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

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.

 

 

Images from Intima Press Edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Minotaur”

Intima Press recently published a new illustrated edition of “The Minotaur” by Nathaniel Hawthorne–you can read the story at the Fine Books Blog–and we’re sharing below a sampling of this exquisite piece of letterpress printing and design. All images courtesy of Mindy Belloff.

Exhibitors at New York Antiquarian Book Fair Test Positive for COVID-19

Word spread yesterday via electronic listservs frequented by rare book dealers, collectors, and librarians that a New York International Antiquarian Book Fair exhibitor tested positive for the novel coronavirus COVID-19. The NYIABF was held March 5-8, just as the virus began appearing in the city. As expected, the news caused a flurry of anxious replies to the thread. In response, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America released this statement:

 

“We have no authority to reveal the identity of the individual … diagnosed in their home country yesterday, 11 days after being at the fair. An officer of the ABAA contacted a state Department of Infectious Disease who has confirmed that given our exposure to all of those at the NYIABF and surrounding activities, the most important thing for people to be doing at this time is to continue social distancing, monitor your individual health and if you have concerns about your personal health contact your health care provider or physician.”

 

Then, this morning, we heard from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers that more exhibitors were affected and have given permission to share their status, including Pom Harrington of London’s Peter Harrington and ILAB’s secretary, Angelika Elstner, who is based in South Africa. Harrington said in a statement, “Angelika and I both returned from New York sick as did Adrian Harrington, Alicia Bardon, Dan Whitmore, and James Cummins, Jr. I know there are others poorly. Angelika fortunately managed to get tested in Cape Town which is better than the rest of us, and had a positive result. It is reasonable to assume the rest of us here are also positive for Coronavirus. We are all recovering well and some are recovered already. To everyone else, if you have symptoms you must isolate yourself.”

 

As for the delay in relaying this information, ILAB president Sally Burdon emphasized the “as soon as Angelika’s test was returned positive no time was wasted in letting both the ABAA and ILAB know. Angelika tried to get tested immediately on her return but her doctor told her she did not have COVID-19 but to stay at home and rest. It was only because of a change in circumstances in South Africa where she lives that she was able to get a test and she went to get the test literally at the very first opportunity. My understanding is that others named were not able to get tested. Getting a test in many countries is not easy and in some countries not possible at all if you do not have extreme symptoms.”

 

Burdon continued, “I would like to thank Pom Harrington, Angelika Elstner and the others he named for coming forward in this way and hope that everyone will understand how very difficult this situation is and support them and all of our colleagues who are ill at this time. This is not something anyone would wish for. Pom’s email emphasises the international nature of the virus and while telling us that no one is immune it also reminds us we are all in this together and need to act accordingly. I also have also heard anecdotally that the Maastricht Fair also has had people return ill from it. As we all know this virus is prevalent.”

Pippi Longstocking Slated for Big Screen Return

 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

 

Just in time to celebrate Pippi Longstocking’s 75th anniversary in 2020, French film company StudioCanal and Britain’s Heyday Films are partnering up to produce a new adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s (1907-2002) beloved children’s book series starring a plucky, red-haired Swede named Pippi.

The most recent big-screen adaptation of the Pippi books was back in 1988. Unfortunately, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking was a commercial flop, even though Lindgren’s books starting the World’s Strongest Girl have been translated into 77 languages with 65 million copies sold world-wide. Lindgren’s now famous tales evolved from bedtime stories told to her daughter Karin and are filled with adventure and excitement.

Perhaps this version will fare better than the 1988 film. Harry Potter and Paddington producer David Heyman will be at the helm this time around, and he has been working closely with Nils Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s grandchild and CEO of Astrid Lindgren Films.

In a statement, Heyman said, “I am thrilled to collaborate with Thomas Gustafsson, Olle Nyman and their team at the Astrid Lindgren Company and our partners at Studiocanal on this film adaptation of the brilliant and timeless Pippi Longstocking. Pippi has endured and inspired families everywhere through her life force, strength of character and her irrepressible joie de vivre. Astrid Lindgren’s books have been translated around the globe for many years – a testament to her vision which we are determined to honor with a new film.”

No word yet on the film’s cast, crew, or release date.

Coincidentally, a new edition of the book, featuring the original illustrations by Ingrid Vang Nyman, is due out from Puffin Books in April.

Tourists Overwhelm Beatrix Potter’s Beloved Lake District

Last month, the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) issued a statement declaring that off road vehicles would not be banned from the park, a move that has upset some locals who say dirtbikes and cars are ruining the countryside. 

**This article has been updated with new information.**

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017, the Lake District has welcomed a surge of visitors over the past twenty years, and not all sightseers have left the land as they found it: according to a recent report in The Guardian, off road vehicles, 4x4s, and dirtbikes are increasinglychewing up the delicate lands forged in the last Ice Age, damaging dirt roads and surrounding fields. Farmers complain that the roads are so poor that they cannot drive their equipment on them anymore.

The Lake District ‘s spokesperson Sarah Burrows said in a recent email that The Guardian’s article “is inaccurate and, as such, we wrote to the editor in response. We highlighted that the headline Lake District heritage at risk as thrill-seekers ‘chew up’ idyllic trails is misleading and inflammatory, furthermore, parts of the article itself are factually incorrect. The two public roads are open to all users and make up just 0.09 per cent of our rights of way network, so to infer that this is a Lake District-wide ‘problem’ is misleading. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people enjoying the national park’s 3,280km of trails are highly unlikely to encounter recreational motorists on these routes.”

Lake District residents say the tension between meeting the wants of tourists while preserving the bucolic landscape is at least a decade in the making. In 2006, the LDNPA posted the now-ubiquitous red and white “hierarchy of trails” guides, notifying visitors of proper road etiquette, however local groups say these signs have only encouraged thrill-seekers to take their ATVs off roading. Members of the Save the Lake District Group say that vehicles using these roads have leapt from 90 a month in 2008 to over 400 in 2017. Burrows, meanwhile, provided usage data on the LDNPA website saying that tracking motorized vehicles on the roads has been historically spotty and that the numbers quoted by Save the Lake District “may not be very reliable.” The LDNPA report goes on to state that it has noticed a decrease on vehicular traffic on those roads that have been repaired.

The roads bearing the brunt of these adventure seekers are High Tilberthwaite and High Oxenfell. Part of the appeal lies in these roads’ proximity to Potter’s farm, which she purchased in 1929 and is now part of the National Trust. Meanwhile, the LDNPA maintains that the Lake District trails have historically been a mix of dirt, asphalt, and stone, and that recent severe weather has deteriorated the roads that now require repair. Paving these highly trafficked roads would keep motorists from destroying the surrounding area, and the LDNPA posted before and after images of repaired roads on its website, where some of the “before” roads look downright impassable, but Save the Lake District maintains that these pictures aren’t telling the whole story.

Earlier this month, LDNPA committee members voted not to ban ATVs from trails despite a recommendation from the International Council on Monuments and Sites suggesting that banning these vehicles would drastically improve the quality of the trails and preserve the beauty of the area. The latest vote has lead to frustrated protests and angry outbursts from locals, who fear that this is only another step towards stripping the Lake District of its charm and turning it into a roadside attraction.

Burrows counters that the LDNPA is trying to meet the needs of all park users. “As a national park representing everyone’s right to enjoyment, the decision to restrict anyone’s right to use these roads must not be taken lightly. In line with government guidance, legal intervention through a TRO (Traffic Regulation Order) is a last resort and we should explore other management options first. We completed a comprehensive evidence gathering exercise and the findings were presented to our Rights of Way Committee on 8 October where Members decided on the future management of these roads and whether or not a TRO is required.

“The decisions we have to take are often complex, but we do this in an open and transparent way so that everyone can see in detail what the perceived issues are, how we’ve gathered our evidence, and how we’ve come to the reasoning behind our recommendation to committee,” Burrows wrote. The committee’s findings can be read here

Beatrix Potter Portrait to Appear on Cumbrian Currency

Brexit may be in turmoil, but there is a bright spot to leaving the E.U: being able to print hyper-local money that’s backed by the national government. This year, Beatrix Potter, educational reformer Charlotte Mason, and other notable residents of the English region of Cumbria will grace various denominations of the Lake District pound (LD£), a currency launched there in 2018 to encourage local shopping and promote independent businesses.
“It’s been an amazing year for the project,” said Lake Currency Project founder Ken Royall in a January report by the BBC. Available at Lake District post offices and tourism centers, the currency can be swapped pound for pound with sterling and is accepted at over 350 hundred local and independent shops throughout the Lake District, a region in the northwestern region of England popular with tourists. Over 140,000 LD£S are currently in circulation.
Unlike standard currency which never expires, LD£S is an annual currency. The 2018 batch expired on January 31 but could be exchanged until the end of February for fresh 2019 LD£S notes. Any expired currency becomes found money for the district, helping fund community projects and maintaining the stunning landscapes that make the region such a hot tourist spot.
The Lake District currency is the first paper money issued with Potter’s likeness.The brightly colored banknotes were designed by artists Rebecca Gill and Cumbrian native Debbie Vayanos. Meanwhile, Potter’s charming characters like Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin have appeared on the British pound since 2016 and are coveted among numismatics. Last August, a coin collector stabbed a man to death and then stole the victim’s coin collection, which included rare Beatrix Potter 50p coins. (The murderer was recently sentenced to thirty years in prison.)
No need for violence here, nor must Potter collectors book a flight to Cumbria to get their hands on these: Lake District Pounds are available online.

 

Image courtesy of Lake District Currency Project

James H. Billington (1929-2018): A Remembrance

“If we didn’t already have libraries, they would now have to be invented. They are the keys to American success in fully exploiting the information highways of the future,” wrote James H. Billington in the winter 1994 issue of Media Strategies Journal. At the time, the thirteenth Librarian of Congress was reminding a nation enthralled with the nascence of the internet that libraries would be as important as ever in the electronic age, as preservation repositories, testing grounds for experiments in digitization, and strongholds where anyone could freely access humankind’s various written efforts.
Billington wasn’t just offering his opinion; he was engaged in what would become a battle to preserve the mission of the Library of Congress (LOC).
In 1995, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested, in an effort to streamline operations at the LOC, that the library’s $350 million annual operating budget be slashed to practically nothing and turn its focus to “increasing revenue” (whatever that means) rather than building and sustaining the country’s knowledge hub. Luckily, Congress committee members charged with reviewing the document rejected the plan. As Billington noted in Patience & Fortitude (Basbanes, 2001), the attempt to undermine the LOC’s mission was hardly noticed by the national media. “The Messiah could make a personal appearance in the main reading room, and the chances are fifty-fifty that it would get any attention from the press,” he said. But the GAO’s report, if acted upon, would have had serious consequences for the future of America’s library, and Billington “went after it tooth and nail….because it was a cautionary issue of no small significance.”
Indeed, what was at stake, as the career humanist realized, was whether the world’s largest library–charged with, as he put it, “stockpiling information”–could continue to ensure that anyone could browse the LOC’s unique treasures.

 

And yet, Billington did not shy away from the new digital medium. In fact, he embraced what this technology could offer. During his tenure from 1987 to 2015, Billington oversaw great change at the LOC, ushering in dozens of free digital initiatives like the online American culture resource for K-12 education now known as the National Digital Library; thomas.gov, a free portal to U.S. federal legislative information; National Jukebox, which provides free access to over 10,000 out-of-print music and spoken word recordings; and a digital talking books app. He also established programs like the National Book Festival and the Veterans History Project.
And though cost-cutting was often on the wish-list of many political agendas, over the years, Billington raised over half a billion dollars to supplement Congressional financial support no matter who was in office.
Billington faced the future of book culture with steely-eyed awareness and an understanding that far surpassed many contemporaries. He welcomed the Internet age as a liberation of physical books from the cumbersome task of storing facts and figures. “With the move to electronic formats, what I believe you will now see is that books containing data will be online, and the serious kind of traditional literature that has always been in book form will continue to appear in book form. The book, in my view, will be freed from a very heavy burden that it has to bear all these years,” he explained in Patience & Fortitude. “It will be allowed to flourish anew.”

Raptis Rare Books Employing DNA Technology to Authenticate Books

According to the product’s creator, UK-based SelectaDNA, so-called “synthetic DNA” can help fight inventory loss and theft and has been employed in casinos, hospitals, banks, museums, and other institutions worldwide for over a decade to identify and protect valuables. Earlier this month, Raptis became the first bookseller in the United States to incorporate synthetic DNA for authentication and inventory management.

 

“Think of each unit of synthetic DNA as a high-tech fingerprint,” explained SelectaDNA vice president Joe Maltese. “Each application of Synthetic DNA generates a unique code, providing clients with the ability to identify and recover lost or stolen rare books. Raptis is using the technology to demonstrate their rare books have been authenticated and sold by them.”

 

For book collectors worried this serum might mar their treasures, fear not: the non-toxic, water-based serum is invisible to the naked eye. Applied to a book, the serum can last up to five years and has a lifespan of 4 to 6 weeks on skin–helpful to pinpoint a thief who has been inadvertently misted with a special spray, also sold as part of an alarm system by SelectaDNA. The company says their product reduces theft by 83 percent when incorporated into such an alarm system. If triggered by a burglar, the system releases a mist containing a unique DNA code and UV tracer. Shining an ultraviolet light on the suspect will reveal whether he or she purloined the goods in question.

 

Raptis is using the DNA Asset Marking System which is applied to books with a special stamp; the images below show Raptis is using a stamp in the shape of an “R.”

 

Photo #1.jpg

 

 

Photo #2.jpg

 

“Raptis Rare Books takes extraordinary measures to ensure authenticity of its collection of literary treasures,” said Raptis founder Matthew Raptis. “The use of SelectaDNA is an excellent complement to our rigorous authentication protocols,” he continued. “It provides our clients with added confidence in purchasing these rare literary gems.”
Images, from top: Matthew Raptis, owner and founder of Raptis Rare Books, alongside Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio, valued at $100,000. Book marked with synthetic DNA solution without use of ultraviolet light. Book marked with synthetic DNA solution and fluorescing from use of ultraviolet light. Used with permission from SelectaDNA.

 

This story first appeared on the Fine Books Blog on Friday, October 26, 2018.