Saturday, May 30, 2015

General Sketch of the History of Pantheism

Constance E. Plumptre - General Sketch of the History of Pantheism (1878)

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This probably deserved more research before posting but I won't be able to do that for a while and it seemed interesting enough.  The book covers the subject from the Hindus and Brahmins through the Greeks to freethinkers like Giordano Bruno and Lucilio Vanini to an array of early modern thinkers - Spinoza, Berkeley, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer.  If this doesn't seem like purely a religious history you're probably right - Plumptre apparently was an agnostic herself (one book or pamphlet was titled On the Progress of Liberty of Thought During Queen Victoria's Reign and she had an essay in The Agnostic Annual of 1896).

The author appears to be an interesting figure but I've only found sparse information.  She was born in England in 1848 and started writing in 1878 when the first volume of the General Sketch appeared anonymously.  She used "C.E. Plumptre" for most later publications, the best-known of which was Studies in Little-Known Subjects (which could have been the name of this blog).  I found periodical pieces where she didn't support (but also didn't oppose) women's suffrage (Liberty Review, Jan. 1909, p11), was doubtful about taxation (The American Anti-Socialist, v1,n1-6, 1913) and wrote biographical pieces for The Indian Magazine.  She died in 1929.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

How to Pronounce the Names in Shakespeare

Theodora Ursula Irvine - How to Pronounce the Names in Shakespeare (1919)

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Here's almost 400 pages of pronunciation guides to names in Shakespeare, so many names. Interestingly, Irvine, a speech teacher, wasn't trying to recover pronunciation from Shakespeare's time but instead worked with actors and scholars to determine appropriate pronunciations for her time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


James Branch Cabell - Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir (1921)

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This is a real curiosity - a satire on censorship done in the form of (faked) classical scholarship from a once-famous, now little-known writer.

Cabell was a Virginia native who generally wrote a type of secondary-world fantasy fiction that attracted the attention of Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten and others.  The "fantasy" designation seems retrospective since his books were published by mainstream presses and not connected to the pulp-based writers formalizing the genre at that time.  (Clark Ashton Smith was a near-contemporary and possibly influenced by Cabell.)  Still, when Lin Carter compiled the landmark Ballantine Adult Fantasy series he included six Cabell novels (which is where I first heard about Cabell, reading Figures of Earth as a teenager and not quite seeing why it was considered fantasy).

Cabell made a splash in 1919 with his early novel Jurgen which quickly resulted in a trial for obscenity on the basis of numerous references to sex, however veiled or clothed in double entendre they were.  He was acquitted but acquired a whiff of scandal that kept his name familiar even as he continued to turn out a prolific list of books.  The decline in his reputation is usually attributed to his works' fantasy elements in a literary world increasingly devoted to realism and to his style's more florid elements when more plain, even blunt writing was on the rise.  In 1956 Edmund Wilson even started a lengthy essay on the author with "Cabell is out of fashion", two years before the latter's death.  The library at Virginia Commonwealth University is named after him and the school's literary magazine is called Poictesme after Cabell's version of medieval France that provides the setting for many novels.

Which brings us to Taboo.  First published in The Literary Review in 1921 shortly after the Jurgen case was decided in Cabell's favor, it was given a separate limited-edition release.  The main section of the text is claimed to be a story recovered from antiquity and is accompanied by the usual scholarly apparatus: a dedication, memoir of the supposed author, a prolegomena, footnotes and postscript.

The most interesting aspect, though, might be the supposed source.  Never heard of Saevius Nicanor?  As it turns out he's not Cabell's invention.  Nicanor was a Roman grammarian and satirist from probably second or third century BC whose work survives only in the merest fragments - a couple of incomplete lines.  We know about this from Suetonius and do you not remember that reference either?  Turns out it's not from Twelve Caesars but from a mostly lost work of Suetonius - a fragment of a fragment.  (And it's worth lamenting in passing the loss of Suetonius' Lives of Famous Whores - the mind boggles at what that could have been like.)  In other words, Cabell assigned his story to a real person but one so obscure that it's implausible for anybody to have recognized that without research.

So all of this aside, what about Taboo itself?  The main text concerns a traveler writing about his journey through Philistia (get it?) where one of their "mad customs" is that the act of eating can not be mentioned.  (Shades of Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty.)  The traveler obliges but one person he meets shows how the text can be interpreted to reveal eating anyway, a lawyer argues the validity of the restriction, an academic (portrayed as a mummy) declares that older texts about eating don't matter today, and a man in the street is outraged by a mention of eating and attacks the traveler.

If this sounds fairly heavy-handed, well, it is but it's short and does have some (though only some) of the feel of an actual old legend.  And Cabell had just been through a trial for obscenity so he deserved a little victory dance.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hermippus Redivivus

Johann Heinrich Cohausen - Hermippus Redivivus (1742)

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I stumbled across a passing reference to an 18th century work that explained the secret to a long life is inhaling the breath of young girls.  Not entirely sure whether this would be more strange or creepy I looked it up and the 1771 English translation is available (which reveals the author specified young women or men not girls).  Turns out that the work is satirical though its targets are now so obscure that its original intent is mostly gone.  And why am I not surprised that Baring-Gould was here before - did he read everything?

This edition and the others on Open Library uses the long-S which is easy enough to read but just tricky enough that it's not always worth that little effort.  An 1885 edition with modernized spelling is available on Hathi Trust (though it's missing the Preface complaining about the necessity of a preface).  Neither has the illustration mentioned by Baring-Gould.

The English translation is by Scottish historian (the DNB calls him a "miscellaneous writer") and buddy of Dr. Johnson John Campbell (1708-1775).  Like his fellow Scot Urquhart, Campbell was apparently quite free in his translation, adding extra material and altering others - though unlike Urquhart he toned down or removed potentially offensive passages.  (There doesn't appear to have been any other translation into English.)  According to Boswell, Johnson in 1763 said Hermippus Redivivus is "a curious history of the extravagancies of the human mind" though he was under the impression that Campbell wrote it.  Robert Southey also appears to have read it - at any rate he owned a copy and mentions it in a letter as "that strangest of strange books" (March 11, 1814).

Historian Anna Marie Roos wrote the most extensive piece on Hermippus Redivivus which covers in admirable detail the book's history, its author and the medical background that he was satirizing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cat's Cradles from Many Lands

Kathleen Haddon - Cat's Cradles from Many Lands (1911)

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As a child I had a book that was about cat's cradles but not completely how to make them (the reason I chose it) than an anthropological study (which I didn't understand then).  I'm not entirely positive but think it was Caroline Jayne's 1961 String Figures and How to Make Them.

This book from earlier in the century is much the same, describing cradles from a variety of cultures each with a note about the source.  There's not much in the way of analysis though she does sometimes point out similarities in cradles from separated cultures.  The illustrations are only of the finished cradle but I find the written instructions difficult to follow (though that's probably just me since it's the kind of physical action that eludes my competency).

Haddon was the daughter of anthropologist A.C. Haddon and wrote a couple of other books on string figures.  She earned a degree in zoology from Cambridge in 1911 (working on glow-worm larvae) but it wasn't awarded until 1948 when the university started allowing women to receive them.  She worked as a photographer and researcher on some of her father's trips to Papua and the Torres Straits.  There's an interesting piece by Joshua A. Bell in Photography, Anthropology and History that uses the accidental appearance of her thumb in a field photograph as the starting point to explore issues of ethnography, attribution and gender.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Photographic Amusements

Walter E. Woodbury - Photographic Amusements (1897)

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Early manual on trick and specialty photography that shows how to do double exposures, spirit photographs, leaf prints and "comical portraits" alongside more documentary techniques such as capturing moonlight, crystal formations, drawings and the ever-popular "Photographing Sea Weeds".  The ingenuity and creativity displayed is quite impressive and even though many (but not all) of these effects can today be formed with a button-click it's usually not quite the same - just think of how rarely digital collages have the impact of paper ones.  

Walter E. Woodbury shouldn't be confused with a slightly earlier photographer Walter B. Woodbury.  Walter E. was an editor of Photographic Times who wrote other, more technical, photography books.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Handbook of Conundrums

Edith B. Ordway - The Handbook of Conundrums (1913)

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If you knew that a conundrum is a riddle where the answer is a pun then you're one above me in the vocabulary count.  I thought it just meant a difficult problem and of course was wrong.  (By the way, the word isn't of Latin origin, at least according to a couple of dictionaries I checked, so "conundrums" is the correct plural.)

This book collects conundrums and despite a brief historical introduction gives no sources or other context.  The result resembles a joke book more than anything serious though there's some historical value to the chapter relating to the American Civil War or early examples of the form.

Some samples:

Why are weary people like carriage wheels?  Because they are tired.

How can you distinguish a fashionable man from a tired dog?  One wears an entire costume; the other simply pants.

Why does a duck come out of water?  For sun-dry (sundry) reasons.

Why must a fisherman be very wealthy?  Because his is all net profit.

As you can see most stretch to reach a point and few, if any, are actually funny.  But then maybe they were intended more along the lines of little sayings than jokes.

Ordway also wrote books on etiquette, opera and quotations.  I can find little about her but she seems to have been an American born in 1877, a graduate of Boston University, interested in spiritualism (the last according to Frederick Wiggins' The Living Jesus) and possibly died in 1944.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Kantner's Illustrated Book of Objects

Washington C Kantner - Kantner's Illustrated Book of Objects (1887)

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A visual English/German dictionary intended for children but more useful today as a clip art source (or possibly an inefficient way to learn German vocabulary).  The pages appear to be out of order in this scan but that won't matter.  I can find nothing about the author but some of the choices for a children's book seem if not odd then at least an indication of different times.  Maybe the kinder did need to know "drunk" but what about "gibbet"?  And I'm not sure an illustration is the best way to explain "dream" or "grove".  (There are text definitions in the back.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bibliotheca Accipitraria

James Edmund Harting - Bibliotheca Accipitraria: A Catalog of Books Ancient and Modern Relating to Falconry (1891)

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Who knew there were so many books about falconry?  This bibliography lists 378 items in twenty languages and according to the preface it wasn't the first to attempt such a list.  All the works aren't devoted exclusively to falconry - Walton's The Compleat Angler gets an entry due to some discussion of the subject.  Certainly you'd need an unusually strong interest in either falconry or bibliography to dive into this - then again some of us actually are bibliographophiles and in any case it's a well-designed book.

Harting was an ornithologist who edited The Zoologist for a couple of decades.  His other works include Rambles in Search of Shells (1876) and British Animals Extinct within Historic Times (1880).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Lost Beauties of the English Language

Charles Mackay - The Lost Beauties of the English Language (1874)

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Scottish journalist and author Mackay's best-remembered work is 1841's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds which has been in print seemingly since its first publication.  Among the long list of his other works is this collection of archaic and disappearing words that he would like kept alive.  The result is a fascinating dictionary though so many included words are too archaic to be successfully revived - if Piers Ploughman is your most recent source maybe it's time to let it go into that gentle linguistic night.  To be honest, though, this book isn't quite as interesting as some of the slang dictionaries I've posted since Mackay favors words that are blunt and craggy (not quite "beauties") with meanings that seem almost arbitrary.  Older thieves' lingo I can see still being used even if for comic effect but it's a lost cause to bring back "scorse" (to exchange) or "unsneck" (bolting a door).

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Monkey's Frolic

Anonymous - The Monkey's Frolic: A Humorous Tale in Verse (1825)

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Children's book where a monkey decides to shave the cat, the latter deciding that's a bad idea and a chase ensues before all is resolved.  It was published by John Harris who was successful with his series of similar illustrated books.  Not much is available about this - even the date is a bit uncertain but 1825 is most common and backed by its being listed as a new book in that year's Curiosities for the Ingenious.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Royalty in All Ages

T. F. Thiselton-Dyer - Royalty in All Ages: The Amusements, Eccentricities, Accomplishments, Superstitions, and Frolics of the Kings and Queens of Europe (1903)

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Collections of historical anecdotes are something of a publishing perennial - there are always some tucked away in bookstore history sections while even Oxford has done several and at this writing Michael Farquhar has a new one out.  This book is adequately described in the full title, sorting its stories into chapters based on games, eating, beliefs, disguises, horse-racing, gambling, masquerades, hunting, dancing, etc.  Otherwise there's not much organization and the stories range from barely worth recounting to quite strange.  That William III put on his hat in church when the sermon started doesn't matter much now and perhaps neither do the inebriated exploits of Ivan IV ("one of the most drunken and dissolute monarchs that ever disgraced a throne") or all sorts of hunting misadventures, odd superstitions, frequent gluttony and so forth but that's the type of thing that fill books such as this rather than administrative or diplomatic histories.

Thiselton-Dyer (1848-1923) was a cleric who wrote several other compilations of folklore.  Frazer references one in The Golden Bough and Yeats reviewed The Ghost World.  His brother William Turner Thiselton-Dyer was a botanist who directed the Royal Botanical Gardens for years and was son-in-law to Joseph Hooker.  (Sources that list T.F.'s death as 1928 are apparently confusing him with brother William.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nuggets from King Solomon's Mine

John Barnes Schmalz  - Nuggets from King Solomon's Mine (1908)

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Did you know that a deck of playing cards contains numerous encoded references to the Great Pyramid?  The number of cards, suits or arrangements; their total face value; their images' symbolism - everything relates to the pyramid's dimensions, area, height, alignment.  Despite a lot of calculations and detailed descriptions the one thing missing is probably the answer to the biggest question - why?  Who would have done this?  How could they have done this?  What possible purpose could it serve?  Well, kooks are never known for thinking things through and the main thing distinguishing this from a long line of other pyramidiocy is the sheer arbitrariness of what it's connecting.  I can find little information about Schmalz other than the titles of some other books (What Are Dice and Their Mystical Symbolism?, A Metaphysical Interpretation of the Great Pyramid's Message to Man).

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Legend of Longinus

Rose Jeffries Peebles - The Legend of Longinus in Ecclesiastical Tradition and in English Literature (1911)

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One of the more fascinating Christian legends is that of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus' side then converted and was martyred (despite often being called Saint Longinus he wasn't canonized).  There's more story such as being blind then cured, becoming a monk and so forth until getting to a blind woman rescuing the martyr's severed head from a trash heap.  All that's in the Biblical canon is an unnamed soldier with the spear - the rest arose over several centuries.

The Legend of Longinus traces the story from apocryphal texts through Church fathers, martyrologies and other sources.  As the full title says there's a focus on English literature though it mostly stops after the middle ages but I'm not clear whether there are fewer references or if that's just the author's end point.  A final couple of chapters touch on connections to Celtic myth and the Grail legends.

The book was Peebles' doctoral dissertation. She later became the chair of Vassar's English department where she was Elizabeth Bishop's favorite professor.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Amusements in Chess

Charles Tomlinson - Amusements in Chess (1845)

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As a kid I was fascinated by chess though typically for me I read about it far more than played - there were several books about Bobby Fischer at the time, the perennial collections of problems and even a monthly column in Boy's Life magazine.  Since then I've only dabbled from time to time with computer chess and read Marilyn Yalom's haphazardly researched and weakly argued Birth of the Chess Queen (2002).

Amusements in Chess is also based on a column - in this case one that ran in Saturday Magazine for four years.  The author re-worked and expanded them so that you now get a history of the game, introduction to how it's played and assorted problems.  Same basic idea you could get from books today but they probably don't have the sidetrips to automated players, Latin poems about the chess, variations with extra pieces and even a chapter on the geometry of the knight's moves.