By Kenneth Gloss
Some collectors think that by amassing only the works of writers associated with one regional area they are significantly narrowing their field of sought-after works. In fact, they may discover that a geographic collection still encompasses a huge body of material, including both the books by these particular authors as well as the books about them. For a good example of this, consider the possibilities of collecting only the works of authors who have some connection to the state of Massachusetts, whether they were born and raised here, educated here, or just lived and worked here at some point in their career.
One reason that the number of Massachusetts authors is so large is because the state was the literary center of America. When this country was founded, Boston had the money and equipment necessary to publish books and also the infrastructure and transportation needed to distribute them to the rest of the country. Nearby towns like Salem and Concord attracted a lot of philosophers and transcendentalists who happened to be writers. Harvard College provided a steady source of income for these people. The area supported the educational institutions, which supported the publishers, which supported the writers. The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which had been based in Boston since its beginning, but now based in Washington, D.C. also pulled a lot of great writers to Massachusetts including William Dean Howells, who became assistant editor in 1866. In fact, at one time Boston was considered the “Athens of America.”
Of course, some writers didn’t need to depend on the economic advantages offered by the Boston area, relying on the means of their family instead. Someone like Robert Lowell, whose family owned the mills that supported the town of Lowell, could afford to be a poet. Fellow poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, married into money that helped him a great deal. Outside of Boston were many farms, such as Brook Farm in West Roxbury, which also attracted many authors to the state. These were places where authors congregated in an effort to find an artist’s Utopia. Eventually they found that they didn’t want to live and work together forever, but the tradition of writers retreating to such places for a limited time has continued through the years.
The Cape Cod area has always attracted artists and writers with its physical beauty, from which many were said to draw great inspiration. Joseph C. Lincoln was a native of the Cape and used its people and surroundings as the basis for his writings of forty novels plus a book of poetry, Cape Cod Ballads. There are many authors who wrote some of their early works in Massachusetts even if they moved on to other places later in their career. Before playwright Eugene O’Neill won his Nobel Prize, he wrote and produced some of his early plays in Provincetown in association with the theatrical group known as the Provincetown Players.
Among the many who qualify as Massachusetts authors are the more well-known names of writers from the mid-1800s like Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Whittier and less widely known notables such as the first Black American author, Phyllis Wheatley, a slave who composed poetry. Each of these authors was published by the company now known as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Nowadays, one can find some real bargains of works from this time period. Some first editions from these authors cost only $10 to $20. In Massachusetts, you can find loads of books by these authors at estate sales and auctions.
Some of the great Victorian historians are also Massachusetts authors. Francis Parkman, born in Boston and educated at Harvard, was regarded as an authority on the American West after publication of The Oregon Trail, a book that chronicled his personal journey along the famous pioneer route. Another from the whole series of historical writers from Massachusetts was William Hickling Prescott, who wrote The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic. Prescott, who wrote mainly about Spanish and Mexican history, was also a product of Harvard.
Eventually New York overtook Boston as the economic center of the country with much of the literary world’s focus moving there as well. However, Boston has continued to boast of great support for writing and education. Even in more recent times one finds writers like John Phillips Marquand, author of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Late George Apley; Jim Carroll, most well- known for his book The Basketball Diaries, and John Updike, a prolific writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and 1991 for the last two books in his Rabbit series. Writers continue to come to Boston for the universities as well as the mystique and atmosphere it offers.
Collectors will find that just as the topics and time periods of the various Massachusetts authors have a wide span, so does the range of prices they will have to pay for particular books. Prices for works by authors such as Updike can be tremendous, running into the thousands for some of the more rare editions. But even a casual collector can afford to dabble in this area if they pick up works by Whittier, Lowell, Howell or Holmes, whose first editions often cost between $10 and $20. There are many books by many of these authors that are not rare and can easily be purchased in the $20 or $30 range.
Limiting a collection to the works of authors from a particular geographic location is an appropriate way of achieving the focus that every collector needs to have. One will still find a wide selection of genres, time periods and styles from which to choose, with a price range to fit any collector’s budget.
Ken Gloss is proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing section is one of America’s oldest and largest antiquarian bookstores. 2013 is the 64th year of Gloss family ownership. Ken has appeared on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow on numerous occasions. For further information about the shop and Ken’s frequent free and open lectures, visit the Web site at: www.brattlebookshop.com or call 1-800-447-9595.