Friday, August 09, 2019

'Nulla Vestigia Retrorsum'

The Fondren Library permits me to borrow the first American edition of Henry James’ story collection The Better Sort, published by Scribner’s on Feb. 26, 1903. Call me impressionable but there’s something almost miraculous about such access and evident trust in readers. Holding the copy of a book its first readers read lends the experience a sense of collegiality across generations. This is the only book club I would ever join. It also serves to make reading James fresh and oddly contemporary. We’re accustomed to reading him embalmed in anthologies or small-print Library of America volumes. In this beautifully intact first edition, James is at least as alive as you or me. Here is the opening sentence in the opening story, “Broken Wings”:

“Conscious as he was of what was between them, though perhaps less conscious than ever of why there should at that time of day be anything, he would yet scarce have supposed they could be so long in a house together without some word or some look.”

Some will balk at reading the sentence to its final falling phrase. Others will sense they have just read, in highly compacted form, not a story but an entire novel. We fall into cadence with James’ halting, endlessly qualifying syntax. James had already written eight of the stories collected in The Better Sort. In a letter to his friend Mrs. Humphry Ward, he referred to them as “snippets” and sensed the collection was too slight to justify publication. So, what did the Master do? He wrote three more stories, including his masterpiece, “The Beast in the Jungle,” to fill out the volume. James was sixty years old. He had recently published The Wings of the Dove, was at work on The Ambassadors and readying for publication William Wetmore Story and His Friends, his biography of the sculptor.

This copy of The Better Sort contains two more modest treasures, evidence of earlier readers. On the front end paper is an Ex Libris bookplate from the library of Henry Eastman Lower, who seems to have been a poetaster and writer of light verse. On the bookplate is a drawing of an elephant with a shirtless, turbaned boy seated on its head. Perhaps the unidentified boy is Kim. James and his brother William both admired Kipling. Above the drawing is a Latin motto, Nulla vestigia retrorsum, variously translated as “No retreat,” “We never go backward,” “No steps backwards.” Lower must have been an interesting fellow.

On the facing page is a sticker identifying the book as belonging to the “William Shepherd Dix Collection of American Literature.” Dix (1910-78) joined the English faculty at Rice Institute (now Rice University) in 1947. A year later he was named director of the Fondren Library. He left Rice in 1953 to head the library at Princeton University – all without a degree in library science.

1 comment:

Ariel said...

What about "no hints behind (us)" ?