Parallel worlds — The New Bibliopolis

At right is figure 1.4 in Willa Z. Silverman’s recently published The New Bibliopolis: French Book Collectors and the Culture of Print, 1880-1914 (University of Toronto, 2008). “Binding with silver and gold tooling by Pétrus Ruban (1896) for Voltaire, Zadig, ou, La Destinée (1893).” [Illustration credit: Princeton University Library, Rare Book Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, (Ex) PQ2082 .Z3 1893q]

Explaining why and how this book came into the Library, not to mention that it was first owned by Henri Beraldi (1849-1931), an important character in the New Bibliopolis, is a story unto itself. More fundamental is a larger narrative of two parallel worlds. Considering closely the story of the New Bibliopolis provides an intriguing glimpse at collecting in the New and Old Worlds at the end of the nineteenth century.

Prof. Silverman provides a comprehensive view of a world created by bibliophiles of a post-war generation. They are the “generation that came of age with the disastrous 1870 French defeat by Prussia.” (p.12) They were wealthy, literary men who took language and discourse seriously. They prized being able to recognize what the stakes were — technology was going to displace the humanity of communication. Technology was headed to up-end what they prized in communication, such as the stimulation of the imagination. They “established themselves as champions of a paradoxical ‘newness’ that in fact attempted to combine an allegiance to modernity with a stalwart defence of French traditions.” (p.19)

What is striking here is that this group shared a mood now recognized as part of a larger mood occurring internationally in the advanced capitalist nations at the end of the nineteenth century. For the United States, this mood is best documented in Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, detailing in full the narrative of “a yearning for authentic experience” (p. xix) among the “ruling groups in a developed capitalist society” (p. xvi). This group too was a post-war generation, coming of age after Appomattox.

In both instances collecting served a restorative end. For the French “bibliophiles contemporains,” documented so well by Silverman, collecting meant creating, distributing, and preserving books signaling the ideals of their own era, rather than purchasing, re-binding, and shelving books from the past. For them, modern bibliophily meant being “creative,” “prospective,” and being “a wise friend of books, free from all ostentation and vanity”(p. 5, 16). They dubbed those of the old school as “the archeologicans of the book” (p. 22, 222 n. 4).

On the other hand, late nineteenth century American collectors sought out old books, paid high prices for “Americana” (early European books about the discovery and settlement of the Americas), and valued the transformative power of the original to “connect the present with the past.” Authentic experience was the prize.

The phrase above regarding “connecting” is that of Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), historian, book collector and first president of Cornell, who added that “in our work, it seemed to me well to impress, upon the more thinking students at least, the idea that all they saw had not ‘happened so,’ without the earnest agency of human beings; but that it had been the result of the earnest life-work of men and women, and that no life-work to which a student might aspire could be more worthy.
… ” (Autobiography, p. 407-409)

2 thoughts on “Parallel worlds — The New Bibliopolis

  1. “Zadig” of Béraldi (n° 207, t. IV) was sold 7100 FF. in 1935. I look for the buyer.

  2. Thank you very much for your write up of my book, and for the fascinating parallel you draw with American collectors of this period.

    I was thrilled to include the gorgeous Ruban binding from your collection in my book (I only wish the image could have been in color). I suppose I did not know that this binding came from Beraldi’s collection. I’d love to hear the story of how and why it came into your library at Princeton.

    Best wishes,

    Willa Silverman

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