Thursday, August 23, 2018

Christopher Morley — A Life in Books

     Lee Harrer has enriched the TBAS Special Collections Library with another generous gift: his collection of Christopher Morley books and ephemera lovingly assembled over several decades. TBAS associate Sean Donnelly recently brought half a dozen empty boxes to Lee’s home and gently packed the collection for its journey from Clearwater to Tampa. As Sean cataloged the collection, he looked over its many gems with Richard Mathews and Joshua Steward, and they decided the books would make a great exhibit. This tribute to Morley and our friend Lee can now be seen on the second floor of the Macdonald-Kelce Library.

     The most striking thing about the books is their visual appeal, thanks to the fact that Lee bought examples that include the scarce jackets. These jackets from the 1910s to the 1940s reflect the artistic styles of the time. The influence of Art Deco is perhaps the most obvious, but even within that idiom there is great variety. The jackets designed for the books of this popular and prolific author provide a microcosmic glimpse of the entire period between 1919 and 1940.

     Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was a “man of letters” in the classic sense. Over the course of a forty-year career he wrote everything: essays, poetry, novels, short stories, journalism, plays, and biography. His popularity made him a public figure and he used that fame to share his love of literature. He did so as a columnist for the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post; as contributing editor of the Saturday Review of Literature; as one of the founders of The Baker Street Irregulars, the most famous club devoted to Sherlock Holmes; and as editor of two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

     Beginning with The Eighth Sin, published in 1912 while he was studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, he embarked on a prolific career, often publishing more than one book a year. By the time a series of strokes slowed him down in the early 1950s, he had more than 100 books to his credit. Most of them were published by “the trade,” that is to say major publishing houses like Doubleday and Lippincott. Those books are the basis for the part of this exhibit entitled “Between the Wars: Book Jacket Design, 1919-1940.” Eighteen books were chosen to show the range of handsome work done by American publishers during the period. They are in the window display. A complementary selection of books representing Morley's private press publications is on display in an adjacent standing case.

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~ The Display ~

The last title shown in the window display (bottom shelf, far right), Kitty Foyle, was
Morley’s greatest literary success, selling over one million copies. It was also adapted
into an Oscar-winning film that starred Ginger Rogers.

(A portion of the pamphlet accompanying the exhibit is shown below. Included is a catalog of
titles selected for the two parts of the exhibit: jacket designs, and private press publications.)

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Morley’s Private Press Publications 

     Aside from his “trade” publications, Morley is also well-represented as the author of many books published by the private presses of his day. The interwar period was a Golden Age for the American private press movement. Despite the Depression, book lovers found the money to support these independent ventures. Their books are distinguished by the high quality of their printing, their small limited editions, and their distinguished designs. 

     One of Morley’s private press books, In Modern Dress (1929), was an early publication of the Peter Pauper Press. Their books are close to the hearts of the Tampa Book Arts Studio’s staff because one of the best Peter Pauper Press collections to be found anywhere is right here in our TBAS library. The collection was made by J. B. Dobkin and then donated to the Book Arts Studio. The standard reference book on the Peter Pauper Press—The Peter Pauper Press of Peter and Edna Beilenson, 1928-1978—was based in large part on this collection.

     One other title found in the case lies a little outside the scope of the exhibit, but no bibliophile would forgive us for excluding Morley’s paean to bookstores and those who love them: The Haunted Bookshop (Doubleday, Page - 1919). This is a sequel of sorts to Parnassus on Wheels (1917), which introduced the bookstore’s owner, Roger Mifflin.