Literary Photography

As one opens a box of books, there are sometimes “Oh, wows!”, sometimes “Oh, yucks!”, an occasional “Oh, dear!” And there are frequent “Oh, you agains!”

I have spoken of some of these books: Think and Grow Rich, Callanetics, and, of course, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. There are others I have not yet discussed: I may one day write the definitive blog on, say, Making Things Grow by Thalassa Cruso or Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. But I received today a copy of Literary England, and was moved to glance through it, something I have not done since about 1986, simply because so many copies come through.

I don’t see as many as I used to, but it’s still a slow month when I don’t see one or two copies of this bestseller, a sort of denim-colored volume, published by Random House in 1944. There is an introduction by Christopher Morley, one of the busiest introduction writers of the 20th century, and fifty photographs of places made famous in English literature, each with a description by Richard Wilcox and an excerpt from the work in question. The photos are in chronological order, beginning with King Arthur’s birthplace and finishing with the Thirty-Nine Steps.

The whole book is atmospheric and quick: aside from the introduction, you seldom have three paragraphs on a page. What about this book made every household with an interest in books need a copy of this, I don’t know for sure, but they did. It was wartime—the description of the Thirty-Nine Steps notes that they were blown up so as not to offer any help to German landing parties—but whether yje appeal came from a feeling for Gallant England, or a yearning for pre-war countrysides, I can’t say for sure.

The photos are black and white, by a man named David E. Scherman. The book appeared first in shorter form in Life magazine, for Scherman was a Life photographer, having his share of Life Photographer Adventures. Torpedoed in 1941 by a German warship disguised as a merchant vessel, he was able to shoot pictures of the attacker as he boarded a lifeboat and then smuggle the film past German captors (the United States was still neutral at the time, so he was allowed to go home) in toothpaste tubes. Life supplied the photos to the British Navy, which used them to identify the disguised ship and sink it.

His obituary in the New York Times notes that he was the only Life photographer to become an editor at the magazine, staying on until the magazine folded 9for the first time) in 1972. Along the way, he did a sequel called Literary America, with descriptive passages written by Rosemarie Redlich, whom he married. This appeared in 1952, and for some reason doesn’t come in as often as the English volume. Times had changed, perhaps.

His Literary England continues to be a staple of the Book Fair, and probably will until Baby Boomers grow too old to clean out their grandparents’ book collection. But his impact on the Book Fair does not end there. Because when Life went out of business, it had all those thousands and thousands of photographs in store. Guess what Mr. David E. Scherman did about that.

I don’t see as many as I used to, but it’s still a slow month when I don’t see one or two copies of those great coffee table books of the mid-70s: The Best of Life, and Life Goes to the Movies. Mr. Scherman has the rare distinction of producing an “Oh, you again!” book thirty years after his first one. I can guarantee you’ll find all three of these, but if you want to collect Mr. Scherman’s oeuvre, we may or may not have Literary America, or his last book, Life Goes To War.

But such is….

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