The description a rare book dealer lists in a database or catalog entry is far, far more than simply a list of bland descriptors (format, publication date, publisher, condition, etc.) such as one finds at online retailers of new books (whose goal is to sell an infinite number of identical, flawless -- and thus featureless -- copies). The experience and knowledge a rare book dealer brings to bear allows him or her to recognize some of the history of an individual volume, and to establish its provenance.
John Carter defines “Provenance” (in his classic reference guide ABC for Book Collectors) as “The pedigree of a book’s previous ownership.” While it’s not necessary for a book to have had distinguished previous owners to be rare or valuable, volumes that enter the realm of “Association Copy” because of a previous owner’s connections to the author are very highly prized. The degree of association can vary, with a "Presentation Copy" given by the author to a friend or contemporary and inscribed with a note from the author, at the top of the heap. Carter defines the association copy thusly:
"a copy which once belonged to, or was annotated by the author;
which once belonged to someone connected to the author or someone of interest in his own right;
or again, and perhaps most interestingly, belonging to someone peculiarly associated with its contents."
You can find sterling examples of informative, knowledgeable, and thorough research in the catalogs of any ABAA member, but being National Poetry Month, we thought the following description of this signed, first edition of Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poetry, The Colossus, (offered by James S. Jaffe Rare Books) would be an apt exemplar of the bookseller’s art.
Presentation copy, inscribed by Plath on the front free endpaper: "For Luke & Cynthia / with love – / Sylvia / April 13, 1961."
A highly important association copy, rich in personal interest and history: E. Lucas (Luke) Myers, an aspiring writer from Tennessee, was intimately connected to Ted Hughes and Plath.
Plath met Luke Myers at Cambridge, where she and Myers were studying, and admired his poetry and fiction. In her journal entry for February 25, 1956, she wrote: "I have learned something from E. Lucas Meyers (sic) although he does not know me and will never know I’ve learned it. His poetry is great, big, moving through technique and discipline to master it and bend it supple to his will. There is a brilliant joy, there, too, almost of an athlete, running, using all the divine flexions of his muscles in the act. Luke writes alone, much. He is serious about it; he does not talk much about it. This is the way." – Sylvia Plath, The Journals (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), p. 207.
On March 3, Plath commented on Myers’ fiction: "A chapter – story from Luke’s novel arrived, badly typed, no margins, scrawled corrections, & badly proofread. But the droll humor, the atmosphere of London & country which seeps indefinably in through the indirect statement: all this is delicate & fine. The incidents & intrigues are something I could never dream up . . . Nothing so dull & obvious & central as love or sex or hate: but deft, oblique. As always, coming unexpectedly upon the good work of a friend or acquaintance, I itch to emulate, to sequester." – Plath, The Journals, p. 344.
Luke Myers was a close friend of Ted Hughes, and it was outside the chicken coop behind the rectory of St. Botolph’s Church that Myers rented from Mrs. Helen Hitchcock, the widow of a former rector, that Hughes used to pitch his tent on weekend visits to Cambridge University, from which he had graduated a year and a half before. St. Botolph’s rectory "was a poets’ haven, anarchic and unjudgmental", with Mrs. Hitchcock "turning a blind eye to the capers, bibilous and otherwise, of her undergraduate lodgers, of whom she was very fond." – Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (London: Viking Penguin, 1989), p. 73.
In February, 1956, a group of young Cambridge poets including Luke Myers, Ted Hughes, Daniel Huws and David Ross, among others, had just put together a little magazine appropriately named the St. Botolph’s Review after Luke Myers’ digs where they often gathered, and the launch party for the magazine (of which only one issue was published) was to be the occasion for the first fateful meeting between Plath and Hughes on Saturday, February 25, 1956. Plath, who had read some of the poetry by the St. Botolph’s group – and two of whose own poems had been criticized recently by one of them, Daniel Huws, in the student magazine Chequer – purchased a copy of the Review on the morning of the party, and memorized several of Hughes’s poems in anticipation of attending the party and meeting him. According to Plath’s journal entry, after dancing for a while with a drunken, "satanic" Luke Myers, she ran into Hughes. Amid the crush of the party, "I started yelling again about his poems and quoting: ‘most dear unscratchable diamond’ and he yelled back, colossal, in a voice that should have come from a Pole, ‘You like?’ and asking me if I wanted brandy, and me yelling yes and backing into the next room . . . And then it came to the fact that I was all there, wasn’t I, and I stamped and screamed yes, . . . and I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which has weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favorite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face." – Sylvia Plath, The Journals, pp. 211-212.
As Diane Middleton put it: "Ted Hughes may not have been looking for a wife that night, but Sylvia Plath was looking for a husband, and Ted Hughes met her specifications exactly." – Diane Middleton, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath – A Marriage (London: Viking, 2003), p. 5.
A month later in London, Hughes, not wanting "to declare his interest . . . asked Lucas Myers to play go-between. Myers could meet Plath for a drink somewhere, then just drop in on Hughes at the flat on Rugby Street, as if by chance. Myers admits in his memoir that he had taken a dislike to Plath, and that he agreed to this ploy reluctantly. He duly invited Plath to join him and Michael Boddy, another of Hughes’s friends, at a pub called the Lamb, in Conduit Street – a poets’ hangout – and shortly afterward suggested a visit to Hughes. It didn’t take long to see that Hughes and Plath wanted to be alone." Later that night, at Plath’s hotel, they spent – in Plath’s words – a "sleepless holocaust night" together. – Middleton, p. 24. Soon after, Hughes left the job he had in London and moved to Cambridge, sharing a flat with Myers in Tenison Road, meeting Plath every day, and abruptly marrying her on Bloomsday, June 16, 1956 – secretly, with Plath’s mother, Aurelia, the only family member at the wedding.
In later years, Myers was witness to the difficulties in the marriage, and aware of its tenuous nature. In a measured attempt to explain "Sylvia’s behavior and volte-faces between pleasantness and bitchiness" to Olwyn Hughes in a letter dated March 12, 1960, Myers wrote: "I have the feeling that it is best to think of Sylvia as being always pretty much as she was this weekend . . . Ted suffers a good deal more than he would ever indicate or admit, but he also loves her and I think it is best to assume he will stay with her. And she very evidently loves him in the self-interested and possessive way of which she is capable." (quoted by Stevenson, pp. 188-189)
For her part, Plath clearly valued her own, and Ted Hughes’s, friendship with Luke Myers. In 1961, anticipating the publication of her novel The Bell Jar, "Sylvia must have decided to protect herself, in view of the novel’s public portrayal of her mother and of a devastating period in her own personal history, by publishing it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was a name drawn from Ted’s world: ‘Victoria’ after his favorite Yorkshire cousin, Victoria (Vicky) Farrar, and ‘Lucas’ after his friend Lucas Myers." – Stevenson, p. 227.
Plath committed suicide at the age of 31 in February 1963. It is perhaps worth noting that the date of Plath’s inscription to Lucas and Cynthia Myers is exactly the same as that of the inscription in the copy of The Colossus that Plath gave to the poet Theodore Roethke.
--James S. Jaffe