Thursday, January 29, 2015

Down the thrifted book rabbit hole

I am working on a craft project that ended up overlapping with my professional interests pretty significantly, as I should have predicted it would.

I wrote about the project, decoupaging pages for old books onto the back of bookcases, on a new blog I began in order to practice my wordpress skills and have space for non-work related writing.

But then,  it clearly spilled over into work life, because as soon as I started getting intrigued about the book we'd found (a letter was tucked into it!), I discovered so much more about it and its author and the beautiful network of connections and information that the digital archive allows us to learn these days.

The author of the book we chose was Adrien Stoutenburg, who lived in Marin and died in Santa Barbara (just like me!... except I didn't literally die in SB). What I learned, with a little bit of googling (thanks Wikipedia -- I diss you a lot, but you're pretty awesome actually), was that not only did Adrien Stoutenburg write poetry, but she was also an editor. Also, likely gay (lady companion/housemate to whom she dedicated her first book...). Stoutenburg was an editor (the editor?) for Parnassus Press, which published children's literature. There's a lovely chapter on her as a writer by a fellow writer and literary gadabout that helps contextualize her (though his view of Adrienne Rich's work as political and therefore "bad poetry" needs, ahem, questioning, to say the least), and especially why she faded so quickly from the poetry scene in the 1960s and '70s (tl;dr: Culture Wars).

Curious, since there's no Parnassus Press in existence in the Bay Area that I know about today (and now my small press interest has been piqued), I looked that up (and I tend to use google books, scholar, and news for this kind of archival material). Turns out, they were in Berkeley and published Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, her first ever Earthsea novel! That's the kind of success that should be able to keep a small publisher afloat for decades. Le Guin was living in Oregon by then, but having grown up in Berkeley (the Maybeck house on Arch St. she grew up in sold a few years ago and I got to tour it during the open house: it's the dream Berkeley house.), clearly she knew these folks personally, I thought. Maybe she did them a favor.

Then, a little more searching, and it turns out that Le Guin's mother, Theodora Kroeber, had published the popular and famous children's book Ishi: Last of his Tribe, the children's version of her book about the tragic story of the last man from a tribe of Native Californians to survive repeated waves of colonization and retain his culture, with Parnassus in 1964!

[Sidenote: if you want your heart to break, read about Ishi -- it wasn't even his name -- in his culture, no-one says their own name, so for his last years as a living exhibit, he was simply known as "Ishi," which means man in the language he spoke to the anthropologists who sheltered him.]

Kroeber's book for adults sold millions, and the kids' one was turned into a movie. So what happened to Parnassus? Did it simply close shop? Did they sell the rights to Le Guin and Kroeber's work and all retire to the Bahamas and Santa Barbara?

The International Companion Encyclopaedia of Children's Literature (have I said yet how grateful researchers oughta be to Google Books' drive to make all of our written record searchable? They should be. It's awesome.), edited in 2003 by Peter Hunt, says that Parnassus was founded by someone named Herman Schein to support Californian writing (rather like Heyday Books today, also a Berkeley-based press) "overlooked by the eastern establishment" in 1957. I couldn't find anything on Schein online. Stoutenburg's letters are held in the archives at Cal, and I'd bet that the papers of Parnassus are as well. I'm so curious about the life and death of this small publishing house with a huge reach, all because I picked up a book of poetry by its editor at a thrift store in Oakland.

I still want to know who Derry is, and who the unimpressed anonymous neighbor is who wrote the letter folded up in the book we found... there's no way to find that out, even with the power of the internet, I'm afraid. Are you out there, Derry? Did your kids give your books away after you died? You loved Adrien Stoutenburg's book so much you read it aloud and pressed it on a neighbor. Thank you for being that kind of reader.

I'm having huge guilt over using this book as decorative fodder now, too.

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