We can’t imagine talking about the holiday season without talking about traditions, and here at the museum we have a few of our own. The staff office will soon be twinkling under the glow of Christmas lights, Wharton’s leather Santa decoration will hang by the kitchen door, and our museum store shelves will be stocked once again with our holiday notecard packets. Each packet of cards holds some combination of three of the following five woodcut prints, and what’s uniquely wonderful about them (aside from being beautifully crafted) is that each is a window into Esherick’s story. So whether they are on your wish list or not, we thought they deserved a closer look!
Three of the prints are from 1923 – Christmas Snows, December and January. Stylistically, they belong together. Each depicts a snowy scene, though Christmas Snows feels more like a blizzard! The sky is made up of countless stippled marks and fine lines which sweep diagonally across the image. The house is defined with a fury of diagonal sweeps as well (which also cross in front of the trees) masterfully setting the house beyond the storm, hiding it in the swells and gusts. Thank goodness for warm fireplaces! The full title of this print is actually Christmas Snows (Dorothy Cantrell’s House). We hope to one day find the exact location, which we suspect would have been close to Wharton’s own home.
Sometimes called January- Blankets of Snow, this print depicts a calm hillside (also somewhere near Wharton’s home though we can’t say where for sure). Wharton was often capturing the changing landscape around his farm from season to season, titling prints after the various month (possibly with hopes of publishing a calendar). In January one can spot a house, or maybe two, in the distance at the edge of the field, that perhaps the lone figure is returning to. With a wonderfully economic use of line Wharton achieves the voluminous quality of the snow covering the fence which leads our gaze out over the hillside.
These prints represent some of Wharton’s earliest recognition and success as an artist. January was among one of Wharton’s prints published in The Century Magazine around this time, which would have been distributed nationwide. His woodcut prints were also published in other magazines of the period such as The Dial, The Forum, The New Republic and Vanity Fair.
December portrays another snowy day – (those blankets of snow really lend themselves to woodcut grooves!) but in this case a house with snowfall softly covering the steps, brush and branches fills the picture plane. It’s Wharton’s own home, the 19th century farmhouse which he and Letty purchased to begin their life together, and which they lovingly named “Sunekrest.” In 1923, when this print was made, the family was still young, Mary was all of seven and Ruth still a baby (and Peter a few years away!)
Flash forward five years and we see Ruth depicted in Winter Play, sledding down Diamond Rock Hill Road. Ruth would later recall the thrilling ride, including the little “ski jumps” made along the road by shallow trenches intended to divert rainwater, and of course, the long hike back. In the image we can see that Wharton’s style has evolved, moving closer to abstraction and further from the more traditional, representational techniques – really pushing the potential of the high contrast medium.
Alabama Magnolia, completed the following year, is part of a series of Alabama Tree prints conceived during Wharton’s second trip to Fairhope, Alabama in 1929-1930. (Incidentally, Wharton also worked on a series of animal garden sculptures during this trip, in collaboration with the Alabama-based potter, Peter McAdam. Wharton and Peter’s Winnie-the-Pooh is one wonderful example of their creative partnership.)
Always a fan of trees, Wharton spent time on this trip sketching the trees of the region, including live oaks and pines, and the quintessential hanging Spanish moss. Working from these sketches, Wharton carved the blocks when he returned home to his studio. This print, as well as Winter Play and January, are actually wood engravings (the carving is done on the end grain) which allows for finer lines when carving. In Alabama Magnolia, Wharton continues with the bolder, more modern style we see in Winter Play, detailing the closest of the magnolia tree’s showy leaves, and leaving the rest silhouetted in the background. And of course, any Esherick fans down south know that wreaths made from magnolia leaves are a staple of Southern holiday decor, and make a fine edition to our notecard pack!
Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.
Few events leave such a legacy of wonder and spectacle on the national psyche as a World’s Fair. A beacon of hope and potential, 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair undoubtedly left its mark on America and we are excited to highlight Wharton’s contribution to this iconic exposition in this month’s post. To say the fair was expansive would be an understatement. Pavilions sprawled across Flushing Meadows Corona Park covering over 1,200 acres, effectively erecting a temporary city dedicated to the future. Nestled in between the Great Depression and the start of World War II, the fair was themed “The World of Tomorrow” and trumpeted the promise and potential of American ingenuity.
The fair included themed zones and attractions too numerous to list here, including everything from international exhibits at the ‘Lagoon of Nations’ to American industry giants like General Motors and RCA. Over 44 million visitors would attend, marveling at the Trylon and Perisphere (the great spire and orb at the fair center) and all the wonders of technology that surrounded them.
However, it soon became apparent that for all the electricity and aerodynamic cars the fair offered, it neglected to represent the future of domestic spaces. What would our daily lives look like? The “America at Home” pavilion, added to the 1940 season would correct that – and that’s where Wharton comes in!
A total of 16 architects and designers were commissioned for this exhibit, each producing a distinct room. One such architect was George Howe, who took the opportunity to collaborate with Wharton. (Perhaps Howe’s most well-known building is the PSFS – Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, the first International style skyscraper in the U.S.) For the fair, Howe designed the surrounding structure, while Wharton created a room display both modernist and rugged, which they called “A Pennsylvania Hill House.”
The display included some particularly iconic pieces, many of which you see on our tour here at the museum – the oak spiral stairs, the Curtis Bok sofa (now in Wharton’s bedroom) and the cherry walls that now surround the dining room, to name just a few. One of Wharton’s newest designs on display at the fair was a five-sided hickory table with black phenol top and a set of chairs derived from his earlier hammer handle designs. These marked a new direction in Wharton’s work, shifting from expressionist lines to lighter, curving forms. As a whole, Wharton’s arrangement was strikingly theatrical, especially when compared to the neighboring rooms. The images that remain reveal a layered, textural space heightened by dramatic light and shadow, and a sense for the warmth and emotional richness possible in design.
Wharton also took the opportunity to include other artist’s work (June Groff and Hannah Fischer are among the names that may be familiar to Esherick fans) and books on consignment from the Centaur Book Shop. A price list Wharton submitted to the fair provides us with a thorough inventory of the room – notably, Sock, the wooden dog footstool which Wharton made for his daughter Ruth on her eleventh birthday, was “Not for Sale.”
The World’s Fair was the first exhibition of Wharton’s work to reach a national and international audience, and seems to have been well received (although the advent of WWII turned America’s focus on things other than art buying). In a letter to Wharton from the America at Home Publicity Director, Lousie V. Sloane, she remarked that, “The ‘Pennsylvania Hill House’ is a very popular room with visitors… and the stairway continues to bring forth exclamations, questions and comments from those who go through the building.” (Sounds pretty familiar to those of us introducing the spiral stairs to visitors today!) Elizabeth Rae Boykin, writing for the Philidelphia Bulliten in 1940, noted how the room recalled Pennsylvania’s “pioneer tradition that translates well into a modern idiom.” It certainly seems to have stood apart in its simultaneous representation of a rugged past and a modernist future, asserting the enduring relevance of the handmade.
Check out these sites for more information about the 1939-1940 World’s Fair:
Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.
Last month the tents went up, we brought out the tablecloths and packed Horseshoe Trail with the cars of museum friends, family and docents as we hosted our Annual Members’ Party! This event is held each September, but the excitement around it extends far beyond, and for good reason. It is often mentioned to new visitors as the one day a year they can go inside the 1956 Workshop designed by Louis Kahn (and that is worth it!) – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a gathering of old and new friends, a chance to reconnect with the community Wharton’s work has inspired and we thought this was a good time to shed a little light on where this party has been and where it’s going!
First of all, this party goes waaay back. Basically, the museum was incorporated in 1972 and we’ve been partying ever since. Of course things have changed over time – looking back through our photos it seems we’ve tried facing the chairs in every possible direction, to say nothing of the polyester plaid pants. More substantially, the Members’ Party has come to serve as the opening reception and award ceremony for the Annual Woodworking Competition, hosted in our Visitor Center exhibition space.
Established in 1994 (thanks to Morton Weiss – a founding member of the museum who both conceived of the event and provided the funds) the goal of the competition has always been to encourage imaginative works that merge the sculptural and the functional. The theme this year was frames, and our exhibiting artists did not disappoint! The pieces on view achieve a range of styles from the delicate to the hearty with exceptional skill. This component of the afternoon is a wonderful opportunity for our museum community to meet with artists and support ongoing woodwork and design.
Members present at the party also cast their votes for the frame most deserving of the Member’s Choice Award, while the jury deliberates who gets First (the Dr. Henry Jordan Best in Show), Second, Third and the Horace Hartshaw Award (an award for best High School entry named after the last apprentice to work under Wharton). You can view a full gallery of the exhibition on our facebook page.
The day’s program also includes a guest speaker, and we’ve had many brilliant ones over the years – check out our previous blog post “Wharton to Wendell” for Wendell Castle’s remarks at the 1992 Members’ Party. This year Mark Sfirri (renowned woodworker, teacher and Esherick scholar) shared with us his recent research on John Schmidt, the cabinetmaker who was such an integral part of Wharton’s studio. Mark had established correspondence with Schmidt’s granddaughter, Margie Cooke, who was graciously able to provide photos of Schmidt – and who we were happy to have in attendance at the party!
Mark also took this opportunity to flip through a yearbook entitled Cinagro from the Marietta School of Organic Education, the progressive school which served as the impetus for the Esherick’s first trip to Farihope, Alabama, a trip which certainly changed the course of their lives. Cinagro (organic spelled backwards) will also now be part of the museum’s collection – thanks Mark!
The newest edition to the party program, put into full force this year, was the silent auction. With over twenty items and gift packages donated from artists, local museums, art organizations, restaurants and more the auction proved a great success. This year’s hot item was a beautiful slab of walnut donated by Hearne Hardwoods. Fundraising activities like these are exceedingly important in helping us steward this treasured place.
This year’s party was distinct in that it was dedicated to Ruth Esherick Bascom, Wharton’s daughter and co-founder of the Museum, who passed away in 2015. Mansfield “Bob” Bascom, Ruth’s husband and Museum co-founder, closed the event this year by sharing a few warm stories in her honor. A bulletin board on display collected photos of Ruth brought by friends over the course of the day allowing everyone to share their fond memories. Bob also announced the official donation to the museum of a number of Wharton’s sculptures that have been in Bob and Ruth’s personal collection. To end the evening friends of the Bascoms were invited in for beer and chocolate cake, Ruth’s favorite way to celebrate.
In recent years invitation to the party has been extended to include non-members as we strive to share the site with a broader audience and ensure the support we need as a donor-dependent organization! Naturally, our members are our greatest ambassadors, and Wharton’s legacy is expanded through your passion and commitment to sharing in our mission.
This event has been growing and changing to meet the needs of the Wharton Esherick Museum and its community since its inception, but one goal remains the same – to share in the joy of Wharton’s work and the exceptional people that have been drawn together by it. Join the party!
You can learn more about the benefits of becoming a member by clicking here.
Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.
As another summer gives way to the crisp fall air, we can imagine it feels a bit like the departure date of Wharton and Letty’s honeymoon over 100 years ago. The couple set sail from Ventnor City, NJ on the nearly three week cruise and (fortunately for us!) the happy memories of this adventure were not lost with the passage of time. Wharton, in true captain’s fashion, kept a daily log of the journey, which we’re excited to highlight in this month’s blog post. His chosen title, “The Log of the Cruise of the Wiwurna III: or (In Better Words) That Honeymoon”, should leave no doubt of the good humor and adventurous spirit detailed within!
Wharton Harris Esherick and Leticia Aloysius Nofer were married in Philadelphia on September 13th 1912. Raised in differing religions (Wharton’s family were Episcopalians, while Letty’s were Catholic) meant a church ceremony was out of the question, and the couple instead turned to a friend of both families, Judge J. Willis Martin, to help them tie the knot. It was also thanks to Judge Martin, who offered the couple the use of his motorsailer for a honeymoon cruise, that the couple would have many more knots to tie in the weeks ahead!
Flying the Ventnor Yacht Club flag, the Wiwurna III was a “38 foot hunting cabin motor boat, run with a 12 H.P. Hall engine” and “sails with 425 square feet of canvas.” It was equipped with a cabin, toilet and washroom with electricity and carried both a rowboat and a 16 foot canoe. The first few days aboard ship were spent puttering around the Jersey coast, getting used to the new accommodations, after which Wharton and Letty set out for New York. Wharton details their route, passing by Seaside Park, Asbury Park, sailing around Sandy Hook, through Swash Channel, into Kill van Kull and dropping anchor at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on the north shore of Staten Island. Hopefully the sites on land were nicer than the harbor, for this stopping point did not get a resounding endorsement from Wharton. Rather he called it “the dirtiest and noisiest place we could be, trains ran across our stern, while tugs and liners chased under our bow.”
Once in New York they spent several days enjoying the company of friends and family (though they always returned to the ship at night!) They visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Cuskaden, ate dinner in Chinatown with Uncle Millard, and took in a few plays, notably seeing George Arliss in Disraeli. The Cuskadens even joined Wharton and Letty for an excursion up the Hudson, spending a night aboard with the newlyweds. Wharton’s awe at the natural beauty of this region is palpable – “…that beautiful river of Hennrick [Henry] Hudson’s discovery flowing through great cuts, making high walls on either side; and immense woods reaching out above it all. Large palisades making the trains that run along their base seem like toys, and our little craft must have looked like a dot to these great rocks and mountains of ages. Man is only a speck to these wonders.”
It is commentaries like these from Wharton that are the most delightful as a reader returning to these pages. During a stop in Barnegat, New Jersey, Wharton delights in the laid back store owner, too comfortable at the local hotel bar to assist Wharton in buying ice, preferring to give Wharton the key and let him get it himself. Wharton is left wondering (surely with a smile) – “is that honesty or laziness?”
On another early night in their trip, the couple awoke to the US Life Saving Service coming to offer them help (though they were not actually in any trouble). The “rescuers” were quite surprised to see Letty poke her head out at the commotion, to which the Captain remarked “that fellow don’t need no help, he’s having a fine time – he’s got a girl on board.”
Not every couple would have been well-suited for such a rugged outing, a trip in many ways full of duties and hard work. However, Letty was spirited and unconventional (it is said that while other girls still played with dolls, she played with engines) and Wharton’s familiarity with sailing is apparent from page one. The log is peppered with nautical lingo (with references to the jib, aft sail, tenders, and such) and titles (Wharton as Skipper and Letty The Mate and Chief Engineer!). Indeed, a good portion of Wharton’s log aptly details (as it should) the wind, weather and tides and how they used these to get where they were going!
Wharton spent his fair share of time on the water as a youth. His parents owned a beach house in Longport, NJ where the Esherick boys taught themselves to sail, even spending one entire summer aboard ship. This experience must have come in handy when Wharton and Letty found themselves in a powerful storm. Making their way back down the Jersey coast from New York, Wharton recounts how the boat was “taking big breaks and poundings like a fighter, and sticking her nose out for more, many times rolling over to put the port holes under.” They managed to battle their way through gale force winds and rain and tuck into a cove south of Barnegat, New Jersey to wait out the storm.
Thankfully, not all of their time aboard the Wiwurna III was as harrowing as those stormy nights! Wharton and Letty straightened up, dried out and headed for Cape May, crabbing off the boat, and visiting the summer resorts on shore. The last few days of the honeymoon were spent making a leisurely push up the Delaware River, undoubtedly knowing that, with the cool October air, their trip would have to come to an end. In fact, their last night was spent covering up with “all blankets, sweaters and rugs” – they had held out as long as they could!
That last day, October 2nd, just shy of three weeks, Wharton and Letty “hauled out for the winter” at the Philadelphia Yacht Club in Essington, PA. Upon returning home, Wharton copied the log in ink and lovingly brought the stories to life with snapshots and illustrations. Letty then created a canvas cover for the pages, using linen cord and whittled sticks to bind the book, lending it a resemblance to a nautical chart and preserving it for future adventurers.
Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.
It is with heavy hearts that we share with you all new of the death of Ruth Esherick Bascom, 93, daughter of the sculptor Wharton Esherick, who died of congestive heart failure at Paoli Hospital on October 23rd. She donated her body for medical education. She was born June 28, 1922 at the family’s home on Diamond Rock Hill, Paoli.
In her youth she was active with the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, first appearing on stage at age nine in A. A. Milne’s ‘Make Believe” and apprenticing at the theater during her senior year at Radnor High School. For the next 15 years she was a member of the theater’s permanent company, specializing in stage lighting. Her favorite acting role was Madeline in Susan Glaspel’s “Inheritors”.
She left to be stage manager for the singer Libby Holman, setting-up stages across the country, including the Dag Hamerskold Auditorium at the United Nations in New York, for her “Blues, Ballads and Sin Songs” tour. (It was Ms Holman’s Christopher Reynolds World Peace Foundation that sent Martin Luther King to India to study non-violent protest under Mahatma Gandhi.)
In 1962 Ruth married Mansfield Bascom, the Director of Architecture and Engineering for the International Basic Economy Corporation in Puerto Rico. Together they were instrumental in preserving her father’s Paoli sculpting studio, a National Historic Landmark for Architecture, with a major collection of his work – woodcuts, sculpture, sculptural furniture and furnishings – to share them with the public as the Wharton Esherick Museum (www.whartonesherickmuseem.org), converting his furniture workshop into their residence.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by a step-daughter Halsey Bascom and an “adopted” daughter Helyn Sacher. There will be a memorial service for her in the spring, at the museum.
Her obituary will be printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer Saturday, 11/7. Memorial contributions can be made through the Support page on our website – please denote the memorial contribution in the notes section at check out. Thank you.
In light of the exhibition “Wharton to Wendell” at the new Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Florida, celebrating the work of Wharton Esherick and Wendell Castle, we decided to look back at Wendell’s remarks about Wharton’s influence on his work. Wendell Castle a guest speaker at our annual member’s party thirty-one years ago and his remarks were recorded in Fall 1992 edition of The Quarterly:
Thank you, Tom [Hucker], for those kind remarks. It certainly is a pleasure to be here. At a time when cynicism and despair and indiscriminate recycling of tired ideas from the past seem to dominate what’s going on in the art world, it is particularly wonderful to be here. It is so refreshing to see honest Yankee ingenuity and all those kind of wonderful things. I wonder as I sit here what I might be today if I had never come here. I don’t know what I would be. I wouldn’t be what I am – I know that.’
In 1958, while a student at the University of Kansas, I discovered Wharton Esherick’s work in a book called ‘Shaping America’s Product’, written by Don Wallace. In addition to Wharton Esherick’s work being in that book, Sam Maloof’s work was in that book and so was George Nakashima’s. But only one of them interested me, and I was just fascinated with what Wharton’s work looked like and what little bit the text said.
In the spring of 1958, a roommate and I made the journey from Kansas to visit relatives in this area and in the area of Roxbury, Connecticut. I remembered that Wharton Esherick lived in Paoli and that Alexander Calder lived in Roxbury. We knocked on Alexander Calder’s door and told him we were art students from Kansas, and he said come in. He showed us around and we had a great time and it was a very interesting experience.
A day or two later we arrived here. I don’t know how we ever found this place, but somehow we did and knocked on the door here. Well, Wharton Esherick wasn’t particularly interested in talking to us. He was busy. So, we went away. I only had a word or two, so I would like to refer to Wharton Esherick as my reluctant teacher. But that experience and seeing the studio – what I could see through the windows and what I could see of the house from here – was enough. That was way more than enough.
Ten years later, Don McKinley and I came together, and it was a wonderful and memorable visit on a day as beautiful as this. We sat on that beautiful patio, and we had lunch and talked about – I don’t remember what. It was a very meaningful day. Wharton didn’t seem to be one to want to get into profound statements about art or ideologies or philosophy, so we had rather ordinary conversations. We talked about making things, we talked about ideas, and we talked about tools and all kinds of wooden things.
But I think that from the early experience of having just seen this place and then having started my own career in art and coming up with a lot of the ideas that I came up with, I think that in many respects I share those thoughts that Wharton had, and many things that I consider to be important in my work were important in his work.
I made a list of ten things that I think I got from Wharton Esherick even though he never was my teacher. I learned more from him than most teachers I ever had class with.
Number One: I had no idea you could make furniture by hand and sell it and get paid for it. You know I didn’t know that was a possibility.
Number Two: I had never thought that furniture had expressive qualities, that furniture could have all of the kinds of qualities that painting and sculpture had. It had passion. It had presence, and it could be narrative. That directly came from Wharton Esherick’s work.
Number Three: furniture can actually be art – not just be like art, or something related to art – it can be art.
Number Four: the fact that art and life are one. And this is certainly a living example of that, this environment Wharton made for himself. He lived with art. He was around art all the time and there was no separating. He didn’t go to work and come home from work. That was all the same.
Number Five: furniture is not a minor art, that furniture is as major as any art and it can make as important a contribution to any art movement as anything can and be absolutely just as legitimate.
Number Six: the essence of an idea in a piece is far more important than the skill or the craft or the quality of the material that goes into it.
Number Seven: these ideas for furniture are best arrived at from anywhere but getting them from furniture. Wharton didn’t borrow [ideas] from the history of furniture – he made them up.
Number Eight: I was very impressed with the fact that Wharton Esherick had power tools in his studio and I thought craftsmen made things all by hand.
Number Nine: the importance of drawing. Drawing makes it possible to keep ideas so they don’t go away. Thoughts are fleeting. Ideas on paper are not.
Number ten is really that all of these ideas add up to one big idea: the importance of creative thinking, of good old Yankee ingenuity.
I would like to end this with ten ideas of my own about creativity. Sort of ten adopted rules of thumb that I like to use on a day-to-day basis in dealing with my own work:
One: If you’re in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
Two: It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
Three: After leaning the tricks of the trade, don’t think you know the trade.
Four: We hear and apprehend what we already know.
Five: The dog that sits on the porch will find no bones.
Six: Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms it was brought to you.
Seven: If it is offbeat or surprising, it is probably useful.
Eight: If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
Nine: Don’t get too serious.
Ten: Most importantly, it you hit the bulls-eye every time, the target is too near.
I think Wharton Esherick had his targets way out there. He was shooting great distances.
Thanks, everyone, for allowing me to be here today to celebrate this twentieth anniversary of this wonderful Museum.
For more information about Modernism Museum Mount Dora (3MD) please visit their website, and be sure to like them on Facebook! http://modernismmuseum.org/
You can also check out Wendell’s work at http://www.wendellcastle.com.
This month’s blog post was written by Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania.
Like so many Americans through the years, Wharton Esherick owned—and presumably read—banned books. An examination of the list of his books now housed at the Wharton Esherick Museum—and one should NOT assume that these are the only books he owned, let alone read—reveals that he had in his library books that were banned or prohibited in at least some parts of the country, if not the entire country, at one time or another. Some were by important American writers like Thoreau and Whitman, both of whose works encountered censorship at different times. Perhaps more importantly for Esherick, some of these banned books were works by friends of his, including Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, or by writers with whom he would have become acquainted through them or through his visits to Philadelphia’s Centaur Book Shop.
The Centaur Book Shop’s stock focused on modern literature, including first editions, limited editions, fine printing, and signed copies, as well as art books and an assortment of literary and philosophical magazines. The name for the bookshop came from a line (“‘Up on my back,’ said the Centaur, ‘and I will take you thither.’”) in James Branch Cabell’s novel, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919), which had been denounced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. According to Harold T. Mason, proprietor of the Centaur Book Shop, the reference “lent an air of mild wickedness to the enterprise,” although Mason himself did not find the work particularly obscene.
However, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought a case for obscenity against the book. The printing plates were seized in early January 1920, preventing the printing of additional copies. There were protests, leading to the formation of the Emergency Committee Organized to Protest Against the Suppression of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen. A published report of the Committee, Jurgen and the Censor (1920), included contributions by Cabell and such well-known writers of the time as Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Padraic Colum, Christopher Morley, and Theodore Dreiser. The legal proceeding against Cabell and his publisher ultimately failed, and they were cleared of all charges. Ironically, suppression of this novel only generated greater interest in the book, thereby increasing rather than decreasing its circulation.
Harold Mason, in acquiring books for the Centaur’s shelves, would have occasion to—stock, import, or smuggle, you choose—and sell a number of prohibited works, including Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—under the counter, of course. On December 20, 1929, D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the United States. Even before it was officially banned, however, Lawrence himself knew there would be controversy surrounding this work, and so he had the first edition privately printed in Italy.
Lawrence and Mason knew each other and corresponded in the late 1920s, in part as a result of the Centaur’s publication in 1925 of both A Bibliography of the Writings of D. H. Lawrence by Edward D. McDonald and a book of Lawrence’s essays, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, for which Esherick did the well-known woodcut of the porcupine that graces the half-title page. D.H. Lawrence’s correspondence with Mason, McDonald, and the Centaur Book Shop and Press was acquired by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and published as The Centaur Letters (University of Texas, 1970). Lawrence mentioned that he was privately printing Lady Chatterley in his 18 Dec 1927 letter to Mason, claiming that he is doing so because no publisher would dare, it being shocking “from the smut-hunting point of view,” so much so that “the Puritan will want to smite me down” (Centaur Letters, p 31). His greatest fear, as he expresses it later in the letter, “is your damned interfering censorship” (Centaur Letters, p 31), about which Lawrence asks Mason for his advice. In a subsequent letter, that of February 1928, Lawrence recognizes that he will not be able to get Knopf to publish an unexpurgated edition, so he says he’s “going to try to expurgate and substitute sufficiently to produce a properish public version” even as he plans to publish his own “unmutilated version” (Centaur Letters, p 32).
Lawrence writes to Mason in early July 1928 to say that the printer is mailing him a copy and tells him he’s grateful for getting him orders. Presumably some of the books did arrive safely in Philadelphia. In his letter of 6 September, Lawrence tells Mason that he believes the
publisher “shipped in all about 140 copies to America. How many are lost, I don’t know. But we know a fair number arrived” (Centaur Letters, p 35). There also appears to have been a pirated edition that Lawrence refers to in his 31 May 1929 letter, “produced in Philadelphia—& is now in second edition—& two different sources told me you were back of it—which I was very loth [sic] to believe” (Centaur Letters, p 36). The letter indicates that Mason had previously written to assure Lawrence he had nothing to do with it.
Unlike Jurgen, which Esherick knew and presumably read, even though it does not appear on the list (another Cabell work, Figures of Earth (1925) does), he clearly owned a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in a privately printed edition from 1928 (Book no. 20). Was it acquired from the Centaur Book Shop? It would seem likely that it was, given the role of Harold Mason played in smuggling copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into the country.
Theodore Dreiser’s realistic novel Sister Carrie, about a working class girl who moves to the city and pursues her version of the American Dream through the manipulation of men, was the first of his works to face censorship. Dreiser must have been aware that he had written what would be a difficult work for a major American publisher to publish. Turned down by Harper and Brothers, he then submitted it to a new firm, Doubleday, Page & Co., from whose junior partner Walter Hines Page he received a gentleman’s agreement to publish the work. However, when Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, read the typescript, he reacted negatively to the narrative, considering it “immoral,” and pushed not to publish it. Dreiser, though, demanded its publication, and upon receiving legal advice that it was bound to do so, the firm proceeded to publish it in 1900, but not before they censored the text, producing a cut and bowdlerized version of the original manuscript. In addition, to avoid bringing attention to the novel, Doubleday bound it in a non-descript red-cloth binding and then refrained from marketing it, in effect suppressing it. With fewer than 500 copies sold, it was essentially a failure.
When Dreiser himself had Sister Carrie reprinted in 1907, he did so using the expurgated Doubleday version. Harpers then republished it in this form in 1912. The cut and censored material was not restored until the University of Pennsylvania Press edition, published in 1981, went back to the original manuscript to recover as much of Dreiser’s original work as possible, thereby revealing the nature and extent of the Doubleday’s censorship. Esherick’s copy was of the 1917 Modern Library edition (Book no. 376).
Two other works by Dreiser also faced censorship, The Genius and An American Tragedy. After The Genius, published in 1916, was brought to the attention of the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and banned for being blasphemous and obscene, the publisher voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. Dreiser found a new publisher, who republished it in 1923, without challenge. An American Tragedy, published in late1925 by Boni & Liveright, was threatened with legal action in 1927 by the district attorney in Boston on the grounds that it endangered the “morals of youth.” The publisher, seeking to challenge this threat, convinced a Boston bookseller to sell the book. The bookseller was then arrested and fined. Although the famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow—hired by Horace Liveright to help in the defense of Dreiser in his fight for freedom of expression, was involved in the appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court—it was unsuccessful and the bookseller was convicted of “selling an obscene, indecent, and impure book.” While Esherick had many of Theodore Dreiser’s works on his shelves and likely had read these as well, neither of them are on the list of books currently at the Museum.
On a final note, Esherick’s good friend Sherwood Anderson also encountered censorship in the publication and dissemination of Winesburg, Ohio, a work that challenges the mores of small town America. John Lane, who published Anderson’s first two novels, refused to publish Winesburg, Ohio and it was banned in the public library in Anderson’s own town of Clyde, Ohio. Not surprisingly, Esherick had a copy of the first edition, published in 1919 (Book no. 423). So, it would appear that Esherick was very much part of a world in which censorship was alive and well.
For more information:
On Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
On Sister Carrie:
On censorship and banned books:
On banned book week:
Note from the author Lynne Farrington:
When considering censorship, it’s important to recognize that censorship comes in many forms. There is pre-publication censorship. This includes authorial self-censorship, that is, authors limiting what they write to avoid having their works suppressed by the authorities as well as publisher censorship, in which someone working on behalf of the publisher edits out or rewrites passages that might be construed as offensive or problematic or in which the publisher tries to suppress the entire work simply by being unwilling to publish it. The requirement at different times and in different countries that a work receive a license or privilege before it can be published is yet another form of pre-publication censorship. Works deemed inappropriate not only for reasons of obscenity, but more often because of specific political or religious content, are banned from publication and their authors are sometimes even imprisoned or put under house arrest for incitement, treason, or corruption charges, essentially as a way of stilling their voices.
There is also post-publication censorship, that is, the kind of censorship that prevents a book from being acquired, let alone read. This includes publishers not marketing the book; public libraries not acquiring the book; bookstores not carrying the book; and newspapers and periodicals not reviewing the book, all of which make a particular work virtually invisible to the reading public. The more vocal form of post-publication censorship happens once the book is out there in the world being read. These include public outcry from specific groups attacking book; requests to remove the book from bookstores, libraries, and schools; and a more general condemnation by religious authorities and public officials. All forms of censorship create an environment in which authors and readers alike find themselves stymied by outside forces attempting to control what they think, let alone write and read.