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Archive for July, 2012

In 1949, the Amherst College Masquers dramatic society was at the center of a group of Shakespearean firsts. Their production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by Professor Curtis Canfield (AC 1925), became the first play ever produced on the Elizabethan-style stage of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.  This was also the first modern production of “Julius Caesar” to reproduce the play “as it might have been staged in Shakespeare’s time.”* It followed the text from the original 1623 First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and the costumes were Elizabethan–“not even slightly Roman,” wrote Canfield (most modern productions were treated as Roman period dramas). And on April 3 of that year, their performance was the focus of an experimental broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) from the Folger Library’s stage, becoming the first nationally televised, full-length performance of a Shakespeare play.

The Amherst College Masquers, performing “Julius Caesar” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1949. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

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Otis Cary, 1989. Source: Otis Cary and His Broad Vision, 1921-2006

During World War II, whenever fellow Americans asked Otis Cary (AC 1943) where he came from, he felt pained to have to answer “Massachusetts.”  It was a half-truth.  Though the product of Deerfield Academy and Amherst College (the latter having also educated his father and grandfather before him), Otis Cary was born and raised in Japan.  He always considered it his home.  His family’s roots there, in fact, reach back to his grandfather Otis Cary (AC 1872), who arrived as a Christian missionary in 1878, a mere 24 years after the opening of that long-secluded country to foreigners.  The younger Cary thus developed absolute fluency in Japanese — not just linguistic, but cultural.  When he died in 2006, having served as a professor and Director of Amherst House at Doshisha University for 45 years (Amherst’s sister institution in Kyoto), he was widely considered one of the foremost American authorities on Japanese culture.

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One of my absolute favorite books about the history of printing, publishing, selling, and reading books is The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period by William St. Clair (Cambridge, 2004). St. Clair spends a lot of time exploring the ways that copyright law determines what books are available and how they are priced and sold. For instance, during what he calles the “brief copyright window, 1774-1808” hundreds of texts were suddenly in the public domain for the first time. In 1774 the House of Lords declared that perpetual copyright was illegal and that the fourteen year limit established in 1710 was the law of the land.

What this meant in practical terms is that anyone with a press could now print up their own editions of Chaucer, Milton, Swift, Dryden, Spencer, and others. If everyone could print the same texts, one way to differentiate your product from the inferior output of your competition was through editorial apparatus — introductions, author portraits, and notes. Thomas F. Bonnell’s book, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry, 1765-1810 (Oxford, 2008) examines the efforts of several publishers competing for the expanding British reading public. This week I just want to call attention to one item in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections that was sold by one of the more enterprising publishers of public domain material.

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Dick Turpin in 'The Blue Dwarf'

Dick Turpin in ‘The Blue Dwarf’

In 19th century England, Dick Turpin was a name as famous (or infamous) as Robin Hood or Sweeney Todd. Stories of these and other “virtuous” criminals sold hundreds of thousands of copies of serialized books which were soon named “penny bloods” or “penny dreadfuls.” Beginning in the 1820s and declining by the 1890s, penny dreadfuls were often published on a weekly basis. For your penny, you usually got 8 pages of cheaply-made paper containing a lurid story that might pick up in the middle of the sentence it had ended with the week before. Stories stretched out over forty or sixty weeks, sometimes longer. Our copy of The Mysteries of London (George W. M. Reynolds) was published over 209 weekly parts between 1845 and 1848. Pulp fiction, dime novels, comic books and television soap operas are all distant descendants of the penny dreadful.

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