Sunday, April 21, 2013

`A Kind of Patriotism for Beauty and Grace'

“An elegant young man in spectacles is reading in a beautifully carved chair. One long leg is crossed over the other. The head, too, is long, the hair richly thick. A nearby table holds books, a periodical, a splendid vase, an intricate little sculpture; also the young man’s stylish fedora and fringed scarf.” 

In “Seymour: Homage to a Bibliophile” (Fame & Folly: Essays, 1996), Cynthia Ozick describes a portrait of her friend Seymour Adelman (1906-1985), the Philadelphia bookman, painted by Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851-1938), widow of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). She painted “The Bibliophile” in 1932.  Lately I’ve been informally collecting images of readers, a recurrent subject for artists as various as Balthus and Edward Hopper. See the voluminously stocked Reading and Art. 

Ozick’s elegy is a portrait of that endangered species, a civilized man. She sketches him lightly as “one of the most passionate bibliophiles on the American scene, a collector in whom the near evidence of a poet’s mind and hand inspired rapt and tremulous awe.” Ozick knew Adelman only for the final two years of his life, but his friendship moved her to revise her notion of “bookmen” as “pinched experts on the condition of old leather bindings.” Instead, after seeing his collection of Housman manuscripts, Ozick recognizes in him “not the pride of ownership, but something else: a cheerful reverence, one might call it, a kind of patriotism for beauty and grace.” I’ve known a few such people but all were readers, not professional bookmen. Most dealers I’ve known betrayed little personal interest in the contents of their shelves. Even the most knowledgeable might as well have been selling shoes or barbecue grills. 

I see that Adelman donated his collection of books and manuscripts to the Bryn Mawr College Library in 1976, and three years later established the Seymour Adelman Book Collector's Prize at Bryn Mawr. Undergraduates must submit a “statement no longer than 500 words explaining [their book] collection and how it was begun, and an annotated bibliographic list of the collection.” The first-place winner receives $500, a copy of John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors and student membership in the Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Libraries. I wonder how many students enter or even own a sufficient number of volumes to qualify. After Adelman’s death, Ozick writes: 

“Seymour, a famous Philadelphia bookman, has finally left the city limits [of Philadelphia, which he seldom left]. He is in London at last—the true London, the London of the English poets. A hundred geniuses of the English tongue are streaming toward him. Dickens, Yeats, Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Max Beerbohm, Stevenson, Wilde, Hazlitt, Chatterton, Ralph Hodgson, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg—they are all hugely curious about the Adelman Collection. They want to look themselves up in the catalogue. Seymour, meanwhile, is taking tea with Keats.”

1 comment:

George said...

During a recent year our kitchen calendar was illustrated by paintings of women reading--where purchased I no longer remember, but I imagine that such are not hard to find.