Sunday, March 27, 2005

I didn't know this lady, but I would have liked to

Via MobyLives, a New York Times obituary of a woman who discovered the other Louisa May Alcott, the writer of dark popular tales for pulp magazines. While teaching 19th-century American Literature overseas, where my library card only got me canonical American writers, my taste for popular fiction eventually drove me to try out Louisa May Alcott's gothic stories--and I had a wonderful time with them.

Leona Rostenberg was a rare books dealer and scholar. She had a life-long partnership in books and love with Madeleine Sterne. From the obituary, it sounds like the two of them made a wonderful life together, but that's not really what intrigues me here. Rather, it's Rostenberg as a learned, devoted, and above all, a generous antiquarian who moves me.

I worked for a while in a company that bought and sold historical documents, sometimes on behalf of clients and their collections. The monatary value of a historical document was determined by 1) rareness of following attributes available for purchase on private market, 2) the autograph of a famous person, 3) the amount of non-essential text written by a famous person, 4) the historical importance (as determined by present-day interests) of an event that has some relation to the signature of a famous person, 5) personal or poignant information conveyed by a famous person, preferable with autograph attached, 6) then first editions, secretary's hand, anciliary personages, witness testimonies, etc.

The ranking was clear: the market wanted Great Men, Great Events, and a clear material sign that the given document attached the Great Man and the Great Event to the given piece of paper. My company had big clients and was going places; we were building important collections, whose owners--big businesspeople with an eye on their legacies--understood the value of a taxbreak.

The trade in old books, papers, maps, and images gives the people involved an incredible opportunity to handle primary material. Academics usually only ask for or seek out a physical primary source when it's directly related to their study, but antiquarians and historical document-traders (the modern form) get the stuff dumped in their laps. Some of the people I worked with in this company had a sense of history that combined the specificity of the war-reenactor and the obsessiveness of the stamp-collector: the"big picture" was the market--flawed enough--but they knew the details of every battle and every early map. I have to admit that this antiquarian knowledge was rare and compartmentalized in my company. When I left the place, they had hired a consultant historian, who gave them reports on the "significance" of their acquisitions so that they could more efficiently process unseen documents into value.

Ms. Rostenberg, on the other hand, represents to me the kind of antiquarian who used her access to this massive, historical data to contribute to scholarly and public discourse. And Rostenberg's discovery of the gothic life of Louisa May Alcott might not have gained her much, in financial terms: Alcott published her stories to gain money and so tried to find the widest audience possible, which would cut down on the scarcity value of attributing any given copy to her. Antiquarians used to be distinguished by their great love and knowledge of primary sources. I fear--but would love to be proved wrong--that these characteristics are giving way to the market, to the anonymity of ebay.