The Picasso on the Shelf

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) was a publishing house founded in 1929 by George Macy in the heyday of the private press movement. The LEC was dedicated to producing small runs of exquisitely made and finely illustrated books, some of them literary classics, and some of them important contemporary works. Generally, the LEC would issue a dozen books each year, with only 1,500 copies of each item printed. They were often signed by the artists, designers, authors, bookmakers or others associated with the titles in question.

Carl and Edith Weeks were charter members of the LEC, and they remained subscribers through 1954, leaving us with a rare complete collection of these important and beautiful books. Carl and Edith had subscription number 589, so almost all of their LEC books have a “589” hand-written in them somewhere, typically along with the autograph of the artists or authors.

Matisse's "Polyphemus" from LEC edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses." (click to enlarge)

Henri Matisse’s “Polyphemus” from LEC edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The two most-widely collectible and coveted LEC books in the Salisbury House library are a 1935 edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse (250 copies were signed by Joyce, but we don’t have one of them — a rare missing item in our otherwise magnificent Joyce collection) and a 1934 edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, illustrated and signed by Pablo Picasso.

Matisse’s illustrations from Ulysses do not depict James Joyce’s Dublin, but rather evoke Leopold Bloom’s one-day odyssey through that city’s streets by making explicit the subtle structural parallels that Joyce wove between Ulysses and Homer’s Odysseus. So while the section paralleling the Cyclops’ tale in Ulysses is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where Bloom is berated by an un-named, anti-Semitic “citizen,” Matisse illustrates the scene with a literal depiction of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus. It’s a powerful piece of art (click the image at left to enlarge it; each of the differently sized blue and yellow sheets are bound into the book), but personally speaking, I find that these images distract the reader from Joyce’s narrative, rather than supporting it. If Joyce had wanted his allusions to Odysseus to be so obvious, I think he would have written the book differently. I wonder sometimes if this is why Joyce did not sign all of the Matisse copies.

Aristophanes died some 23 centuries before Carl and Edith purchased their LEC copy of his Lysistrata, so there’s no telling what he would have though about Pablo Picasso’s illustrations therein — but I love them to pieces, and think this is one of the most gorgeous, well-designed, fully-integrated books produced by the LEC. I share some images below, including Picasso’s signature page. Do you agree that he got it right? (As always, click to enlarge)

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Carl and Edith Weeks: Book Smugglers?

The Library at Salisbury House contains an undeniably important collection of early 20th Century, English-language literature and manuscripts, providing yet another enduring testament to the high levels of critical foresight and refinement that Carl and Edith Weeks applied when making their various cultural acquisitions. Interestingly enough, the act of purchasing some of the most important books in the Library also likely involved Carl and Edith skirting the laws of the day, as the works of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner and many others were banned regionally, nationally or even internationally at the time of their publication.

Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are three copies in the Salisbury House Library: one from the 1,000-copy first edition from 1922, one signed and illustrated by Henri Matisse for the Limited Editions Club in 1935, and one “ordinary edition, 2 vols., in worn box” (per our inventory notes) published in Hamburg in 1932. Now consider the legal and literary environment within which Carl and Edith acquired these books (with thanks to Anne Lyon Haight’s Banned Books: 387 B.C. to 1978 A.D. for reference):

1918: Early installments of Ulysses published in The Little Review were burned by the U.S. Post Office.

1922: Imported copies of Ulysses were burned by the U.S Post Office.

1923: 499 Copies of Ulysses were burned by English customs authorities, 500 copies were burned by the U.S. Post Office, and U.S. federal courts ruled against its legal publication; as a result of this latter action, no copyright existed in the United States and Joyce received no royalties from thousands of pirated editions in the years ahead.

1929: Ulysses is banned in England.

1930: A copy of Ulysses sent to Random House is seized by the Collector of Customs as obscene.

Contraband from Carl and Edith’s Library.

It was not until 1933, in fact, that courts in the United States finally ruled that Ulysses was legal for importation, publication and distribution to the Nation’s citizens, following a series of cases and appeals spawned by another copy of the book being captured by Customs upon import. Did Carl and Edith own one of their first two copies before then? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that they did, since there’s clear evidence of their wanting (and getting) things hot of the presses during their peak collecting years. Did they break the letter or spirit of the law, or violate the social mores of their era, to get it? You be the judge.

The Salisbury House Library also contains a massive collection of signed, first-edition works by D.H. Lawrence, along with many pieces of correspondence with and about him. His works were perhaps even more controversial (and illegal) in the United States, with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love and Paintings being banned for import by Customs in 1929. Amazingly enough, it was not until 1959 that an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in the United States — and it was immediately seized by the Post Office and impounded, resulting in a year-long legal battle that finally removed the book’s stigma as a piece of literary contraband.

By the time a reader could legally purchase a complete, domestic edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its author had been dead for 30 years, Edith Weeks had been dead for five years, and Carl Weeks had but one year left in his long life. I think it’s a testament to Carl’s tenacity in pursuit of great literature that he apparently purchased a copy of that 1959 edition, making it one of the dozen or so final additions to the Library in his lifetime. That (legal) 1959 edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover still shares shelf-space with a signed original (illegal) 1928 edition, as well as two (illegal) pirated American editions published in the late 1920s.

So bravo for our wise book smugglers at Salisbury House, who knew and recognized great art when they saw it. We’re all the better for their efforts.

Note: September 30 to October 6 is the 30th Annual Observance of Banned Book Week. We will be featuring famously banned books from the Salisbury House Library throughout the week on our Facebook page, so be sure to follow us there. We will also be placing a selection of banned works in Lafe’s Bedroom for public viewing, so come and see us . . . the leaves are turning, it’s a joy to see.

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Let me note right up front that this is a shallow post . . . I’m talking about little things that make me happy, not profound ones. The big things don’t lend themselves to list-making of this online variety, because my family, and my home, and my work, and my friends please and delight me on such fundamental levels that they’re beyond reducing to a piffle and tripe blog post like this one. The fact that they make me happy goes without saying, so these five items are just the sorts of little details that make me smile amidst the rush and hustle of life. Simple pleasures. Easy thrills. Happy happy happy.

1. The “Metalocalypse” Theme Song: I love everything about this cartoon centered around a death metal band called Dethklok, who — despite its members’ idiocy and disregard for the consequences of their actions — become the world’s seventh largest economy, worthy of attention from a shadowy supernatural cabal called The Tribunal. But I particularly love the way that the series’ opening theme song boils everything stupid and happy-making about the death metal genre down into a perfectly nuanced 30-second nugget of brutal excellence. We tape “Metalocalypse” on our DVR, and for most shows, that would mean that we fast forward through the opening and closing credits. But I don’t allow that in this case, and make my family watch it in its entirety, every week, because it makes me smile with glee every time. Here ’tis, if you’ve not seen it:

2. Our Backyard Ecosystem: Marcia quickly created an amazingly beautiful series of gardens in our backyard in Des Moines, just as she had done in Albany. My role when it comes to these gardens is to provide brute labor when heavy things need to be moved, and to provide the required elements of chaos, either by sowing Johnny Jump-Up seeds that will propagate and blossom for years to come in places where they aren’t supposed to be, or by putting out feeders that bring critters to lively up the space. I have to refill my two bird feeders pretty much every day at this point, as we get an incredible assortment of avian visitors, and the seeds that they scatter also attracts fox squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies galore. We also have bats and cicadas aplenty, and I like seeing and listening to them, too. Sometimes when I look out at the backyard from our dining room, I can see literally dozens of mammal, bird and arthropod species going about their business, blissfully unaware of how much I am enjoying watching them do it.

Dining room at Alba, Des Moines. (Photo from their website).

3. Alba: This exceptional East Village venue is rapidly cementing its stature as my favorite restaurant in Des Moines, as we keep having outstanding dining experiences there. The menu is eclectic, with most of its dishes based on sautes involving fresh, rough cut vegetables and meats, served with beautifully balanced and tasty sauces. The service is knowledgeable and attentive without being obtrusive, the dining room is comfortable and spacious (it’s situated in a converted car showroom), the decor and location are appealing, and the wine list is strong, creating a complete dining environment that’s hard to match, in Des Moines or anywhere else I’ve been in recent years. We went there for dinner last night, and I had an incredible English Pea Soup followed by a prawn gnocchi dish to die for. Sublime, divine, and deliciously pleasurable.

4. The Lyrics of John Balance: It’s hard to explain why these make me happy, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone more different than me, on some plane, than John Balance, a proudly gay English musician with the group COIL whose chronic alcoholism led to his untimely death by misfortune in 2004. (His long-time musical and personal partner, Peter Christopherson, also flew from this world in 2010, which I wrote about, here). Balance’s subject matter was often dark, and reading many of his lyrics after his demise creates an uncanny sense that he knew it was coming, perhaps even down to the manner of his passing (e.g. “When I find you I will remind you: most accidents occur at home.”) But I still listen to his music on almost a daily basis, and I am regularly moved by the beauty of his words and the imagery that they evoke, regardless of their seemingly insurmountable surface darkness. As I type, I am listening to COIL’s “Are You Shivering?“, which contains the following lines: “In the oceans of the moon / swimming squidlike and squalid / This bright moon is a liquid / The dark earth is a solid / This is moon music in the light of the moon.” “Squidlike and squalid”?!? That’s lyrical magic, and it makes me happy to know that such creative beauty can emerge from such seemingly dark spaces.

5. The Library at Salisbury House: I said I wasn’t going to write about obvious things like my work, and this is equally obviously work related, since as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, I am responsible for the care and promotion of this incredible collection of books and documents. But the happiness this collection evokes in me is deeper than sheer professional responsibility would dictate, as I am legitimately moved — deeply — by the objects that are housed in my workplace.  I have spent a lot of my time at Salisbury House researching this under-utilized and under-promoted resource, and the more I study, the happier I get about the objects that have been placed under my supervision and care. I have held in my hands a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible, and a letter signed in 1492 by King Ferdinard II of Aragon, and a hand-illuminated Book of Hours from the 14th Century, and galley proofs hand-edited by James Joyce, and a first edition Book of Mormon, and countless other epic historic and literary works, experiencing their corporeality and presence in ways that few people will ever have an opportunity to share. I spent most of this week working on a grant application to the National Endowment of Humanities to allow us to better catalog and share this awesome material, and among my many aspirations for Salisbury House, few would make me happier than reaching a point where our library receives the international acclaim from scholars and researchers that it deserves.

So those are some things that are making me happy these days. What sorts of things are rocking your worlds?

The library at Salisbury House. The shelves to the left of the fireplace contain some of the world’s most amazing D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce collections, which make me shiver every time I walk into the room. How could I not be happy to spend time here?