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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/A Maniac's Confession

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 18‎ | Number 106


I AM a maniac. I have for some years been the victim of a peculiar insanity, which has greatly distressed several of my friends and relatives. They generally soften it in their talk by the name monomania; but they do not hesitate to aver, when speaking their minds, that it has in truth infected my whole soul, and made me incapable of doing or thinking anything useful or rational. This sad delusion, which they endeavor to remove by serious advice, by playful banter, or by seeming to take an interest in my folly for a moment, is encountered with great acrimony by less gentle friends. They who are not bound to me by blood or intimacy—and some who are—deride, insult, and revile me in every way for my subjection to a mental aberration which is rapidly consuming a pretty property, more than average talents, and unrivalled opportunities.

Of course, like all madmen, I think just the reverse. When the fit is on me, I assert that this fever—this madness—far from being the bane of my life, is a blessing to it; that I am habitually devoting money, time, and wits to an object at once beautiful and elevating; that I have found consolation in its visions for many sufferings, which all the amusements offered me by my revilers are utterly inadequate to touch. I declare that I have found a better investment for my money than all the West Virginia coal companies that ever sunk oil-wells, and am making more useful acquaintances than if I danced every German during the season. I have not been shut up yet, for my friends know that, if they attempt any such thing, the Finance Committee on the Harvard Memorial and Alumni Hall are in possession of a bond conveying all my money to them; so I am still at large, scolded by my brother Henry, laughed at by my sister Bathsheba, the aversion of Beacon Street, and the scorn of Winthrop Square.

The other day, I took a little journey to Europe, with the view of feeding my madness on that whereby it grows. My friends did not choose to stop me, for they thought the charms of foreign travel might win me from my waywardness. To be sure, when they found, on my return, that I had never left England, they were convinced, if never before, that I was hopelessly insane; for what American, they very sanely said, "would stay in that dull, dingy island, among those stupid, cowardly bullies, when he might live in that lovely Paris, the most interesting and amusing city in the world, unless he were incomprehensibly mad." And, in truth, I begin to think I must be mad, when I find myself, like the man shut up with eleven obstinate jurymen, alone in thinking England a gay, beautiful, happy country, teeming with every gratification of art or nature, and inhabited by a manly, generous, and intelligent race; and that life in Paris, as Americans live it, is a senseless rush after excitement, where comfort is abandoned for unreal luxury, and society for vicious boon-companionship. Still I am very willing to admit that my special mania can be very capitally gratified in Paris, and I am meditating a little trip there for the purpose.

On my return from England, I was observed to be in great distress about a certain box that I missed at Liverpool, looked for at Halifax, and all but lost at East Boston; and when it was found and opened, it only contained two suits of clothes, when, as Henry said, "I might have brought forty, the only thing they did have decent in England," and all the rest—mad, mad! I beg the readers of the Atlantic to listen to my humble confession of madness, as it culminated in this box.

It is this. The most valuable property a man can possibly have is books; if he has a hundred or a thousand dollars to spare, he had better at once put it into books than into any "paying investments," or any horses, clothes, pictures, or opera-tickets. A life passed among books, thinking, talking, living only for books, is the most amusing and improving life; and to make this possible, the acquisition of a library should be the first object of any one who makes any claim to the possession of luxuries. (My madness only allows me to make one exception,—I do acknowledge the solemn duty of laying in a stock of old Madeira.) But so far I have many fellow-maniacs. The special reason why I ought always to stop the Lowell cars at Somerville is, that I consider the reading of books only half the battle. I must have them in choice bindings, in rare imprints, in original editions, and in the most select forms. I must have several copies of a book I have read forty times, as long as there is anything about each copy that makes it peculiar, sui generis. I must own the first edition of Paradise Lost, because it is the first, and in ten books; the second, because it is the first in twelve; then Newton's, then Todd's, then Mitford's, and so on, till my catalogue of Miltons gets to equal Jeames de la Pluche's portraits of the "Dook." "And when," as Henry indignantly says, "he could read Milton all he wanted to, more than I should ever want to, notes and all, in Little and Brown's edition that father gave him, he must go spending money on a parcel of old truck printed a thousand years ago." Mad, quite mad.

Now, to finish the melancholy picture, I am classic mad. I prefer the ancient authors, decidedly, to the moderns. I love them as I never can the moderns; they are my most intimate friends, my heart's own darlings. And how I love to lavish money on them, to see them adorned in every way! How I love to heap them up, Aldines, and Elzevirs, and Baskervilles, and Biponts, in all their grace and majesty. This was what filled that London box. This was all I had to show for twenty-five or thirty guineas of good money; a parcel of trumpery old Greek and Latin books I had by dozens already! Mad, mad.

Will you come in and see them, ladies and gentlemen? Here they are, all ranged out on my table, large and small, clean and dirty. What have we first?

A goodly fat quarto in white vellum, "Plinii Panegyricus, cum notis Schwarzii, Norimbergæ, 1733." A fine, clean, fresh copy,—one of those brave old Teutonic classics of the last century, less exquisitely printed than the Elzevirs, less learnedly critical than the later Germans, but perfectly trustworthy and satisfactory, and attracting every one's eye on a library shelf, by the rich sturdiness of their creamy binding, that smacks of the true Dutch and German burgher wealth. The model of them all is Oudendorp's Cæsar. But there is nothing very great about Pliny's Panegyric, and a man must be a very queer bibliomaniac who would buy up all the vellum classics of the last century he saw. Look inside the cover; read under the book-plate the engraved name, "Edward Gibbon, Esq." What will you, my sanest friend, not give for a book that belonged to the author of the "Decline and Fall"?

The next is also a large quarto, but of a very different character. It is the Baskerville impression of the elegiac poets,—Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius: Birmingham, 1772. No books are more delightful to sight and touch than the Baskerville classics. This Catullus of mine is printed on the softest and glossiest post paper, with a mighty margin of two inches and a half at the side, and rich broad letters,—the standard n is a tenth of an inch wide,—of a glorious blackness in spite of their ninety-two years of age. The classics of all languages have never been more fitly printed than by Baskerville; and the present book may serve as an admirable lesson to those who think a large-paper book means an ordinary octavo page printed in the middle of a quarto leaf,—for instance; Irving's Washington. My Catullus is bound in glossy calf, with a richly gilt back, and bears within the inscription, "From H. S. C. | to her valued friend | Doctor Southey | Febʸ yᵉ 24th, 1813," in a true English lady's hand. This cannot be the poet Southey, who was not made LL. D. till 1821; but it may be his brother, Henry Herbert Southey, M. D.

Next comes a very neat and compact little Seneca, in four 18mo volumes, bound in rich old Russia, and bearing the esteemed imprint, "Amstelodami apud Ludovicum et Danielem Elzevirios, M.D.CLVIII." As the Baskerville classics are the noblest for the library table, so the Elzevirs are the neatest and prettiest for the pocket or the lecture-room. And to their great beauty of mechanical execution is generally added a scrupulous textual accuracy, which the great Birmingham printer did not boast. This edition of Seneca, for instance, is that of Gronovius. His dedicatory epistle, and the title-pages of Vols. II., III. and IV., are all dated 1658, but the general title-page in Vol. I. is 1659, as if, like White's Shakespeare, the first volume was the last published. Contrasting a bijou edition with a magnificent one, it may be noted that in the Elzevir the four words and two stops, "Moriar: die ergo verum," occupy just an inch, exactly the space of the one word "compositis" in the Baskerville; but the printing of each is in its way exquisite.

Just about a century after the Elzevirs, and contemporary with Baskerville, an English publisher of the name of Sandby, who appears to have been, as we should say, the University printer and bookseller at Cambridge, projected a series of classics, which are highly prized on large paper and not despised on small. I possess two of the latter, a Terence and a Juvenal; the second, curiously enough, lettered "Juvenalus," a regular binder's blunder. They are called pocket editions, but are much larger than the Elzevirs, and, though very pretty, just miss that peculiar beauty and finish which have made the former the delight of all scholars. There is a carelessness somewhere—it is hard to say where—about the printing, which prevents their being perfect; but a "Sandby" is a very nice thing.

My next "wanity" is a Virgil,—Justice's Virgil; a most elaborate and elegant edition, in five octavo volumes, published in the middle of the last century. It is noted, first, for the great richness and beauty of its engravings from ancient gems, coins, and drawings, which form an unrivalled body of illustration to the text. But, secondly, it will be seen, on inspection, that the whole book is one vast engraving, every line, word, and letter being cut on a metallic plate. Consequently, only every other page is printed on. The same idea was still more perfectly carried out by Pine, a few years later, who executed all Horace in this way, but only lived to complete one volume of Virgil, choicer even than Justice's. It is well bound, in perfect order, and ranks with the choicest of ornamental classics.

Side by side with this Virgil is another, the rare Elzevir Virgil, and a gem, if ever there was one. It is the corrected text of Heinsius, and thus has a fair claim to rank as the earliest of the modern critical editions of Maro. The elegance of this little book in size and shape, the clearness and beauty of the type, and the truly classical taste and finish of the whole design, can never be surpassed in Virgilian bibliography, unless by Didot's matchless little copies. Elzevir Virgils are common enough; but mine is, as I have said, the rare Elzevir, known by the pages introductory to the Eclogues and Æneid being printed in rubric, while the ordinary Elzevirs have them in black. It dates 1637,—the year when John Harvard left his money to the College at Newtowne, and the first printing-press in the United States was set up hard by.

The books, then, that I have described so far all date within the two hundred and thirty years of our collegiate history. But I have behind three of an earlier—a much earlier date; books which John Cotton and Charles Chauncy might have gazed upon as old in Emmanuel College Library.

First, I show you a pair of Aldines, and, what is better, a pair editionum principum,—the first Sophocles and the first Thucydides. Both have the proper attestation at the end that they come from the Aldi in Venice in the year 1502,—the Thucydides in May, and the Sophocles in August; hence the former has not the Aldine anchor at the extreme end. Both are in exquisitely clean condition; but the Sophocles, though taller than other known copies of the same edition, has suffered from the knife of a modern binder, who otherwise has done his work with the greatest elegance and judgment. The Thucydides has a grand page, over twelve inches by eight; the Sophocles is about seven by four. The type of both is small, and, though distinct, especially the Thucydides, not at all what we should call elegant. In fact, elegant Greek type is a very late invention. There is, I believe, no claim to textual criticism in these early Aldines; the publishers printed from such manuscripts as they could get. The Thucydides has a long dedicatory address by Aldus to a Roman patrician; the Sophocles has no such introduction. But it is, at any rate, most curious to consider that these two writers, who stand at the very head of Greek, or at least Attic, prose and verse, both for matter and style, should not have found a printer till the fifteenth century was long past, and then in a style which, for the Sophocles, can only be called neat. The Thucydides is handsome, but far inferior to the glory of the princeps Homer. And to own them—for a maniac—O, it is glorious!

Last comes my special treasure,—my fifteener,—my book as old as America,—my darling copy of my darling author. Here, at the culmination of my madness, my friends, especially my brother Henry, are all ready to say at once what author I mean. For it has been my special mania for twenty years—thereby causing the deepest distress to nearly all my friends, even those who have been thought fellow-lunatics, except one,[1] who is for me about the only sane man alive—to prefer Virgil to all authors, living or dead, and to seek to accumulate as many different editions and copies of him as possible. I have in these pages chronicled two. My library holds twelve more, besides two translations, and I consider myself very short; for to my mind no breadth of paper, no weight of binding, no brilliancy of print, no delicacy of engraving, no elaboration of learning, can ever do honor enough to the last and best of the ancients, who was all but the first of the Christians,—who would have been, if his frame had not broken down under a genius too mighty and a soul too sweet for earth. (Mad, you see, beyond all question. Virgil is allowed to be a servile copyist, far inferior to Lucretius. Compare Lucr. V. 750 with Georg. II. 478, and Heyne's note.) This Virgil of mine bears the imprint of Antony Koburger, Nuremberg, 1492. It is in the original binding of very solid boards overlaid with stamped vellum, and is still clasped with the original skin and metal. It is a small folio, on very coarse paper, and the only one of my rare classics not in the cleanest condition. Its stains appear to be caused by its use in a school; for it is covered with notes, in German current hand, very antiquated, and very elementary in their scholarship. It has all the poetry ascribed to Virgil, and the Commentaries of Servius and Landini, which are so voluminous that the page looks like a ha'p'orth of sack to an intolerable deal of very dry bread. It is very rare, being unknown to the great Dibdin, and was snapped up by me for three guineas out of a London bookseller's catalogue. A Virgil printed by Koburger in the year America was discovered, original binding and clasps, not in Dibdin, for three guineas! Hurrah! It excites my madness so that I must rush straight to Piper's and buy right and left. Kind friends, come and take me away ere I am reduced to beggary.

  1. F. W. H. M., you know I mean you.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.