Pet Book Report #1 – John P. Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (Repost)

McKenzie may not have intended a Derridaean semiotic analytic in tracing the Latin roots of the word “text” (“The word text originates from the latin word texere, which means ‘to weave.’ Thus text refers not to an individual work, but to a materiality and textuality, a texture, an interlacing or entwining of any material with any part or counterpart.” (McKenzie 30)), but there’s a certain delight that doesn’t quite fit into the readerly/writerly binary (perhaps archivistly?) about recording the process of discovery in researching Special Collections. It feels supra-academic, more like examining the stained molars of an ancient creature, and it invites us to trace not only the production and reception histories of books, but also their seemingly more mundane and anthropic carbon rings, so to speak. In the spirit of this somewhat whimsical, somewhat overly wordy notion, I would like to begin by chronicling my Pet Book project with a process narrative—one that does not elide failure but celebrates it as a relevant element to the ultimate goal of uncovering textual and material elements.

As a student of horror, weird, strange and macabre fiction, it should arrive as no great surprise that I was immediately drawn to 1858’s The poetical works of Edgar Allan Poe, a selection of his work replete with original memoir. Immediate features of the book showed an interior cover daguerreotype image of Poe, which was shrouded with a piece of tissue/blotting paper. It soon became obvious, upon the most cursory of examinations, that this tissue was intended to prevent ink from impressing itself upon the opposing title page. I leafed onward through the pages, which were ensconced in a woefully quotidian cardboard cover bound by what appeared to be canvas. The font read in a modest 10 point type and elicited no real excitement from the reader; indeed, I felt as though this pocket volume’s purpose was expressly for that of recitation and/or memorization. It offered little more in excess of its plainest and most pragmatic of design. If this Pet Book project was to bear fruit, I would need to seek out a more mediated, more problematized text. Frustrated and crestfallen, I retired my Bostonian hero and pressed onward.

Next, I requested a swath of books less pertinent, yet as interesting, to my designs, including the following:  The history of the colony of Massachusetts-Bay, by Thomas Hutchinson;  History of Vermont, natural, civil and statistical, in three parts, with a new map of the state, and 200 engravings by Zadock Thompson;  The book of snobs, by W. M. Thackeray; and Swallow Barn, by John P. Kennedy. The narrative, I’m afraid, takes a particularly uninspiring turn at this point; for two of the four selections—The History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay and The Book of Snobs—offered precious little in the way of material intrigue. Though their content was both compelling and doubtless historical, I could detect very few standout features that qualified them for this project. They were perhaps just a little too basic. The second of the two history books, this one concerning Vermont, did offer much in the way of its 200 provided engravings/illustrations. However, it was the least likely of all I expected, Swallow Barn, that caught my eye.

Swallow Barn is, superficially, a fairly standard run: It boasts economical, cardboard-backed covers and a baroque typeface characteristic of its publication era (published in 1832 and revised in 1851.) The book is extensively damaged by mildew and water, yet surprisingly contains absolutely zero marginalia or alteration in excess of the interior cover inscriptions. Interestingly, an “Ex Libris” tag bearing the initials “T.W.S.” was inserted haphazardly into the book. It seems that this particular copy was subject to a number of ink stains, suggesting that previous readers used an inkwell-fed pen to edit or take notes while reading. Second most in interest is, immediately, the pages. They are irregular and accordioned (for lack of a better word,) showing signs of water damage down the crease of the spine. Part of this is natural weathering and damage; the other part, it would seem, is contrivance. Much as modern publishers deliberately produce volumes that are ribbed at the spine to identify its stitchings or that possess tea-dyed pages to evoke wear, this run, divided into two separate volumes for effect, seems to have been deliberately produced in such a way as to demonstrate its own historical relevance. The interior has the name “John P. Kennedy” hand-penciled in, although I suspect this is a mere librarian’s reference rather than a piece of history. The phrase “Sabrina 37421,” unfortunately meaningless to me, was also penciled in in this area.

Curiously, a tradition of ownership emerges at this point. It would seem that each owner began, starting with “B. Silver” or perhaps the undated “B.A.” began writing their names in the pages subsequent to the cover. The names “A.A.S. 1937” and “Pahon (illegible) 1940″ succeed these two owners. More curiously, there is a delightfully metatextual archival note from 1937 pasted in these empty pages, which enumerates the textual and curatorial features of the book that denote it as very rare. Included in this assessment are its original size (7 3/4″ x 4 5/8”) and “rare leaf preceding the title page,” which advertises Irving’s “The Alhambra” and Cooper’s “The Heidenmauer.” These related yet separately authored texts constitute, in the description of the archival note, “three outstanding delineations of sectional life and manners of Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century.” The note also highlights the tantalizingly ambiguous “B.A.” initials inscribed on the fly-leaf of each volume.

In terms of publication history, this volume is fairly standard. It was entered into the Library of Congress in 1832 by Carey & Lea, with the printers C. Sherman & Co. hailing from Philadelphia. It was produced using wood pulp paper, likely “wove paper” as we discussed in class, and was, as mentioned previously, machine cut to evince agedness. Included is an editorial prologue as well as an introductory epistle produced by “devotee Mark Littleton in 1829. I wonder how this could be, as the book was not published until 1832. Perhaps Littleton wrote the epistle in anticipation of its reception. This is a point I wish to further investigate. Finally, the editors chose to include a number of errata for this series of print, including spelling errata such as “trays” read “treys,” “disease” read “disuse,” and “appertinences” read “appertenances.”

In terms of where I would like to go from here, I would like to look into the handful of initials included in the ownership history of this book. I would also like to look into the hauntingly relevant relationship between Kennedy and Poe, which I only discovered upon consulting the internet. It would seem the two were co-endorsers of one another’s work and did much to promote their attendant publications. The content is relatively unrelated to my line of study, as I’ve mentioned at great length; however, it would seem that this book rendered compelling caricatures of life in the south that have become historically relevant for both their realism and stereotypical presumptuousness. I enjoy handling the book; it seems very alive, very troubled. The fact that Kennedy was involved heavily in government seems to have elevated this text to great heights, but what for? Although we won’t be looking deeply into content, I suspect an interrogation of its reception history will yield much fruit.

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