As a writer, I'm always intrigued by the bits and pieces of the craft that other writers in the past have left behind, like Jane Austen's humble writing desk and chair or these unbound, first edition volumes of Pride and Prejudice. More rare still are handwritten drafts, manuscripts that have been crossed out and scribbled over in a frenzy of creative inspiration.
Even now in the computer age, there are several stages to transforming a manuscript into a finished book. Revisions are made by editors and copy editors as well as the author her/himself, plus additional notations by the production team. The final step is the galleys, or page proofs, that show exactly how the pages of the finished books will look. Today this all takes place through an electronic exchange of track-changes, but in the past the process involved flopping reams of paper mailed back and forth in padded brown envelopes. (It wasn't so distant a past, either; I have not-fond memories of racing to ship edited galleys to the FedEx office before closing.)
After the book was published, all those various versions and edits of mine went into the recycling bin. I imagine that 18th or 19th c. authors and printers probably did their version of recycling, too, by sending the old galleys to be remade into new paper. They weren't considered worth saving, and very few survive today.
One that did is shown here, above, and features a work by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Dr. Johnson was perhaps the most famous literary figure of 18th c. Britain, and among the many hats he wore were essayist, editor, poet, literary critic, biographer, and lexicographer. One of the highlights of my tour last week of Houghton Library, Harvard University, was visiting the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, right, with curator John Overholt. The comprehensive depth of this collection of books, artwork, manuscripts, and letters is truly breathtaking, and even if you cannot visit for yourself (Houghton Library is open to the public for tours on Friday), you can view highlights on the collection's website.
These are the proofs to Dr. Johnson's Life of Pope, from Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, published in 1781, and later to be known more simply as Lives of the Poets. I love being able to see Dr. Johnson's comments and corrections in the margins, exactly the kind of final corrections and changes that every writer makes.
Ordinarily the proofs would have been used and then discarded by the printer. According to John Overholt, however, these survived because the novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) asked Dr. Johnson to save them for her so she might read the selection early, without waiting for the final published edition, as a personal ARC (advanced reader copy.) Not only did Dr. Johnson retrieve the edited proof from the printer, but because he had also been trained as a young man to be a bookbinder, he bound the proof himself as a special gift for Mrs. Burney – and a special gift, too, to those of us living today.
Many thanks to John Overholt for his generous assistance with this post.
Above left: Proofs for the Life of Pope from Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, by Samuel Johnson, 1781. MS Hyde 50 (4), Harvard University. Lower right: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Houghton Library, Harvard University. All images courtesy of Harvard University.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.