Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a Decades-long Quest for a Long Lost Literary Volume

Bibliophiles (and perhaps few others) will appreciate this: I completed a holy grail quest of sorts this past week, finding something for which I have been searching for the better part of three decades!

When I was 14–16 years old, my family spent two years living and working on a dairy farm in New Hampshire. We occupied the second floor of a mammoth three-story (plus a cavernous cellar) antebellum mansion, situated on a grand hilltop, overlooking the Connecticut River, the fields, and the grounds of the picturesque estate. The house included a modest library with some interesting volumes, many of them antique. During one winter spent there, probably with sub-zero temperatures outside and knee-deep snow covering the ground, I huddled in the evenings in my bedroom, reading – and becoming utterly enthralled with – an old, a magnificently illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe.

By the time we relocated back to our native Tennessee a couple of years later, I had other things on my mind, and the thought of taking the foresight to record the publisher, publishing date, and name of the illustrator never occurred to me. Throughout the intervening years, I have searched the proverbial literary haystack (there are hundreds of illustrated editions of Robinson Crusoe, it being one of the top contenders for the title of Earliest Novel Ever Written) – used bookstores, ebay, estate sales, etc. – in vain for a copy of the very same edition, which I would recognize immediately. (Nor was I ever able, as a professional illustrator myself, to identify other illustrators from the period – late 19th or early 20th century, as I estimated, correctly as it turns out – whose work seemed a match for the drawings in my own recollection.)

But on Wednesday of this past week, I stumbled on a big clue in the library of Belmont University (where I teach a typography course during the spring semester), and spurred on by that discovery, I paid a visit on the day afterwards to Vanderbilt University’s library, where I found it! (Vanderbilt’s campus is within easy walking distance of my office, and I frequently stroll there during breaks from work, enjoying the magnificent trees, architecture, and, occasionally, the library.)

My long sought-after edition was published in 1900, by R.H. Russell (apparently an imprint of Harper & Brothers), with illustrations by the brothers Louis and Frederick Rhead, (who were in turn younger brothers to another noteworthy illustrator from the era, George Wolliscroft Rhead).

With this information in hand, tracking down and procuring a physical copy of my own should now be feasible, and, in the meantime, I’ve discovered that is available online in a variety of electronic formats.
But for now, I shall revel in the fact that, up until this week, I had last held a copy of this edition in my hands approximately 28 years ago – ironically, the same length of length of time “poor Robin” was marooned as a castaway on his lonely island (lonely, that is, at least until Friday came along).