John Brown’s Body’ and we think of you.”

As a final to this anecdote, Meynell reveals that Macy, in printing Meynell’s original enthusiastic letter of proposal,

“monstrously, unjustifiably, but quite delightfully…inserted a few words. He makes me write ‘Did you ever hear of it {the poem}? Is it at all known in America?’ Those words are wholly his, not mine! He invented them in order to raise a smile at the superior, the condescending Englishman! And a smile they did raise….”

It’s hard to imagine the head of Easton Press or the Folio Society or A.A.Knopf acting in similar fashion these days. But these men–Knopf, Macy, Meynell, Liverwright, Scribner, etc. weren’t just those corporate executives whose main concern is the bottom line and who don’t really care whether they sold limited editions or soap flakes. They were booklovers, and were engagingly human in their business.

Title Page – John Steuart Curry has some notoriety painting John Brown in the past – see the Kansas State Captiol website for his more infamous depiction. This shows Brown as a crazed-looking man out for blood, which was a common motif for illustrating Brown in the days of segregation to make him look wild and insane. Here, Curry curtails his rendering of Brown to a fairer portrait of the man, more in tune to how he actually was…although he still has some intense eyes.  Curry supplied fourteen illustrations to the Limited Editions Club for this book, and would also provide the artwork for three other LEC’s – The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper, and The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln.  This was his last work for the LEC, and it seems that he died before it was released, as the LEC was unsigned (he did sign the earlier three).  Along with Douglas Southall Freeman’s introduction, Benet himself has a brief preface.

Page 48 – Nice colors, here.  I like this one most from this book, although I will admit that Curry does little for me.

Page 188

Personal Notes – I checked this out from my local library in Mariposa, although I have seen a few copies for sale, too.  It’s not too high on my list, though, as I’m not too keen on Curry’s work.

Finding a Sandglass with a library copy is rare, and this is one of the all too common occurrences where such documentation has been lost.  If you have any info on the book’s Sandglass number, please let me know through the comments here or at my thread about this blog at the George Macy Devotees @ LibraryThing!  Thanks!

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