Read Here Nick Basbanes’s Introduction to The Newly Released Edition of The Classic Bibliomystery, “The Widening Stain,” from Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics

For your reading pleasure, reproduced below is Nick’s introduction to the newly released edition of the bibliomystery The Widening Stain (available fur purchase here), originally written in 1942 by W. Bollingbroke Johnson. Whodunnit? How about, who really wrote it? Find out–

Barry Moser Illustrates Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition…. I would pour out my soul’s complaint…— ‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly!’”
    –Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Published on May 1, 1845 in Boston by the Antislavery Office founded by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself” sold 5,000 copies within four months. By 1847, this first of three autobiographies to be written by the famed escaped slave-turned-orator had gone through nine editions, and by 1860 — a year before the outbreak of the Civil War —30,000 copies were in print, robust statistics for any book in antebellum America, while translations in German and French secured an international readership for its central message — a clarion call against the pestilence of slavery that infected the American South.

“Narrative” spoke eloquently on behalf of the millions of people of African heritage then living in bondage in the United States, illuminating slavery’s horrors and giving voice to the powerless. The slim, 125-page volume chronicling Douglass’s twenty years of enslavement in Maryland is considered a preeminent example of slave narratives, and after 175 years, it shows no signs of irrelevance or obscurity; in fact, a fine press edition has been illustrated by award winning Massachusetts-based artist Barry Moser, who describes himself as “a recovering racist.”         

Drowning Man. Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser

Moser grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised as the nephew and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members. After preaching his way through college as a licensed Methodist minister, he settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, where for 50 years he has turned out award-winning art and taught at the surrounding colleges. His illustrations for “Narrative”offer his ruminations on race inequality in the United States and the burden of racism he and many Americans continue to shoulder. “White Europeans have an awful lot to answer for on this continent,” he told me, while Douglass’s flowing autobiography lends itself perfectly to the interpretative work Moser is known for creating.

“‘Narrative’ penetrates over, and over, and over into the mental, physical, and psychological world of growing up a slave,” is how the Yale professor David Blight, whose biography of Douglass was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, said to me in an interview. “He was twenty years a slave, and those twenty years are all represented in that first book. He doesn’t tell us how he escaped until his third autobiography, but this book is Douglass’s great coming out as a writer.”

Before setting his reminiscences down on paper, Douglass shared them in lectures promoting the abolitionist cause throughout the North on a circuit that stretched to Indiana, though many were not receptive to the idea of racial equality; even in Massachusetts, his home state for a decade, he and a colleague were once beaten and thrown from a train for disobeying the rules of segregated seating. But the 26-year-old orator continued to captivate crowds, and during one 18-week period of repose, he wrote his story — a “book of the ages” as Blight calls it.  

Over the course of multiple, wide-ranging interviews, Moser told me the idea for this project came after he started seeing a psychiatrist about four years ago, where recurring topics centered on race, religion, and Moser’s older brother, Tommy. Moser chronicled his upbringing in a 2016 memoir, “We Were Brothers,” laying bare a childhood lived among dyed-in-the-wool racists and his strained relationship with Tommy. Though Moser fled the South over fifty years ago, he still wrestles with family ghosts. He said that breathing contemporary meaning into a nearly 200-year-old text had helped him atone, in part, for the sins of his family while confronting uncomfortable truths through his art.

“The idea to do the book grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me loose,” he said, describing his illustrations as “a personal meditation on what I’ve known and what I’ve seen.” And still, “to this day, I refer to myself as a recovering racist,” Moser said, pausing briefly. “I am gripped by white guilt.” He traces his decision to leave the region of his birth to one particular night when he was sixteen years old and members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded near his home in a “Klavalcade” that openly expressed their credo of hate. “My family’s out there on the front porch laughing and talking like the Klansmen were family,” he noted. “That night began my awakening. It haunts me.”

Just as Douglass wrote “Narrative” in less than a year, Moser turned out these images over the course of twelve months, a project as challenging, if not more so, than his illustrated edition of the King James Bible, a four-year endeavor not undertaken by any single artist since Gustave Doré in 1865.           

As works of art, the sixty copies printed and bound at the Palace of the Governor’s for Moser’s Pennyroyal Press edition of “Narrative” are exceptional: master craftsman tooled the bindings and marbled the endpapers, while the text and engravings appear on German mold-made paper and sheets imported from a nearly 300-year-old English paper mill. Until the entire series sold out in mid-March 2020, copies were available through the New Mexico Museum for $675 apiece. Ten copies were pressed and left in sheets for artisan book binders to purchase and bind as they see fit.

Photo: Margot Geist. Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser.

For inspiration, Moser looked to chain gangs, mass incarceration, lynchings, and his own family; Moser’s grandfather appears stone-faced in one illustration holding a whip while a bloodied woman hangs from a post in the background. Under every image in “Narrative”is a violent ink-black brush stroke — the lash of a whip.

Burning Cross from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Reproduced with permission from Barry Moser.

Before and throughout the project, Moser sought guidance and corresponded almost daily with Debra Riffe, a longtime friend and Black printmaker based in Birmingham, Alabama.  “She was my confessor,” said Moser. “We talked to each other about race, and I wanted to make damn sure that what I was doing would not be offensive to a Black American without diluting my emotions.”

As one might expect, the very premise of the endeavor — a white artist ruminating on slavery and its aftermath — generates conflicted responses. As to whether a Black artist would have been more appropriate to take on such a task, Riffe said that Moser approached the project with great sensitivity. “I felt he nailed the illustrations. Could someone else have done a better job? If so, why hadn’t they done it? It’s Barry’s point of view. I applaud Barry for trying.”   

Theo Tyson, the Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art and Culture at the Boston Athenæum and previously the manager of Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art, offered her belief that the undertaking “reeks of white privilege,” and that “an African American artist with at least ancestral memory of slavery would have been a better choice to ‘tackle’ this project.”  

Moser, for his part, asserts that he is not purporting to speak for Douglass but is sharing his experiences and thoughts alongside the author, through art. Douglass was, as Blight put it, a “magical” writer. “People get captured by ‘Narrative’ because it possesses universal qualities,” Blight said. “This is a young mind and body held captive. A lot of people around the world, in one way or another, are held captive, or believe they are. People read this book in India or Africa or Asia and find their own stories in it.”

Moser hopes his art will speak to those readers, too. “I don’t have a big voice to speak with. But I do have one, and by God I’m going to speak in the language that I speak best, and that’s with images.”

Johnnie Walker and Pepsi Will Launch Paper Bottles in 2021

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but it’s been nothing short of a miracle for me to focus on much other than the parade of horribles happening right now. Apparently it’s called doomscrolling? Who knew–probably most of you, right? In that vein, I needed something light and frothy for this post, something downright bubbly and comforting. Well, I think I found it (and feel free to email me if you feel otherwise): a paper story coming to us courtesy of Pulpex, a venture capital-funded endeavor that launched what’s being billed as “the world’s first ever 100% plastic free paper-based spirits bottle, made entirely from sourced wood.”

Pulpex founding partner companies include Diageo, Unilever and PepsiCo, with a stated goal of moving products away from plastic packaging. Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky will be sold in food-grade paper bottles starting in 2021, free of thermoplastic polymer resin known as PET, and will be totally recyclable. TetraPaks, by contrast are manufactured with thin layers of polyethylene wedged between the paper and aluminum, which makes these packages difficult to recycle. Pulpex products aim to avoid that. As we all know, paper and liquids don’t always play well together, so getting this technology to work at scale will go a long way to reducing the amount of plastic floating around. Why not just stick with glass? It’s heavier than cardboard and so carries a larger carbon footprint.

In addition to Johnnie Walker, look for non alcoholic beverages from PepsiCo and personal and household care items from Unilever to appear sheathed in paper in the near future. And not a moment too soon: Diageo, the parent company of Johnnie Walker, uses plastic in 5% of all its packaging, but PepsiCo and Unilever rank among the world’s top plastic producers. Let’s all pour one out in the hopes that this is a success.
*This story first appeared on the Fine Books Blog on June 22, 2020.

Photo courtesy of Diageo

Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic

“Where were you during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020,” will become a common query of us by generations to come. Some of us will respond with poetry–there’s been plenty of time to write, and America’s poets have answered Covid-19 with verse. Notably among them is Daniel Mark Epstein, who recently launched a series of sonnets created during the early days of the shelter-in-place order.

Dubbed “Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic,” Epstein’s suite of ten sonnets explore the world as it has become, and our roles in it. “They are part of a larger sequence of sonnets that explore the themes of isolation, danger, and the strangeness of our new reality,” Epstein explains. “The themes include the anguish of loved ones being separated, the dangers of the virus to young and old alike, and the healing power of love.”

Though believed to have been originally conceived as a form to be read silently, the sonnet’s intrinsic musicality of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter lend itself to being shared aloud, and as such, Epstein, whose own accolades include National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships, tapped stars of the screen and stage to record themselves reading the poems: Emmy award-winning actors Tyne Daly and Paul Hecht, voice over narrator Jennifer Van Dyck, and screen legend Harris Yulin provided their voices, while visuals created at the Tivoli Arts Gallery in New York accompany the readings. As such, the series of poems is very much a multi-sensory endeavor.

Pestilence as poetic inspiration is hardly new–the Illiad opens with Apollo punishing the Greeks with nine-day plague, while the protagonists of Boccacio’s Decameron flee a disease-riddled Florence–and even now, Knopf has already published a volume of poetry created during the pandemic. “Cruel April,” meanwhile, is not a commercial enterprise–the poems are freely available online–and are intended to inspire and rally viewers to the notion that, despite our struggles with calamity and death, we can persevere, united and strong.

photo credit: Sarah Longaker

Covid PSA from the Princess in Black

Having a hard time explaining the new normal to your youngsters? Striking the right balance between informative without causing panic is essential, and Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham–the children’s book trio behind the bestselling The Princess in Black series–recently completed a child-friendly coronoavirus public service announcement to help make that task a little easier.

Created in accordance with Center for Disease Control guidelines as of April 8, 2020 and published by Candlewick Press, the free eight-page booklet is a “call to heroes” to join the intrepid problem solver, the Princess in Black, and do their part to slow the spread.princess2

All three creators have children at home and face many of the same quarantine-related issues as other parents:  “LeUyen, Dean, and I are all parents self-isolating at home with our children,” said Shannon Hale. “The anxiety and distancing is hard enough on our older kids, but we know that younger kids might be having an even harder time. We hoped that it’d help if a familiar book friend like the Princess in Black talked them through it. Even the Princess in Black is staying home! Even Princess Sneezewort had to cancel playdates! LeUyen had the idea of creating a short comic to download and share widely so caregivers could have an extra tool for talking to kids. Our goal is both to help kids understand what’s going on and to help them feel less alone.”

The Princess in Black and the Case of the Coronavirus is available for download here https://www.princessinblack.com/ and is attached here: pib-coronavirus

Abby Reviews The Good Hawk, the First in the Shadow Skye Trilogy

Joseph Elliott’s debut novel, The Good Hawk (Walker Books, 368 pages, $17.99) takes young-adult readers to a mythical, violent Scotland, where war and plague have ravaged the land and the only children of a local clan to evade capture by enemy combatants are a most unlikely trio who must beat the all sorts of death-defying odds to save their family. Featuring a heroine with Down’s Syndrome, Abby couldn’t put this book down, and neither will your kids. Here’s her take:

I Need a Hero: Abby Reviews “Willow the Armadillo”

willow

Good Friday, readers! In Willow the Armadillo by Marilou Reeder and Dave Mottram (Abrams, $16.99), our bespectacled purple armored protagonist wants nothing more than to become a hero just like the ones she reads about in her books. Does she succeed? Well, I’m not going to spoil it–but clearly, heroes are born in the most unexpected of circumstances. Abby provides her take below.

And: thank-you to all the health care heroes on the front lines right now.

Tomie dePaola Dead at 85

Sad news out of New Hampshire: on Monday, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola died at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center due to complications following surgery for head injuries sustained from a fall in his barn last week.

Born in Meriden, Connecticut, dePaola delighted generations of children with his tales of kindly and cheerful characters such as the beloved titular witch in dePaola’s Caldecott Honor-winning Strega Nona: An Old Tale (Prentice-Hall, 1975). Over 15 million copies of dePaola’s 270 + books have been sold worldwide and translated into twenty languages. 

strega

In a statement, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu praised dePaola as “a man who brought a smile to thousands of Granite State children who read his books, cherishing them for their brilliant illustrations.” An outpouring of remembrances from authors and illustrators are popping up across social networks as well.

 

 

Kirkus Star for “Cross of Snow,” a New Biography of Henry Longfellow

Well, here’s a nice little diversion to start another quarantined day, especially for those among us who have been considering their reading lists in these sequestered times: the first advance review to come in for “Cross of Snow,” earning a “Kirkus Star,” no less, for “exceptional literary merit.” Read the review here: https://bit.ly/2WRUbdd.

In light of the pandemic, Kirkus has graciously lifted its paywall to offer unfettered access to its current issue and entire archive.