History in a book

Frontispiece to Bradford’s Journal.
Credit: Doris Ulman.
I’ve been reading Gamaliel Bradford’s Journal the last few days. Bradford was born in 1863 and died in 1932: old enough to have met Emerson, young enough to have seen the first talkies. (He didn’t meet Emerson, so far as I know, but he did write a page of his journal in the Old Manse, at the table where Emerson and Hawthorne had written years before.) He’s best known for his “psychography”, portraits in the manner of Sainte-Beuve. Those I’ve read (in Bare Souls, a book on authors seen through their letters) are quite good. They’re old-fashioned, I suppose. Bradford, in the years he was writing his portraits, was quite consciously not of his time. You won’t find him speculating on his subjects’ bed-partners, or showing them up in the manner of Lytton Strachey. He was no prude, but he had too sympathetic a temperament for dirt-digging. His books were popular enough, to judge from the numbers I see at the used book sites; nowadays I doubt that anyone reads him except the odd Americanist or accidental readers like me.
The copy I’m reading has no dust jacket, but someone has pasted pieces of it inside the front cover. That someone might be Mr. von Wackerbarth:
This bookplate I found tucked near the back. Did Henry von Wackerbarth really have almost 9000 books? (At least one other book from his library still exists: a history of Kansas and the Santa Fe trade by Max Greene, published in 1856. ) The address is in an old suburb called Beverly. An archive of photos from the Chicago Daily News includes a photo of 9533 Longwood, a large detached house surrounded by trees, the residence of John E. W. Wayman, state’s attorney. Henry von Wackerbarth probably lived in something similar. In 1928 there was a park across the street (according to a land-value map at the Ridge Historical Society). A comfortable existence, one would guess.
Henry von Wackerbarth not only read books, he wrote them. A search turned up the following:
The history of Adams County,
a history of the county—its cities, towns, etc.
A biographical directory of its citizens, war record of its
volunteers of the late rebellion; general
and local statistics, 
portraits of early settlers and prominent men.
History of the northwest, history of illinois,
map of Adams County, constitution of the United States,
miscellaneous matters, etc., etc.
Henry Von Wackerbarth
315 Royal Insurance Building, Chicago, Ill.

Murray, Williamson & Phelps,
85 Washington St.
The page, at Saints Alive, a group that tries to return Mormons to the Christian Church, includes a section from the History on the “Mormon wars” at Nauvoo, Illinois. I’m not sure that this Henry von Wackerbarth and the Henry of the bookplate are the same person. Bradford’s book was published in 1933, fifty-four years after the History was published. Our author would have been either precocious or long-lived. Or it may be that the bookplate wasn’t originally attached to Bradford’s Journal.
Books are mechanically reproduced. Fresh off the press, they lack the uniqueness which lends to artworks what Walter Benjamin called their “aura”. It would be a defect if one copy differed from another. But a book is a physical object. In its passage through time it accumulates individuality, you might say, and takes on more and more the character of an artwork. This is evident in the case of signed or annotated copies, like the many books in whose margins and endpapers Coleridge deposited his thoughts. But even the most ordinary can become, for you or me, an “association copy”, bearing marks that set it apart from its mass-produced siblings.
Digitization puts an end to that. History is noise; digital reproduction is noiseless. That is an advantage, but it has the effect of erasing history. Time cannot improve a digitized work; time can only degrade it. If the medium is decrepit, the file is unreadable. Time destroys printed works too. I have a few books of which I am very likely to be the last owner, books without covers, books whose spines are several times broken, books on paper that will disintegrate in another generation or so. But a well-made book that has not had too hard a life becomes a document of its own reception in a way that no digital file can be.
That’s not to say that works in a digital medium can’t show their age. Take a look at some of my old pages at the Wayback archive. A bit quaint in their technique…
() Update: The indefatigable PhFn research team has found more Wackerbarth books. The first of these is worth a look for its own sake:
Johann Huebner. Reales Staats-, Zeitungs- und Conversations-Lexicon. Darinnen so wohl Die Religionen und geistlichen Orden, die Reiche und Staaten, Meere, Seen, Insuln, Flüsse, Städte, Festungen, Schlösser, Häfen, Berge, Vorgebürge, Pässe und Wälder, die Linien Deutscher hoher Häuser, die in verschiedenen Ländern übliche so geistliche als weltliche Ritter-Orden, Wapen, Reichs-Täge, gelehrte Societäten, Gerichte, Civil- und Militair-Chargen zu Wasser und Lande, der Unterscheid der Meilen, vornehmsten Müntzen, Maaß und Gewichte, die zur Kriegs-Bau-Kunst, Artillerie, Feld-Lägern, Schlacht-Ordnungen, Belagerungen, Schiffahrten, Unterscheid der Schiffe und der dazu gehörigen Sachen gebräuchlichen Benennungen; Als auch Andere in Zeitungen und täglicher Conversation. Leipzig: Gleditsch, 1744.
I think what impresses me most is the author’s confidence that all these things will come up in täglicher (daily) conversation. Hübner’s work is $1100. If that would leave your pocketbook a bit flat, for $50 you can buy another book owned by Wackerbarth:
Carl Theodor Wettstein, ed. Was Abraham Lincoln an infidel? The religious character of Abraham Lincoln as it appears in the light of his spoken and written word. Boston: Cm. M. Clark, 1910.
The answer, by the way, is no.

LinkSeptember 3, 2006 in Literature · Reading Notes