Friday, December 11, 2009

Tale of the Kennebec, a Rare Maine Book

Lurking behind the lurid front wrapper cover graphics, alluded to by only one word on the title page and further hidden from a knowing eye by a “DIME NOVEL” pedigree is a… remarkably scarce and obscure Kennebec River, Maine, 1756 set, Seven Years War (Colonial French and Indian War 1754-1763) “ten cent novel” that is generally unknown to Maine rare book enthusiasts…but should be.
THE DARING BACKWOODSMAN, MUNRO’S TEN CENT NOVELS, No. 67, George Munro & Co., New York, 1865-1866, may be easily traced to Mr. Munro’s partnership and independent break with his former employer/partners, the Beadles, to become, with them. the top producers of the “dime novel” …genre. Genre it be for today, a century after collector attention was first remunerated and 150 years after the publishing style’s innovation, the WHOLE block of dime novels languishes within a… closed door collector-only… advanced collector valuation critique (cash and literary, in that order) with …an occasional scholar discovering “one” “of particular interest” to THEIR… particular interest. We are a close ratio to that here except that the Maine rare book interest reaches well beyond the state border AND… Maine is in very short supply of actual old rare books that touch the subject of Maine and the colonial wars… particularly in a NON-scholarly way. Here we find that critter.
CHEAP writing printed on CHEAP paper making a CHEAP production of a pamphlet “throw away” style book that is called a “novel” but is more accurately a story with a highly stylized frontiersman woodcut on the outer front wrapper and again appearing as a frontis to tempt the ten cent BUYER who will READ… this “trash”. Dismissed as trash… such writing cannot be accepted in… accepted… literary circles and must be read in… secret. This sort of book was read in secret over and over and over again until pamphlet fell apart. Why? Because readers liked the trashy story.
But… that cheap hack writing… when critiqued TODAY will be discovered to be just worded historically correct enough to catch a Maine rare book collector’s attention AND suggest very strongly that the author; “J. Springer” was very familiar and informed in Maine history himself at the 1865 date. Who the author was we do not know. THAT the book has “KENNEBEC” in it’s “THE DARING BACKWOODSMAN. A TALE OF THE KENNEBEC” title grabs the Maine history sleuth’s eye. That single word is very promptly followed by three opening pages setting the scene as… on the river below Fort Halifax and above Fort Western, “in the summer of 1756” with pioneer farmers, fur traders and Norridgewocks Indians AND… having that setting salt & peppered with Maine history words like “Father Rasle. Woolrich, Cushnoc and even “Bishop Burgess” from Gardener.
The story is in the shadow of James Fenimore Cooper and close to the Green Mountain writer D. P. Thompson… and all the better for it. The author wraps his Indian raid - pioneer cabin burning plausibility with name drop style historical fact. JUST enough name drop allusion to create the illusion that “this really happened”. A little check-it-out will find no identical Indian raid there-then BUT it will find numerous there-then at the 1750’s dates with the same number of Indians raiding the same sort of pioneer farms including the details of cabin burning and… even Indian ambushes at the prominent point on the river between the two forts. Although the story is a spun yarn, the spun of that yarn …has it’s history well tended.
The devil is NOT in the detail but just the opposite. The supreme specimen of this type of Americana gone to full glory is the 1830’s DAVY CROCKETT ALMANCS, wherein lurid woodcuts and spun yarn reign supreme and …historical facts must be hunted like kernels of dried Indian corn on a forest floor. THAT rare book is Grolier 100 Americana (#39) and THIS rare books is Maine's own match to it. To Cooper. To Thompson. To the …true portrayal… of Maine’s Seven Years War.
Sappy details that must be noted include: A romance that is… pleasingly… forced to cut to the chase because the book … is not very long. A horse-in-the-Maine-woods usage issue that the author repeatedly addresses. A pioneer hiding hole under the cabin that equals and emulates the hiding secrets used by the other pioneer writers we have named. Abundant boy - man - Indian loyalty, language and fighting …to the death …that includes a single mercy shot to “finish off’ and a pretty descriptive & nasty knife fight. Before the reader knows it the story is over. It is painless to read and is put-a-smile-on… tidy.
The throwaway pamphlet novel… is, again, a MAINE …French and Indian War… historical saga… found in a splendid ephemeral format designed to be read by Maine farm boys in their Maine farm bedroom when “no one knows”. But it does, effortlessly, include Maine historical clarity. Even the woodcut holds to …Maine historical clarity. Look at the backwoodsman's weapon. It’s an early French and Indian War period halberd… the type that makes one quiver to see when shown in historical excavation reports and …similar to museum specimens "found in Maine".
In the photographs I have included I show the two copies we have in stock. The reason for this duplication is to show-off… but not clarify… edition variants. This sort of printed production often has a very varied printing history making it very hard to determine a "true first" edition (first edition, first printing). Conservatively, I cannot say that either of the photographed specimens are "first editions". What I do denote and show in the images is that… one copy (the one WITH the rear wrapper present) is printed in NY, vended by a Boston publisher, has an inner front wrapper advertisement for the very next (#68) dime novel BUT has an "1866" copyright. The second copy is printed in NY and from a NY vendor but with a later #87 very next dime novel (suggesting it's a later printing than our first) BUT has an… "1865" copyright. The two offerings become… the classic rare bookman's enigma of "what is a true first"… with a classic "go figure" answer. One would need to have a dozen copies side by side to try to sort out a "true first" …sappy detail. This first edition detail we deem "sappy" for… a true LAST detail removes all the sappy and leaves just one aspect: Try to find a copy… any copy …of this rare Maine book.