Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Great Men, Great Books

Dante begins one of the cantos of the Inferno by congratulating the Florentines for achievements so remarkable as to gain for their city a great reputation through all of Hell. “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” apparently approaches such celebrity. I have just had my second electronic proposition to “monetize” it. Is monetize a word?
Commercial shilling is beneath the dignity of this blog, but I do allow two easements. I continue to try to drum up business for the non-profit Library of America. They publish beautiful editions of the literary patrimony of our nation, and no literate citizen of the Republic should be without at least a few of their volumes. And if there is anyone in the world still unaware of the American Book Exchange, let me aid in stamping out that fragment of culpable ignorance. Abebooks combines the best of capitalist competition with the comprehensive capacities of the Internet in the service of great reading. It is as it were the biggest, and I do mean awesomely big, second-hand bookshop in the world, and I do mean world.
Despite draconian downsizing, I still have quite a few books and inadequate space to store them. One result of the situation is that I sometimes cannot lay my hands on a book I know I own but lack the leisure to search for. Under these circumstances I have been known on occasion simply to buy another copy from Abebooks. Sometimes two copies, in case the second one should get lost as the first one did. Such was the circumstance last week when I could not find a copy of Leonard Bacon’s wonderful translation of the Lusiads of Luís de Camões (Hispanic Society of America, 1950). I did not realize at the time that my dilemma would lead me to the perfect Christmas gift for my son Rich. The force of this remark will be clearer if I tell you that Rich is (a) a world-class birder, and (b) an enthusiast for Antarctica.
Avoiding the numerous copies priced at fifty or sixty dollars apiece, I was able to pick up two exemplars of the hardcover edition for a total cost of $18.95 including postage. (Did I mention the advantages of capitalist competition?). By the time they arrived, I had found my missing copy, plus another paperback version; but better safe than sorry is what I always say. And excess sometimes pays off; one of my “new” copies is a gem.

Bacon wrote a poem each year as his "Christmas card": Christmas Greetings, 1952

It is a presentation copy from the translator, Leonard Bacon, to his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Cushman Murphy. Bacon (1887-1954) was a “minor” American poet of the period between the Wars, a person in whom considerable literary talent joined with cosmopolitan cultivation. He traveled widely in Europe, and lived for several years in Florence. He published many books of original poetry, but this medievalist first “met” him through his erudition. His mastery of the Romance tongues is exhibited in his translations of the Chanson de Roland, the Cantar del mio Cid, and (his masterpiece as translator) the Lusiads of Camões.

Robert Cushman Murphy (1887-1973)

The recipient of the gift, Robert Murphy (1887-1973), was among the greatest ornithologists America has yet produced. He was also a prolific and elegant writer whose learned works make important contributions to ornithological study and whose popular journal articles did much to foster interest in bird-watching, natural history, and conservation generally. His most famous feat came early, in 1912. In that year he sailed on the New Bedford whaler “Daisy” to the subantarctic, where he spent several months studying the unique bird-life. This experience is the subject of an engaging recent book—Eleanor Mathews’ Ambassador to the Penguins: A Naturalist's Year Aboard a Yankee Whaleship. It is also memorialized, in cameo, in the sea lion on Murphy’s bookplate, executed in line etching by John W. Jameson (d. 1939). You can see why my son Rich must have this treasure.

The word that comes to my mind in thinking about the giver, the gift, and the recipient is gentleman—a lexical endangered species in a world becoming ever more coarse and cynical. These two guys were obviously gentlemen. The phrasing of the Christmas inscription—“the Robert Murphys from their Friends the Leonard Bacons”—compounds its fustiness with an offense against peecee. But it bespeaks a real friendship, and Murphy pasted it onto the book’s fly-leaf, just as he pasted onto the back fly-leaf the accompanying letter, written on elegant paper, embossed with a laureated “B” and an address: The Acorns, Peace Dale, R. I.
May 22nd, 1953
Dear Bob,
Your letters always please. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your observations on “anting” and kind remarks on the verses. This is a rich year for birds. I have seen, apart from Persian Armies of Robins, the Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager (both sexes, the lady being the more aggressive) flickers, hairy woodpeckers, nuthatch, black and white warbler, chickadee wood thrush, hermit thrush, brown thrasher, goldfinches, and catbirds almost as numerous as the robins. Warblers and sparrows still remain too difficult for me to identify. But I notice that the English sparrow has become rarer than the chipping sparrow. The hordes of starlings have broken up for the mating season and they are only seen in two and threes. We have a grackle or two. All the birds listed were seen within fifty yards of the house. I wish I had your eyes, for I fancy I could then multiply my list by four or five. I don’t think many fly catchers have arrived.
I hope to be in N.Y. on the 27th and 28th. It would be fun to see you at the Club.
Meanwhile, our love as always to Grace and you.
Cordially yours,
Leonard Bacon
The final paragraph sent me to my current Century Club yearbook, where I was pretty sure what I would find. Leonard Bacon was a member from 1927 to 1954, Robert Cushman Murphy from 1923 until 1973.