University of Virginia Library


And then, in these east-wall bookcases, there is John Carter. Two and a half shelves are devoted to him, and the equivalent of at least two or three more are represented by stacks of books elsewhere. My collection includes nearly all the printings, English and American, of the eight editions of his ABC for Book-Collectors (1952), the last three editions of which were revised by Nicolas Barker. I also have, besides all the printings of his other books, a number of books from his library (with his Reynolds Stone bookplates and often with his annotations and laid-in clippings and typescripts), as well as many pamphlet items and other so-called ephemera. Among the rarer items are John Sparrow's copy of the page proofs for Carter's 1932 edition of Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus (a book regularly regarded as one of the greatest pieces of twentieth-century bookmaking), with Carter's marginal corrections; the order form for An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets (1934), his and Graham Pollard's exposé of the Wise-Forman forgeries and a true bibliographical classic; the hardcover, interleaved issue of his More Binding Variants (1938); the proofs of his Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting (1948), with the title-page date "194" (before the year was certain); part 2 of the Mill House Press Catullus, which he and Edward Gathorne-Hardy edited in 1953; all six of the delightful Halcyon Booklets (1964–66), which he edited under the imprint of the Halcyon-Commonwealth Foundation (at 1 Beekman Place, a great apartment house around the corner from my own and the home of Mary Jean Kempner Thorne, who financed the booklets); and the leaflet he had privately printed, when he was president of the Bibliographical Society, containing the texts of his citations of Graham Pollard and Fredson Bowers on the occasion of their being awarded the Society's Gold Medal in 1969.

I had heard of Carter at least by 1953, when my parents gave me as a Christmas present a copy of the second American edition of the ABC (which bears my first bookplate, consisting of my entwined initials in lower case, designed by Betty Sullenberger, the art teacher at my aunt Mary's high school, who created the posters for her plays). Given Carter's prominence in the mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American book world (first at Scribner's and then at Sotheby's) and his authorship of several classic books, I would certainly have collected him even if there had been no personal association. But I knew him for the last ten years of his life and will always be grateful to him for the kindness he showed me. I first met him in August 1966 when I made a trip to London on behalf of the


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Melville Edition. Jim Wells of the Newberry, who knew everyone in the book world (and still does), had written a letter to Carter in June asking if he would assist me in gaining entry to the archives of the publisher John Murray, which contained the records relating to the English publication of Melville's first two books. Jim enclosed a letter from me to Carter explaining what I needed, and Carter turned it over to Murray, who wrote me to say that the ledgers would be available to me. I reported this to Carter in a letter on the first of August, telling him that I would be in London to work with the material two weeks later, and his prompt reply asked me to meet him for lunch on the 16th.

I showed up at Sotheby's at 12:30 on the appointed day, and he took me to lunch at the Westbury Hotel, a few steps down St. George Street from the back door of Sotheby's. His charm and elegance were well-known, and I was not surprised by them (or by his monocle); but I also found him to be extremely kind and considerate. He even offered to come to Murray's and help me carry the ledgers up the street to get them photocopied. I told him that I was going to have a photographer come in to Murray's, so that the ledgers did not have to leave the premises. But I was very touched by his offer. A few days later he came to Murray's to see how things were going, and we had a drink in a small sidewalk cafe a few doors north along Albemarle Street. I recall that our conversation covered—among many other subjects—Noël Coward and the beauty of Savannah, Georgia (which I had recently visited and where John's wife came from). In subsequent years, whenever I have passed by that cafe, I have thought back to the time when John and I chatted there.

I told him that I was working on an article about the description of the colors of nineteenth-century publishers' bindings, a subject he (as one of the pioneer students of those bindings, along with Michael Sadleir) had long been interested in. The article was published a few months later, in the 1967 volume of Studies in Bibliography, prompting some letters from him in the spring of 1967, including one stating that the "learned reviewer" of that volume for the Times Literary Supplement was "sufficiently conscientious to want to see" the color chart and dictionary that I had recommended. He was asking on behalf of Philip Gaskell (in those days of anonymous TLS reviews), but his request also reflected his own lifelong effort to keep abreast of bibliographical advances.

My next flurry of correspondence with him occurred about fifteen months later, when he not only agreed to write a letter of reference to support my application for a Guggenheim Fellowship but also invited me to read a paper before the Bibliographical Society in London, of which he was then president, during the 1969–70 season. I readily accepted his offer and proposed as my topic the history of book-jackets, a choice he heartily approved, for he had written on the subject himself many


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years earlier. After learning that I had received the Guggenheim for the 1969–70 year, I was able to set the dates of a visit to London, and we agreed on March 17, 1970 (the date of the last meeting of the Society that season), as the day of my talk. I arrived a week ahead and immediately sent him a copy of my paper, and he quickly responded (on the Thursday preceding the Tuesday talk), with a note to my hotel expressing his admiration for the piece. No doubt he was relieved that it was acceptable, for he reported that "there were a few sniffs among the stuffier characters [of the Society's council] when your topic was announced (by me, with enthusiasm), as if such things as dust-jackets were a trifle frivolous—and this should blow them out of the water."

During my stay in London, we had another Martini-accompanied lunch at the Westbury, and he invited me to a dinner of the "Biblio Boys" at the Garrick Club. (The "Biblio Boys" were an informal monthly dining group that has an honorable place in the history of twentieth-century bibliography, its regular members having included Michael Sadleir, John Hayward, Percy Muir, Simon Nowell-Smith, and Graham Pollard, among others.) The special guest on this occasion was Sir Robert Birley, former master of Eton (the school in John's home town, which he had attended and to which he remained loyal). I had not previously been to the Garrick Club, though I have been there many times since (as a member of the Century Association in New York, which has a reciprocal relationship with the Garrick); but no visit there will ever mean more to me than the one John was responsible for.

He and I continued to correspond after I returned home, and in August 1971 he asked if I had suggestions for revisions to be made in the new edition of the ABC that he was working on. In two letters, at the beginning of September and of October, I sent him many suggestions. When the fifth edition came out in the summer of 1972, he sent me an inscribed copy ("for Tom Tanselle / gratefully / from John Carter") and acknowledged my help in his preface. (I have since done the same thing for Nicolas Barker, during his preparation of the eighth edition.) When I was in London in May of 1974, John and I had another (and, as it turned out, final) lunch at the Westbury. Since I had seen him last, he had suffered two small strokes (in 1973), and it was distressing to find him no longer capable of the witty repartee he had always excelled at. I prefer to remember our earlier conversations—such as his reply to my question about how the revision of the Enquiry was going: "At what is known as Pollard's Pace." No doubt this was a well-rehearsed comment, but the intonation and pauses with which he delivered it remain in my mind as the embodiment of his cocktail-party conversation.

I did not get to know his wife, Ernestine, until after his death (on March 18, 1975, seven weeks short of his seventieth birthday). For the


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next five years she and I exchanged a considerable number of letters; the ones in 1977 related to Jean Peters's and my proposal that Jean's anthology Book Collecting: A Modern Guide be dedicated to John. She was delighted, and when the book was published in early November 1977 Jean and I sent her a copy inscribed by each of us. My inscription read as follows: "For Ernestine Carter—with satisfaction in contributing to a book dedicated to Jake, one in which chapter after chapter acknowledges the great debt all book collectors and bibliographers owe to him. I hope the book is one that he would have approved of. With all good wishes from Tom (of Chapter 12) 4th Nov. 1977." (John was known to his friends as "Jake.") The reason I can quote this inscription is that in 1998, five years after Ernestine's death, Maggs had this copy for sale, and I could not resist the idea of reclaiming it.

The shelf where it now resides contains copies of the books that Ernestine herself published, such as her autobiography With Tongue in Chic (1974)—the title reflecting her career as fashion editor of The Sunday Times, where she was a powerful force in the London fashion world. (Before she married John in 1936, she had been at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, first as secretary to Philip Johnson and then as Curator of Architecture and Industrial Art; during that time she lived on 50th Street near the East River, a fact that adds to the pleasant associations my neighborhood has for me.) When I had lunch with her at the Park Lane Hotel in May of 1978 (while my parents, whom I had taken to Europe for their first and only trip, were on a bus tour), one of the things we talked about was my plan to write a biography of John and an assessment of his work, accompanied by a list of his voluminous writings. (He was a great stylist, and nearly everything he wrote, even brief letters to editors, is a delight to read.) I have a substantial mass of material and am sorry I did not complete the task before Ernestine died. I still have not completed it (as of this writing, in early 2009), but I have not given up the idea of paying homage to him in this way.

The Carter study is only one of several long-planned and extensively researched projects that I have not yet finished, given the nonscholarly activities that I have preferred to spend time on. But I did finish my memoir, at least within the strict limits I set myself, focusing on the objects in a single room. Even in its entirety (of which the present excerpts amount to about one-fourth), it does not of course cover my life thoroughly; but no memoir ever tells the whole story of a person's life and thoughts. What I hope it does is to suggest how much can be learned by following the associations inspired by a group of objects that one has lived with.