New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1846. First Edition. Wrappers. 1st edition of a critical link in the chain of the modern short story, the first American literary invention (by Washington Irving in 1819). 1st printing (Clark A15.1.a), 1st binding and 1st issue, a passionworthy and precious survivor in original wrappers with all the 1st state points stressed by Clark. And beyond Clark, our 2 vols. have matching back covers with 17 titles listed ending with Mosses (Clark says no priority among the 4 varieties, but it is not a wild guess that priority will be figured out, because publishers usually first used ads most current with the book). A feted rarity, and all copies in cloth and some in wrappers, are later. Wraps with small chips to the spines (all 4 tips present), the vol. I title page and half–title are short at the blank bottom (as issued by the publisher), foxing to the first and last 2 leaves but the rest is clean and it’s otherwise very good and it’s, by far, the finest set known to me, of the few known to me (see last paragraph below). Ex–Natalie Bennett Knowlton Blair, the first great woman collector of Americana. Old full morocco solander case. Very good. Item #508
These 25 stories launched a new, wickeder, deeper and more literate, approach to fiction with disturbing moral and psychological implications. Here’s a taste from 5 of them. 1. Young Goodman Brown presents the reader with an allegory on the depravity of public morality and the recognition of evil, hinting at The Scarlet Letter 4 years later. The title’s namesake, a Hawthorne paradox, has an encounter in a dark forest with 17th century Salem witchcraft leaving him cynical, wary, disillusioned, and embittered of everyone around him. 2. The Birthmark is a critique on the search for perfection in which Georgiana, an idyllic beauty (and a stand–in for the reader), marries Aylmer, a brilliant scientist. She has what she believes is a good luck charm, a small red birthmark on her left cheek in the shape of a tiny hand that disappears when she blushes. But Aylmer is obsessed by it, believing it ruins her beauty. Foreshadowing infiltrates the tale, creating the horror (we know where this is going) as the deranged Aylmer’s work is consistently beset with unintended consequences, and Georgiana is wired to submit. Resolved to remove the birthmark himself, Aylmer plans the procedure, and gives her a potion he has invented to remove it while she sleeps. As she sleeps the birthmark fades away, but she awakens and dies. 3. The Celestial Railroad is another allegory, a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with his Evangelist replaced by Hawthorne’s Mr. Smooth–it–away, and Bunyan’s journey on foot replaced by an iron locomotive. 4. Rappaccini’s Daughter has Giovanni falling in love with Beatrice, a beautiful young woman whose father experiments with a garden of poisonous plants. Beatrice has tended the plants from childhood and become immune to their toxins, but they have contaminated her and rendered her venomous to anybody who touches her, beyond redemption by love or science. 5. A Virtuoso’s Collection, the last story, is a tour guided by The Wandering Jew through a fanciful museum housing impossible historical and mythical items, figures, books and especially beasts (the wolf that suckled Remus and Romulus, and the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood, Robinson Crusoe’s parrot, Minerva’s owl, Ulysses’ dog Argus, Eve’s serpent, and dozens more. And there are another 20 tales of equally unanticipatable imagination (especially 175 years ago!), and there is an opening sketch describing the Concord parsonage in which Hawthorne wrote them.
Mosses was rightly praised in contemporary reviews by a magic circle of Hawthorne’s peers:
“Extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere.”
–Edgar Allan Poe
“A wondrous symbolizing of the secret workings in men’s souls…You may be witched by his sunlight – transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you; but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright gildings but fringe and play upon the edges of thunder–clouds.” –Herman Melville
“It is unfair that his book competes with imported European books. Shall real American genius shiver with neglect while the public runs after this foreign trash?”
Despite all that, few 1846 readers were ready for stories like these, and Mosses from an Old Manse didn’t find many buyers. 2 smallish 1846 printings sold slower than a herd of turtles, and a new edition wasn’t needed until 1854, after Hawthorne had been acclaimed for The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), A Wonder Book (1851), and Tanglewood Tales (1853). But that’s the public’s customary response to real art.
Let’s define rare. The old time definition was a book that a specialist in that book saw once every 10 years (scarce meant once a year). At Biblioctopus, we still use that gauge, but these days too many booksellers lie ludicrously about rarity, and anything else they think they can get away with. and the marriage between a deceptive bookseller and an intelligent collector is always going to end in adultery. Mosses’ 1st printing in wrappers has had 5 auction sales in the last 80 years, only 2 of them look to be the earliest state throughout, including the back covers, like ours, and it seems like 2 of the 5 were Bradley Martin’s set (sold in 1990 and again in 2011) with the wrappers trimmed and repaired. McMichael’s set (Sotheby’s 1992) was worse, with chips and repairs, and Gerald Slater’s set (Christie’s, 1982) had black spots covering the vol. II wrappers, and before those, there was Paul Lemperly’s set in 1940. Another one, at Christie’s in 1988, had a 2nd printing of vol. II. Our set is way the finest of all, and it’s bibliographically correct, so if you fancy American literature and want the best (for content, priority, significance, and condition), here it is, a physical reminder that the pursuit of quality means buying books that are always a little better than necessary. That’s not to say you can’t flee quality, from time to time, when you don’t like the price, but if you want to build a great library, leave a forwarding address. (Book Code).