Pet Book Post #3: Ephemera in Swallow Barn

Ephemera in Swallow Barn

The following is a transcript of one of the bookseller’s labels that was pasted into the interior cover of the copy of Swallow Barn that I’ve been interacting with:


[KENNEDY, JOHN P.] Swallow Barn, or A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. 2 vols., 12mo, ORIGINAL CLOTH-BACKED BOARDS, PAPER LABELS, ENTIRELY UNCUT; covers slightly discolored, labels slightly defective. Philadelphia, 1832

The very rare First Edition of the Author’s second book, in original cloth-backed boards, entirely uncut, apparently in original size, measuring 7 ¾ by 4 5/8 inches. With the rare leaf preceding the title-page of Vol. I advertising Irving’s “The Alhambra,” and Cooper’s “The Heidenmauer.” With a fly-leaf at the front of Vol. I and one at the front and one at the back of Vol. II.

Irving’s “Sketch Book” of New York episodes: Longstreet’s “Georgia Scenes,” depicting Georgia types; and Kennedy’s “Swallow Barn,” giving a vividly true picture of plantation life in Virginia before the war, constitute the three outstanding delineations of sectional life and manners of Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The initials “B.A.” are inscribed on the front fly-leaf of each volume.


Initially, I was compelled to regard this label as a bare description meant to qualify—and rarify—the book via descriptive language. This seemed especially true when considered in stark relief with the mysticism of the ownership history: Who, indeed, were these owners (B.A. and other subsequent, undocumented initials and signatures), and what was the occasion of their ownership? However, as Maurice Rickards notes:

“An implicit component of every item of ephemera is the reader over our shoulder—the eyes for which the item first appeared…you become, as you read, an intimate part of the detail of their experience.”

The “eye-wornness” that Rickards identifies appears less concerned with the naming of owners specifically, which might yield interesting details about specific personal histories, and more involved with the symbiosis that takes place between the ephemera and its perceived reader. In the bookkeeper’s label that we’ve taken as our subject, it then becomes clear that we’re reading more than something advertisial; this label is creating generic expectations at the same time that it is also reifying circulatory knowledge about and around Swallow Barn itself. Andrews says of such ephemera:

Ephemera offer an opportunity for scholarly analysis as well as a more subjective quality, an almost emotional and tactile response to worn and fingered material, directly handled by the people whose concerns and activities we are trying to understand, material that, against the odds, has survived and come down to us, often in a fragile state. (436)

Certainly, someone picking up Swallow Barn in either 1832, during its initial year of publication and circulation, in the 1850s, when Kennedy released a revised edition in response to abolitionist efforts, or in the early 1900s, when many marks of ownership and the ephemera themselves are explicitly dated, would understand the general context of this book. They might also recognize that although it is framed as a sort of bricolage (a Deleuzeian term I may have also used previously), it is at once a fictionalized, narrativized, and politicized text that makes a fairly obvious bid at legitimizing slavery according to the relative blitheness that Frank Merriweather, one of the characterized plantation owners, feels that slaves gain from living at Swallow Barn. That said, to own this text during its initial years of publication seems to suggest that one might also align with its polity, if we take ownership to be commensurate with textual thematic alignment.

To further problematize the notion of ownership-as-espousal, the bookkeeper’s note is dated 1937—nearly 75 years after the ratification of the 13th amendment. Yet, this text is described as a “vividly true” depiction of plantation life, giving one pause for thought as to how “truth” functions here as a qualifier. Do we allow the truthiness of the text to be defined by its contents or do we take the bookkeeper’s meaning as decidedly more dubious? To once more draw from Andrews’ insight:

“From the ‘transient minor documents of everyday life’ (Rickards 1988: 7) we can have a direct contact with the past through artifacts that were once central to the functioning of society — the etiquette, protocol, private and business life of past centuries and societies around the world. (Andrews, 447)

We might then begin to think of a liaised nominalization—let us call it “ephemera-as-zeitgeist”—as a means of indexing not just our own perceived meanings and gleanings as “book historians,” but also the latent intentionality of the network of agents that subtends the material book: Bookkeeper, book owner(s), bookbinders, editors, curators and antiquarians, and whomever might at any given time be the “reader over the shoulder.”

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