Knowing the Backstory | Newberry

Knowing the Backstory

Someone asked me once whether any really good blackmail material which had been accidentally left in books. My answer was “Oh, probably.”

This was not an answer they’d hoped to hear. “I would think you’d be sure.”

This is one of the great problems in evaluating books generally. For a true appreciation, whether it’s a gift inscription or a racy letter, you need t know something about it. You may suspect something is worth a lot of money, but there are all manner of details which may keep you from knowing for sure.

Consider blackmail. Say I open a book to a folded piece of paper and find it is a highly spicy note from Sylvia to Joe. This is useless for blackmailing anyone unless I know who at least one them is. A book with a long inscription full of mush from Joe to Sylvia might be something given as a wedding present, or might have been used as evidence in the divorce. The same goes for the scandalous pictures I almost never find inside donated books. The picture might embarrass someone out there, but unless I know who’s in the picture, it’s just a picture.

Back to books. Unless you’re up on ancient history, you might not pay any attention to that copy of Leaves of Grass inscribed “To Monica with thanks, from Bill.”

Two celebrities are known for inscribing books they’ve written, but on the inside of the dust jacket. If you don’t know that, you may skip over the autograph (and these are authors whose autograph is actually worth a little something.) One of them is alleged to sign his books with the word “Dog” instead of with his name, so even when he signs on the title page, you may be misled. (I have seen his autograph, and that’s not “dog”. It’s his handwriting. Scott Turow, after all, autographs things with a scribble that looks like the Greek letter omega; fortunately, his publishers now print a facsimile of the signature on the cover, so you have a sporting chance.)

Suppose you pick up a book and find that it has been inscribed to your great-grandmother by a friend named Red. Big deal. Unless, say, it’s a book by Sinclair Lewis, who was one of several writers who gloried in this nickname. P.G. Wodehouse was known to his friends as Plum (His first name was Pelham, you see, and the closest he could come to this as a child was Plum. It’s not that he had purple hair.)

Of course, some people wrote books under another name. If you pick up a copy of Alice in Wonderland inscribed to someone by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, you ought to check into this a little more thoroughly, as that’s who Lewis Carroll was when he was at home. Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct police novels, and Evan Hunter, author of The Blackboard Jungle, once wrote a book together, and there are copies signed by both of them, though they were in fact the same person. So if you see a copy of The Blackboard Jungle signed by Ed McBain…well, it’s probably phony, but it’s worthy of a little research. (Evan Hunter was his legal name, so there’s no reason he’d sign a book by the other name with his real name if…his birth name was Salvatore Lombino. If you ever find something signed by all three of these…that’s probably a phony, too.)

Them, of course, you have the people who really made it complicated. You might know enough to save a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas whether it was signed by Alice B. Toklas (who didn’t write it) or Gertrude Stein (who did.) But then there’s Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography signed by Chicago icon Ben Hecht (who wrote it. I think it was published before she even had a chance to read it, in fact.) I have here at my elbow a tall stack of books written, and signed by, a no longer especially famous Chicago author a hundred years ago. It includes an early book he wrote under another name, but the previous owner had them all rebound to look glorious, so this was a good hint that the book was indeed written by the man who signed it, even if the name Henry Kitchell Webster doesn’t appear on the title page.

And then there was that copy of the first illustrated edition of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, which had all the pictures torn out. I nearly tossed it into HB Literature A-L at a couple of bucks, but decided to look it up just to find out what it was worth if a copy with illustrations ever came in. Turns out the copies without pictures are more valuable: he disliked the illustrations, said the catalog, and every time he inscribed a copy to a friend, he ripped out the offending illustrations. Turned out this copy was inscribed by him to another icon of nineteenth century literature, and this book is now on a shelf at the Newberry. (The catalog notes “missing 8 pages of plates”.) What makes a thing valuable may be in plain sight and still not obvious.

As for the blackmail thing, it’s getting to be obsolete anyhow. Indiscreet notes and photos aren’t left in books these days. They’re on Facebook.

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