Poetry and Travel | Newberry

Poetry and Travel

Once upon a time, there lived a man named William Lyons Phelps. He was a prodigy in many ways. He taught the first college course on the modern novel, which proved so controversial he had to stop teaching it for a while and give lectures in his spare time off campus. Employed by Yale, he occasionally preached at a Methodist church in Michigan (his father, Sylvanus Dryden Phelps, was a noted Baptist minister, remembered for writing hymns.) He was on the panel for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and he should be remembered better for his remark, “If at first you don’t succeed, find out if the loser gets anything.”

But he is a footnote to the item we received yesterday, a book written by his nephew, Dryden Linsley Phelps, who followed in the family line of literature appreciation and became a professor of literature on his own. He did this at the West China Union University. Having gone to China as a missionary, he decided early on that one of the best things he could do for his Chinese students was introduce them to the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. Browning in particular caught on among his students, some of whom declared that this poet had a Chinese poet’s brain (high praise in the world of poetry.) Many of Dryden Phelps’s letters are now in an institution dedicated to the work of Browning.

This is also largely a footnote to the book we found yesterday. See, while he was introducing western culture to students in western China, he was also doing his best to send interesting bits of Chinese culture to his contacts in the West. He translated the Tao Te Ching (I have lost the phone number of the Newberryan who collected translations of the Tao Te Ching, so I can’t ask how well he did.) And he translated this little travel book, which is what we did turn up yesterday.

It is roughly 9 x 14 inches inches (the word ‘little’ in that last sentence was used in the sense of “Look at this!”) and is bound with string. Printed in 1936, it is wildly and profusely illustrated with landscapes around Mount Omei (now Mount Emei), one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, not far from where Phelps taught. The text is the “new edition” of this guidebook, written in the previous century by men of poetic power of description. Harvard was responsible for the publication, in its line of books on Chinese culture. The illustrations show all of the paths and obstacles to pass on the way up the mountain, plus all the monasteries built on the mountainside. It is a beautiful piece of work.

This copy is inscribed by Phelps, and there is a note in the book dated 1940, a little difficult to read, but involving the words “Wanted you to have this book”. There is, further, a letter, on stationery showing another scene near Mt. Omei, from Phelps, apparently to someone who had hosted a dinner where Phelps spoke. This begins, “Your lovely letter was like a sweet kiss of benevolence on the brow.” THIS is a letter written by someone who spent a lot of his life with poetry.

I have not found out so far what eventually became of Dryden Phelps. Presumably he, like the rest of the staff of his college, left China when foreigners were ordered out of the country in 1926. The college continued in various forms under Chinese scholars, but different departments eventually broke off into separate institutions. (The college had been founded to serve some 150 million residents of the Sichuan Province; it was bound to develop branch institutions.) The Guide to Mt. Omei became a rare book. Even the reprint from the 1990s is rather scarce. I have already had an offer from a scholar in China who would like to buy this copy (yes, honest, and we just found it yesterday).

That’s what makes it fun to come to work. I thought I was going to get around to pricing those collectible old newspapers (some dating to 2016) and instead I had to become an instant expert on the Phelps family. It’s a wonderful world.

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