Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Elusive Ernest Poole

Around a year ago, now, I was perusing an antique shop in a podunk little town here in Illinois called Sandwich. While scouring their massive collection of antique books, I stumbled across a really old copy of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc—I didn't know the book, but I had just started a miniature collection of Twain novels, so I bought it for $25. When I brought it home, I researched the title a little bit more and, in particular, my copy of it.

As it turns out, the book was published in 1896 and was Twain's last published novel. Here's a bit of the entry on its Wikipedia page:
Twain had a personal fascination with Joan, and initially penned this novel under a pseudonym. It has a very different feel and flow from Twain's other works. There is a distinct lack of humor so prevalent in his other works. This is a mature Twain writing about a subject of his own personal interest.

Twain considered this, his last finished novel, to be his best and most important work, a view not shared by critics then or since. Iconoclastic author George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, accuses Twain of being "infatuated" with Joan of Arc. Shaw says that Twain "romanticizes" the story of Joan, reproducing the legend that the English conducted a trial deliberately rigged to find Joan guilty of witchcraft and heresy. Recent scholarship of the trial transcripts has suggested that Twain's belief may have been closer to the truth than Shaw was willing to accept.
Mark Twain, himself, commented, "I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none."

So one can only imagine my excitement when I, during my research, discovered that the $25 copy of the book I found at the antique shop in Sandwich, IL is the first edition.
"We are never going to find this book."

At least this is the common sentiment Joshua and I have shared regarding the very first Pulitzer-winning novel, Ernest Poole's His Family (1918). Of course, this is the way we both feel about a couple other books too (namely, Upton Sinclair's Dragon's Teeth and Harold Davis' Honey In the Horn), but we both instinctively knew that this Ernest Poole novel was going to be the most elusive of all during this search. Sure enough, it has been. We have been to used-book stores all over northern Illinois, Chicago, and even parts of Iowa and neither of us have been able to find anything by Ernest Poole, let alone His Family.

Finally, three weeks ago, during a tour of Chicago's used-book stores (Powell's, Myopic, et al), I decided to show Joshua the most amazing store I have ever been to in my life—Printer's Row Fine and Rare Books. This store has one of the most expansive collections of rare books and first editions that I have ever had the good pleasure of seeing. They have incredibly pricey first editions of almost any author you can think of there—James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, John Steinbeck, Thomas Merton, James A. Michener, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner; you name it, they probably have it. And, of course, these books are pristine condition and typically cost around $2,000.

While perusing their shelves, I happened to stumble across an elegantly-bound edition of His Family. "Obviously they have this book here" I thought. Here's the ironic part, though: finding the book wasn't nearly as cataclysmic as I imagined it would be. I had imagined that when I found the book, it would be because I was on my hands and knees, scouring shelves upon shelves of books, digging through piles upon piles of books, trying to find it. It would be my diamond in the rough. It would be my treasure in the field I exhausted all my resources to obtain.

Instead, I just happened to be browsing around a store, saw it sitting on a shelf, and said, "Hey Josh—there it is." Not very romantic.

Surprisingly, the store was only asking for $40 for the book; this incredibly low, low price, however, is still just a wee bit out of my price range. But that's when I remembered that I owned something the store's proprietor would probably be interested in—a first edition of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I told his assistant (the owner was out this particular day) about my book and that I was interested in selling it to the store, and he told me to come back when the owner was back. So, a couple days ago, I did just that.

Very proudly, I walked through the doors, approached the podium the proprietor stands behind when examining a book, handed him my Twain book, and proclaimed, "Boy, do I have a treasure for you!" He replied, "Yeah? Let's take a look here." He turned the book over in his hands a couple times, commented on the book's great outward condition, opened it to the title page, closed the book, handed it back to me, and retorted, "Your treasure is worthless."

That's about the time my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach.

Now, I knew the book wasn't in perfect condition, but I was willing to accept a payment smaller than $1000 for it, if I had to. I was even willing to go so low as to propose an even trade—my Mark Twain for his Ernest Poole; that's how desperate I've become to somehow obtain this book! I was not, however, expecting this man to tell me that my book, my first edition of Mark Twain's last published novel, was completely and totally worthless.

I asked, "What in the hell do you mean, 'worthless'?"

He took the book back, opened it and, very curtly, replied, "It's been cannibalized. No title page, no copyright page, no bastard page... Somebody ripped it all out, and those are the three most important aspects of a first edition. That person made this book worthless. And it's a shame, honestly. Whoever owned this book before you should be shot. I probably would've given you a thousand for it." That's about the time my heart sank even further—from the deepest pits of my stomach, all the way down to the soles of my shoes, and I felt sick.

A thousand dollars... For a book.
I proposed an even trade, obviously, but he wasn't going for it. He told me that my Twain book would compromise the integrity of his collection. "After all, all of the other first editions here are in pristine condition. Why should I make an exception?" I suppose he has a point. He asked me if I had anything else to give him, perhaps, and I do—I recently found a first edition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood with the original dust jacket, coincidentally from the same antique shop in Sandwich. I'm not sure I'm ready to part with it, but I just may have to. He also proposed trading him a bicycle (he asked, "What do you have? Is it new? How much did you pay for it?" I answered, "It's a Globe Vienna 2, brand new, and I paid $400 for it." "Hm. Well that wouldn't be a very good deal for you, then..."). As I was walking out the door, he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Keep trying, friend."

I could only smirk and walk away, shaking my head and cursing that damned elusive Ernest Poole.

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