For my first archival research project, I looked at four of Curtis’s major works in the Rare Books Room at the Boston Public Library: Lotus-Eating, Nile Notes of a Howadji, The Howadji in Syria, and Prue & I.
To recap from my previous posts, the distinctive features of the copy of Lotus-Eating in Northeastern’s Special Collections are:
- John Frederick Kensett’s wood-engravings
- text integrated with images rather than organized around it
- funky typeface choices, especially on the title page
- lots of quotations and citations
- several marks of ownership (including a bookplate for Arthur Swann that has an illustration of a swan)
- letter from Curtis tucked behind front cover
During my archival visit, I looked for similarities between the BPL and NU copies of Lotus-Eating. As I hoped, they are copies of the same edition.
The BPL’s copy is similar to our copy, but the inside cover doesn’t have personal marks of ownership (only library marks), and it doesn’t have a letter from Curtis. (I think that in other archives, Curtis’s letter would be treated as a separate artifact rather than a part of the book, especially because it isn’t connected to the book content-wise.) The BPL’s copy is in worse condition; it has some incorrectly cut pages, as shown below, and lots of discolored spots.
Our copy is definitely the more interesting one. The ephemera in our copy (particularly the swan pun) work with content of the book so well, and as Martin Andrews suggests, they offer “an atmospheric and evocative direct link to the past” (Andrews 434). They tell us more about both the author and the readers of Lotus-Eating.
I also looked for similarities between the design of Lotus-Eating and the other books. Lotus-Eating stands out to me as an especially playful book, and I searched for signs of that playfulness in the rest of Curtis’s work.
Nile Notes of a Howadji is Curtis’s first book, published in 1851 by Harper & Brothers in New York. It details Curtis’s travels in Egypt in the 1840s. The Howadji in Syria, published in 1852 by Harper & Brothers, continues in the same vein, describing Curtis’s time in (obviously) Syria. Although they were published in the same year, The Howadji in Syria came out before Lotus-Eating.
Unlike the other books, Prue & I does not deal with travel. I initially thought it was a novel, but Curtis’s Wikipedia page says it is a collection of essays and calls it “a pleasantly sentimental, fancifully tender and humorous study of life” (Wikipedia). It was published in 1856 by Dix, Edwards, & Co. in New York.
I call the design of Lotus-Eating “luxurious” due to its use of chapter title pages, white space, and many different typefaces. Although Nile Notes makes a few attempts at ornamentation, it doesn’t feel luxurious at all; the small margins make the pages feel crowded, and the lack of chapter title pages seems like an attempt to use less paper. It uses a gothic typeface for chapter titles and the standard serif typeface for everything else.
The Howadji in Syria has more standard margins and uses chapter title pages, so the text has space to breathe (so to speak). Similarly, it uses a gothic typeface for chapter titles and the standard serif for everything else.
However, out of all of Curtis’s books available in the BPL, Syria is in the worst condition. It has a marbled cardboard cover with a deteriorating leather spine that leaves little flakes all over the book cradle. The brown endpaper is brittle, and the title page is damaged.
The cover of Prue & I has not held up well over time either, but it’s difficult to tell if it ever looked good; it has an ugly, faded purplish/greenish/brownish cardboard cover with a cloth spine. Prue & I has standard margins, and only uses the standard serif typeface. I love the weird typeface choices made in Lotus-Eating, and I was a bit disappointed to only see one typeface in this book.
The frontispiece for Nile Notes is an engraving that depicts several men wearing robes and turbans, a camel, some pyramids, and a few palm trees. Although, judging by the inclusion of the title, the image seems to be specific to this book, it’s too big for the page; the landscape is cut off, and the title barely makes it. It’s possible that the book came in different sizes, or that the image was a stock image and the text was added after.
I originally believed this to be an intaglio engraving because of its detailed style and its possession of a separate full page. However, when I researched the name “Lossing-Barritt” written at the bottom of the image, I found the Wikipedia page for Benson John Lossing, who had a wood-engraving business with his father-in-law, William Barritt (Wikipedia).
Nile Notes also has a small wood-engraving on the last page that depicts a man looking at a city in the distance. The Howadji in Syria and Prue & I don’t have any images.
Because Nile Notes is Curtis’s first book, the profusion of epigraphs and the preface of this book both seem more like authenticating materials than complements to the original material. The epigraphs include excerpts from King Henvry VI, Part II by William Shakespeare; “Paracelsus” by Robert Browning; Expedition to Discover the Sources of the White Nile, in the Years 1840, 1841, originally written in German by Ferdinand Werne; “Calm Crocodile, or the Sphinx unriddled” by Linkum Fidelius (which I cannot find any information about); One Thousand and One Nights; “Fragment on Mummies” by Sir Thomas Browne; and Death’s Jest Book, or the Fool’s Tragedy by Thomas Lovell Beddoes. The preface is a story about the Persian poet Hafez and a philosopher known as Zenda (whom I cannot find any information about). These sources vary in publication date, genre, language, and “exoticism,” showing that Curtis knows what he’s talking about.
The title page of The Howadji in Syria also features two epigraphs: one in English from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and one in German from Goethe’s “Gottes ist der Orient!” The sources of these epigraphs are less obscure than some of those in Nile Notes, but Curtis leaves the Goethe in the original German here while using a translation from German there.
In addition to those two on the title page, Syria has several more pages of epigraphs. They include excerpts from “Tom o’ Bedlam,” an anonymously written poem; a letter to Mr. Reynolds by John Keats; “Man” by George Herbert; “The Wanderings of Cain” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Mandeville’s Voyages by Sir John Mandeville; The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton; On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany by Heinrich Heine, in German; “Elegiac Stanzas” by William Wordsworth; Moby-Dick by Herman Melville; The Grand Signor’s Seraglio by Robert Withers; and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s translation of Hafez. These epigraphs are generally more contemporary and much more Western than those in Nile Notes.
Continuing Curtis’s trend from Lotus-Eating of using short, out-of-context lines from Shakespeare as epigraphs, the title page of Prue & I says: “‘Knitters in the sun.’ Twelfth Night.” In the main body of the text, the epigraph for each chapter appears on the chapter title page and then again at the top of the first page of the chapter proper.
Even if I didn’t know that Nile Notes was Curtis’s first book, I would be able to tell just by looking at the cover and the first few pages. The design of the book is not especially concerned with being precise; by that, I mean that the title and author are not treated as necessary information. The title has been shortened to just Nile Notes on the spine, and Curtis’s name does not appear in the opening image or on the title page.
Neither Curtis’s name nor the book’s title appear anywhere on the cover of The Howadji in Syria, but Curtis’s full name does appear on the title page. The title page calls him “Author of ‘Nile Notes.’” I’m not sure why this title was shortened, since the word “howadji” is what shows that both books are related.
The spine of Prue & I bears both Curtis’s name and the title. On the title page of this book, Curtis’s name can stand on its own, without requiring the titles of his other books.
Out of curiosity, I’ve created a map that shows where the three different publishers’ offices were.
1: Harper & Brothers, 82 Cliff Street, mentioned in Nile Notes
2: Harper & Brothers, 329 and 331 Pearl Street, mentioned in The Howadji in Syria and Lotus-Eating
3: Dix, Edwards, & Co., 321 Broadway, mentioned in Prue & I
In addition, in the preface of Syria, Curtis addresses the friend that has been the recipient of his tales over the past two books. Going by the information in Lotus-Eating, this friend is probably Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Tribune. All three of Curtis’s travel books originally appeared as newspaper correspondence.
Marks of Ownership
Nile Notes does not have any marks of ownership.
In The Howadji in Syria, a mysterious stain blotted out Curtis’s surname on the title page, and someone filled it back in with pencil. Also in pencil, someone wrote the word “Stubb” next to the epigraph from Moby-Dick.
The inside front cover of Prue & I has the names Chas C. Whitney and Hamilton, C.W.
Looking at Niles Notes, The Howadji in Syria, and Lotus-Eating all together, I can see that Harper & Brothers grew more comfortable with Curtis as an author over time. They wouldn’t even put his name on Nile Notes, but they allowed him to collaborate with John Frederick Kensett and experimented with printing styles for Lotus-Eating. Nile Notes and The Howadji in Syria aren’t anywhere near as playful in design as Lotus-Eating, but they helped Curtis make his name in the literary world. Although Prue & I goes back to a more standard design style, it shows that Curtis was able to break out of the travel-column genre and publish with a different company.
I wish John Frederick Kensett could have illustrated all three of Curtis’s travel books, though. I think he would have been able to move beyond the stereotypical camels-and-pyramids images to produce more interesting takes on the landscapes in Egypt and Syria.
I think I got lucky in finding a very interesting first copy of Lotus-Eating. It set a high bar for the other works that I’ve examined.
Andrews, Martin. “The Importance of Ephemera.” A Companion to the History of the Book, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 434-450.
Wikipedia contributors. “Benson John Lossing.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benson_John_Lossing. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.
Wikipedia contributors. “George William Curtis.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_William_Curtis. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.