This is the story of a minor bibliographic mystery, and how it was solved. It’s just a small story — no big reveal to be picked up by the wire services, no five-hundred-year-old royalty buried under the car park — but one that I find very satisfying in the completeness of its resolution, and for the small insight it gives to the people behind the books involved. Enamored as we are of the material objects of our collecting, they are really nothing more than physical manifestations of the human characters that wrote, produced or owned them. My interest in the people behind the object, in fact, is one of the reasons I decided to focus on collecting association copies.
ABC For Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker (Eighth Edition; Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2004) defines an association copy as a book that “once belonged to, or was annotated by, the author; which once belonged to someone connected with the author or someone of interest in his own right; and perhaps most interestingly, belonged to someone peculiarly associated with its contents.” In an essay in Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell (The Caxton Club, 2011), Millard M. Riggs writes:
“[Association copies] have long struck me as a special way to bring life and uniqueness to subjects distanced to us by time and place.” While the uniqueness of an association copy certainly appeals to the collector in us, it is also the evocation of that distant time and place that I find fascinating.
The physical artifact pricks the interest and focuses the attention, and provides the motivation to conduct research. Research yields knowledge, and knowledge is the book collector and bookseller’s stock in trade.
My story begins in 2003, when I bought a copy of Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1952), edited by Horace L. Gold. This is a fairly common book, but this copy contains a lengthy personal inscription by Gold, to Groff and Lucy Conklin, dated March 1, 1952. Horace L. Gold founded Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in 1950 and served as its editor for the next decade; Groff Conklin wrote a book review column for Galaxy from 1950 through 1955 and was the foremost SF anthologist of his time, with 41 collections to his credit. Groff’s wife Lucy edited his writing, and was credited as his co-editor on The Supernatural Reader (Lippincott, 1953). If there is a really cool science fiction story you remember reading from the 1940s through the 1960s, there’s a very good chance you read it in a Groff Conklin-edited anthology.
Then in 2006, I bought a copy of Science Fiction Terror Tales (Gnome Press, 1955), also edited by Groff Conklin, considered to be one of the rarest of the Gnome titles. This copy also bears a long personal inscription, but this time in the opposite direction: it’s inscribed on the front endpaper by Conklin (signed as “Groff”) to H.L. Gold, dated April 9, 1955, and additionally signed in full by Conklin on the title page. The book has a terrific provenance, as I purchased it directly from Marta Randall, Gold’s daughter-in-law by his second marriage and an SF author herself.
So, one book was owned by Horace L. Gold, and the other was owned by the Conklins. But what caught my attention was that both books have the identical embossed seal on the front free endpaper: two circles surrounding the stylized image of a bird. Conklin’s copy of the Galaxy Reader had passed through the hands of an unknown number of interim owners, so the seal could have been added at any point — but Gold’s copy of Science Fiction Terror Tales had been in the family’s possession until the moment I bought it. It seemed pretty obvious that the seal must have been added by either Conklin or Gold — but which one, and what was its origin? Marta Randall was not aware of the seal being used in any of Gold’s other books, and Bud Webster, author of the definitive Conklin bibliography 41 Above the Rest (and my main competition for collecting Conklin-related material) had never seen the seal before. Neither Gold nor Conklin were frequent signers, and I was never able to track down any other examples of the seal. Despite various attempts at researching the problem over the years, it remained unsolved until just a few days ago.
Fittingly, the solution to the mystery began with the purchase of yet another signed Conklin title. Many years ago I set up a want on AbeBooks for signed Groff Conklin, and last week I got a hit for a signed copy of The Supernatural Reader, the anthology edited by both Conklins. The bookseller’s description stated that this copy bore an inscription, dated 1953, on the front endpaper: “To Ben and Bernarda this, our first overtly joint work! with love – Lucy and Groff.” The dealer describes it as “from the library of Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, with estate label tipped in inside front cover”. I immediately bought the book.
Naturally, my next step was to do a little research on Ben and Bernarda Shahn. Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-American artist and photographer, most famous for his works of social realism under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. Bernarda was a photojournalist and artist, and with her husband produced a set of 13 murals inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I See America Working,” which were installed at the Bronx Central Annex of the United States Post Office. Most relevant to the solution of my mystery, however, was a cache of material in the Shahn papers in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Folder 3 in Box 6, labeled “Conklin, Groff and Lucy,” contains several letters the Shahns received from the Conklins, documenting their close friendship over many years. These letters have been scanned, and are available to view online here.
To my great delight, in the upper left-hand corner of one of these letters — a typed letter from Conklin to Shahn and dated April 12, 1947 — is the very same seal that had been puzzling me all this time. Better still, Conklin actually writes about it in the letter: “The seal impressed on the top of the front page of this letter is something I’ve had around the house for some time. It’s a kind of Conklin colophon; the bird design is the same as my Japanese ring. How do you like it?”
So after only ten years, a minor bibliographic mystery is solved, almost by accident. This story illustrates the sometimes perverse nature of bibliographic research: a problem can stump you for years before Chance intervenes and throws a clue your way, and then within minutes, the full solution is neatly served up tied in a bow. I don’t know if anyone other than Bud Webster and I will care about this revelation, but I find it extremely gratifying. Beyond the satisfaction of nailing down a bibliographic point, I am pleased with having found the cache of scanned letters from Groff and Lucy Conklin. Perhaps there’s a bit of a voyeuristic thrill involved, since these were originally written as personal communications between friends. But the intimacy of the writing, including a very long letter written by Groff a while after Lucy’s death, reveal aspects of his character never even hinted at in his published writings. Bud Webster once described Conklin to me as “an unassuming man”, and it is quite likely that Conklin never thought that anyone would be interested in anything beyond reading the stories he gathered for his anthologies. But the letters I found hint at an interesting character, someone I would like to know better. And so the research continues.