Luther S. Livingston, 1864–1914

Luther S. Livingston, 1864–1914 (1915)
by George Parker Winship
2044871Luther S. Livingston, 1864–19141915George Parker Winship





An American Scholar died on December 24, 1914. Self-made, the doors of opportunity opened to him a few months before, and with many misgivings he passed through them. He found himself among men of recognized attainments who, to his surprise, welcomed him to their assembly and conducted him to a seat beside the most honoured. While he was still wondering how best to show his appreciation for their recognition, he died.



Luther S. Livingston was born at Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 7, 1864. His mother's father, Luther Lincoln, was a nature-loving wanderer who transmitted an abiding fondness for the deep woods and for lofty pines. From the neighbourhood of Taunton, Massachusetts, he took his young wife to Michigan. They were pioneers on the outskirts of what is now Detroit, and then moved on to the river bank beside the rapids, where they were among the first to claim a home site. Their daughter Keziah married Benjamin Livingston. His father, Samuel, left Ireland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the son reached the Michigan settlement by way of western New York and Canada.

The first money that Luther Samuel Livingston earned, by vacation work sweeping after the laborers on a street-paving contract undertaken by his father, was spent for a pair of heavy tramping shoes and for a set of Chambers' Cyclopaedia of English Literature. When he left the high school in 1881, he went to work in a local bookshop. Four years later he was obliged by ill health to give up regular indoors employment, and spent the summer months collecting butterflies and wild flowers in the fields and swamps near Grand Rapids. In the autumn he secured a position in another bookstore, where he stayed until 1887, when he went to New York and became the shipping clerk for Dodd, Mead & Company.

Livingston never liked city ways, and in 1888 he took up a plot of government land at Melbourne, near the head of navigation on the St. John's River in Florida. The inspiration for this venture came from the books of Thoreau. He was ambitious to emulate the simple life as expounded by the Concord seer. Unluckily the Florida glades concealed no motherly neighbours from whose pantry shelves pockets could be stuffed with doughnuts, and the life proved too simple. After a year of unremunerative grubbing at palmetto roots, Livingston returned to the New York bookstore.

In 1891 he was invited by a friend who had discovered his fondness for flowers, to visit the greenhouses of Pitcher & Manda at Short Hills, New Jersey. His familiarity with the technical names of the different plants and accurate information about unusual varieties attracted the attention of one of the partners, who forthwith offered him a place on their staff. He was assigned the task of compiling catalogues. In this work his aptitude for precise statement and for the clear differentiation of peculiarities found ample scope. The printed catalogues compiled by him have become classics among horticulturists. His descriptions set a standard which rival establishments were unable to attain, and they have been copied extensively by other firms, who thereby contributed to the spread of his unrecognized influence upon American gardening.

He was just beginning to realize the opportunities for original investigation which the making of catalogues offered, when his employers sent him to Colombia to collect orchids. During the eighteen months he was in South America, he made three trips to the head of navigation on the Magdalena River, nine hundred miles, bringing down a thousand cases of Cattleya Trianae. An equal number of cases containing some of the rarest and most beautiful orchids ever collected were transported in canoes a distance of nearly two thousand miles, from Arauca down the Orinoco River to Bolivar, whence they were shipped to the United States. He also made a collection of butterflies and bird skins for his own amusement while he was in the interior. The systematic notebooks in which the record of this trip is preserved and the delightful gossipy letters to his mother furnish an abundant store of general ethnological and geographical, as well as special botanical, information.

On April 18, 1893, he wrote from his camp on a sand-bar in a stream which is one of the upper tributaries of the Orinoco. In a hollow he had found a nest of alligator's eggs. 'As the man started to dig out the eggs we heard the little darlings down below barking like puppies. They were just hatching and several little lizards had their snouts out of the shells. We helped a couple out and they were fierce as their mamma who, 12 or 15 feet long, was meanwhile swimming back and forth with the top of her head above water, in the river in front. The eggs were perhaps 4 inches long, ellipsoidal, and with a very delicate calcareous shell which dropped off almost when touched, leaving the thickish membrane behind. The young alligator was something like 8 inches long.

'After supper I smoked a cigar and swung in the hammock looking at the stars and thinking of home. The new moon "holding the old moon in its arms" was just setting as also was Orion. Immediately over me was Denabola the jewel in the handle of the "sickle." In the east the Southern Cross was just rising. The men settled themselves to sleep, two in hammocks on the sand, the others on the top of the cabin of the boat, and I was alone, awake there beside that softly flowing river beneath the Southern Cross. Now and then were soft lightning flashes in the west, and ever and anon flew overhead some belated crane the pulsing sound of whose beating wings came down to me like the whirr of the feathered angelic hosts in Eternal Paradise. In this happy and satisfied state of mind I dozed off to sleep, but for a few moments only, for soon I was rudely awakened by a not gentle rap on my head with a club the size of my arm, which raised a bump half the size of an alligator's egg, and I found myself on the sand. I had dropped from Heaven slap upon old Mother Earth. I thought the mother alligator had come out to revenge the death of her three children. But on looking into the matter and rubbing my head awhile I found that what had happened was that one of the posts of my hammock had broken off at the ground. I concluded to pass the rest of the night on board. About 2 a.m. the cook woke me with his cup of coffee and I climbed out on the roof and lay down to enjoy the breeze of the motion of the boat.'

The financial disturbance of 1893 upset the market for orchids, and before the end of that year Livingston was once more in the book business. A few months with W. R. Benjamin enabled him to become familiar with the trade in autographs, and then he went back to Dodd, Mead & Company, with whom he was identified until his physical disaster in 1912.

The New England inheritance led him to make possible for his younger brother the college education which had been denied himself. The economies which this required were among his fondest memories. If the thought of envy of his brother's brilliant career ever entered his head, no outsider had a chance to suspect that he wondered whether he might have done as well. The generous recognition of all that he had done, and the reputation won by the use of opportunities, was the more than satisfactory reward. The wonder in Livingston's own mind, during the last few months, was that the chance for a wider fame and a more eminent position in the world of scholars, had come to him, a book seller's clerk who had never entered college.

In 1898 he married Flora V. Milner of Deer Lodge, Montana, a friend of his boyhood. Mr. and Mrs. Livingston made their home at Scarsdale, nineteen miles north of New York City. There he found three acres of woods, cliffs, swamp and proper soil for the garden into which he put the happiest part of every week. Under his wizard touch, this little country home lot became a botanical museum. Month by month he added to his treasures until he was nearing the consummation of his ambition to possess a healthy growing specimen of every variety of flowering plant that could be induced to take root in the latitude and longitude of New York City. There were oriental poppies of all colours, by the thousands, iris from March to July, rock plants from all over the world covering the cliffs and ledges, tulips in profusion of species. The 'Matilija' poppy from lower California and Japanese anemones running wild were only two of the attractions which drew to this little garden on every Sunday a steadily widening group of friends. The flowering shrubs were overshadowed by conifers from the far corners of the globe; Sequoia gigantea from the slopes of the Pacific coast ranges, Torreyas from Florida, Banksian pines from Hudson's Bay, deodars from India. The parting from that garden within sight of the reflected lights of Broadway was not least among the tragedies of Livingston's last year.

When the members of the firm of Dodd, Mead & Company, in 1910, decided to devote their energies to the wholesale publishing business, Robert H. Dodd entered into a separate partnership with Livingston under the name of Dodd & Livingston. Livingston's remarkable memory for minute details and his ability to recognize peculiarities in volumes with which he was unfamiliar had long been an important asset which did much to give the house its preëminent position among American dealers in rare old books. These qualities combined with the instinctive confidence which every one who dealt with him felt in his frankness and sincerity, gave the new firm an unassailable position. His visit to London in 1911 strengthened personal friendships with nearly every English collector of consequence, and put him in the way to become the best known book seller on either side of the Atlantic.

By a curious fatality, it was on the day the Titanic sank, April 15, 1912, that Livingston collapsed under his own weight, with a broken thigh, at his home in Scarsdale. Six months before, he had slipped on wet leaves in the garden and broken a leg and arm, which healed unsatisfactorily. After the second accident, the doctors sought for the cause. They found that through some strange vagary of his physical system, which had been anaemic from childhood, the organs had ceased to send lime to the bones. No one who saw him during the months that followed this discovery is likely to forget the brave, wistful smile with which he remarked that he was assured of lasting fame, not because of anything that he had written, but as an extraordinary medical phenomenon. The medical people have their own names for the things that ailed him, and he was of sufficient importance, from their point of view, to be transferred to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. There Dr. McCrudden and his collaborators experimented with him until treatment was found that proved helpful. The bones showed stronger in the x-ray prints, and the doctors told him that maybe some day he might walk again. When his improvement was assured, Mrs. George D. Widener asked him to become the first Librarian of the Harry Elkins Widener Collection, in charge of the Memorial rooms which are the center of the great library building at Harvard which perpetuates the memory of what she, and Harvard, and book lovers everywhere, lost when the Titanic went down.

The appointment was recognized by every one as the best that could have been made. The business acquaintanceship between the book seller and the collector began soon after Harry Widener graduated from Harvard. It quickly ripened into warm personal friendship. 'He loved you, Mr. Livingston, and has talked to me so often of your knowledge and the help you were to him in advising him about books,' wrote the mother, in her first letter referring to the plans for the Memorial. 'Hundreds of times he has told me, that when he could afford it, he would love to have you for his private librarian. You were so congenial with him and he loved working with you.'

The knowledge that the doctors expected him to live, and that for the first time in his life he was to have leisure and opportunity to do the things which he knew, as well as any one, that he could do better than anybody else, gave Livingston the interest in living which was worth more than all the medicines. He planned to spend the summer of 1914 on the Massachusetts North Shore, and stopped in Boston on the way, to break the journey and to visit the half-finished Widener Memorial building. He chanced to be in Cambridge during Commencement week, and Mr. Lane invited him to attend the Phi Beta Kappa dinner. He went in his wheeled chair, and to his surprise, consternation almost, for he knew of Harvard mostly by tradition, he found that he was the only person who was surprised at his being placed among the guests at the speakers' table. This was the first of many incidents which made the closing months of his life happier than he had imagined possible. He found himself more than welcomed by people whose names he knew and honoured. As these men and women came to see him, at first through neighbourly sympathy, their respect for his ability rapidly developed to admiration for his bravery and love for one of the sweetest natures this world has ever known.

During the summer at Pigeon Cove, it became evident that the doctors, in fighting to restore the strength to his bones, had drawn too heavily upon the rest of his weakened system. He did not die, because of an unalterable determination to live until he had justified the faith and repaid the kindnesses of his old and new friends. He went to a Boston hospital for observation, and then settled in his bed at Cambridge to prolong the fight, on his nerve, with a superb courage, after the physical machine was ready to stop. The doctors did what they could, and he did more, but the odds were all against him. Life went out on the morning of December 24.

The Corporation of Harvard University appointed him Librarian of the Harry Elkins Widener Collection at its meeting on November 30, 1914. Four weeks later he was buried from Appleton Chapel, by the College Preacher. The body rests at Mount Auburn, under a beautiful pine tree.

Livingston's first publication was an anonymous pamphlet entitled 'Chrysanthemums' which was issued by his employers, Pitcher & Manda, at Short Hills in 1893. It was a separate reprint from a portion of their regular catalogue for the autumn of that year. This brochure attracted considerable attention at the time among horticulturists, and it has provided the substance and much of the phraseology for articles on that plant printed since its appearance.

Most of his bibliographical work was done with books which were in his hands pending their sale by Dodd, Mead & Company. The unusual value of the catalogues issued by that house was recognized widely for some time before bookmen who were not conversant with the New York trade gossip became aware of Livingston's part in them. The extent to which his notes on rare volumes and peculiar editions have been copied by other book sellers is the convincing tribute to the thoroughness with which he exhausted each subject that he undertook to examine.

Many of the choicest books that changed hands during the latter part of the nineteenth century became the property of Elihu Dwight Church of Brooklyn. When his library began to surpass other private collections of Americana and of English literature, Mr. Church asked Livingston to make a printed catalogue of his books. Much of the work of collating as well as the preparation of historical and bibliographical notes had been done before the books were sold to Mr. Church, but this material had to be revised and verified, and each volume re-examined for minute peculiarities. Livingston drew up the general plan for the catalogue and all the models for collations, descriptions and notes. It soon became evident that the details of the catalogue were taking time that he might better employ on the current work of the business. The editorial labour was therefore turned over in November, 1901, to George Watson Cole, by whom it was carried through to a successful completion in 1909. Livingston took a keen interest in the progress of the work, reading all the proofs with great care, and the decision on questions of policy and arrangement ordinarily rested with him.

A number of his trade catalogues developed into regular bibliographies. It was thoroughly characteristic of his attitude toward his work, that when he described any set of books, for sale, he pointed out the titles which were not included, with the same care that he gave to describing the choicest treasures in the offering.

Livingston's name first appeared on a title-page on the first volume of 'American Book Prices Current,' which was published in 1895. The work of compiling the material for this volume was done entirely by him. He was assisted in the work for the succeeding volumes by Miss Ida Stewart and by Miss C. E. Dyett, who gradually took almost entire charge of the routine compilation and the preparation of copy for the printer.

The mass of information contained in the first ten volumes of this series was sifted together, rearranged in alphabetical order and combined with the important part of the English publication with the same title, in the four volumes, 'Auction Prices of Books,' published in 1905.

From 1898 to 1901 he was a regular contributor to The Bookman. Most of his articles appeared under the department headings, 'The Book Hunter' and 'The Book Mart.' He also wrote two series on 'The First Books of some American Authors' and 'The First Books of some English Authors.' A few of these were reprinted in separate form. Stevenson's 'An Object of Pity, or The Man Haggard,' was prepared for publication in this magazine but a change in editorial policy led to the decision not to use it, after it was in type, and so it was issued independently in a limited edition.

He was an active member of the group that tried to establish The Bibliographer as the American organ for those interested in bookish technicalities. During 1902 and 1903 he prepared for it facsimile reprints of two important early American tracts and of the first edition of Milton's Comus. Each of these was reissued in separate form. He also edited facsimiles of a rare German edition of the Vespucius Voyages and of the first edition of Bacon's Essaies. He planned to republish a number of other rare tracts of this character, in connection with his work at Harvard. The first of these, Captain John Smith's Circular or Prospectus of his Generall Historie, was in type before he died, and has been issued, as he intended, by Mrs. Livingston.

In 1905 he began to contribute regularly to the New York Evening Post and The Nation under the heading 'News for Bibliophiles' upon such subjects as 'Shakespeare Quartos,' 'The Most Valuable American Printed Book,' 'The Van Antwerp Library,' 'A New Manuscript of Poe,' 'Early Books about New Jersey,' and 'A New Old-Book Firm.' A few articles of the same character were written for 'The Bibliographer' column of the Boston Evening Transcript. The Nation articles on 'The Robert Hoe Library,' 'Beverly Chew and his Books' and 'The Harry Elkins Widener Stevenson Collection' were reprinted in pamphlet form.

The trade catalogues of sets of Kipling and Tennyson proved so helpful to collectors that he was induced to prepare similar descriptions of the first editions of Pope, Mark Twain, Meredith and Swinburne. These were privately printed for the owners of sets of books by these authors, which Livingston had been largely instrumental in enlarging. These led naturally to his assuming the task of completing 'The Chamberlain Bibliographies' of Longfellow and Lowell, which were based on the researches and notes of Jacob Chester Chamberlain of New York City, and printed by Mrs. Chamberlain as a memorial of his absorbing interest in American authors.

Livingston's appreciation of the point of view of scholars as well as that of book collectors had an opportunity for expression in the 'Bibliography of Charles and Mary Lamb,' printed in 1903 for J. A. Spoor of Chicago. Here also he demonstrated his ability to treat the dryest details of bibliography in such a manner as to bring out their importance to the history of literature, and his skill in making a readable presentation of such minutiae. These characteristics, the marks of genuine scholarship, developed rapidly during the ensuing decade. Self-educated, and always a student, he wrote carefully, as to expression as well as facts, and his style, as he came to write more easily, reflected the accuracy of his instincts, lightened by the buoyancy of his nature.

The satisfactory appearance of Livingston's last, and most important, publication gladdened the final month of his life. This volume grew out of a plan to write a description of a single volume belonging to one of his best friends. Under the incentive of a request from the publication committee of the Grolier Club, of New York, it was expanded into an exhaustive study of 'Franklin and his Press at Passy.' His instinct for the meaning of the half-hidden evidence of the physical makeup of a pamphlet, worked just as surely when applied to the interpretation of written documents. His ingrained habit of refusing to form an opinion or to state his conclusions as long as the evidence seemed incomplete, maintained his interest in researches long after his associates had decided that there was nothing left to be discovered. He would not begin to write until he knew what he wanted to say. The consequence was that when he wrote, he expressed himself confidently and readably. The volume on Franklin and his French printing press will long stand as the entirely adequate example of what a bibliographical investigation ought to produce.

Written for, and first printed in, the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.

Two hundred copies printed at the Montague Press in April, 1915.