Texts of Choice: The Books of the Modern Library

By George M. Andes and Helen Kelly (Boston Book Company)
Copyright © 1989 George M. Andes and Helen Kelly
Used with permission

"No army on earth can hold back an idea whose time has come," Victor Hugo is supposed to have said, and he ought to have been speaking of the Modern Library.

In the second decade of this century the American intellectual climate was changing, moving away from the Victorian conservatism of Whittier and Lowell toward the European modernism of Ibsen and Butler. Launched in 1917 by the new publishing firm of Boni and Liveright, the Modern Library was both a product of and a contributor to this change. The idea and the time met, and the Modern Library was an immediate success.

The firm of Boni and Liveright might seem an unlikely vehicle for a major publishing coup, but, given the prevailing conservative attitude of the major publishing houses, it was, in fact, just the sort of outsider the industry needed, with enough naivete and courage to conceive and execute such a project.

Horace Liveright was an unsuccessful dramatist and sometime entrepreneur with no publishing experience; Albert Boni, an ex-bookseller from Greenwich Village with a very limited and not entirely successful publishing background. According to Liveright's biographer, Walter Gilmer: "Their total assets included $16,500 - borrowed at that - and a million-dollar idea, the reprinting of modern classics by British and Continental writers in cheap editions."

Again quoting Gilmer: "Boni's original scheme for the firm was simply the production of a series of reprints that lay between the established classics of the Everyman's Library, published by E. P. Dutton & Company, and the current popular fiction mechanically ground out by the A. L. Burt, and Grosset and Dunlap presses."

The series first appeared in May 1917 with 12 titles: Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray; Strindberg, Married; Kipling, Soldiers Three; Stevenson, Treasure Island; Wells, The War in the Air; Ibsen, A Doll's House, An Enemy of the People, and Ghosts; France, The Red Lily; de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi; Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra; Dostoyevski, Poor People; Maeterlinck, A Miracle of Saint Antony; and Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism.

Sales of these titles were so brisk that, in July, six more were added to the catalogue: Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Meredith, Diana of the Crossways; Shaw, An Unsocial Socialist; Moore, Confessions of a Young Man; Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge; and Great Russian Short Stories.

From this modest but promising start the Modern Library grew and flourished until it was finally displaced by the paperback revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. When the last new title, Kosinsky's Painted Bird, was added in 1970, the regular series boasted a catalogue of 396 titles, which taken together with previously replaced titles made a grand total of some 600 titles published in 53 years, a remarkable achievement in publishing and in adult education.

The complete Modern Library includes, as well as the regular series discussed here, the Modern Library Giants, the Illustrated Modern Library, and the Modern Library Paperback series, all of which are beyond the scope of this article.

As a reprint series, the Modern Library marketed literary gold, the refinement cost having been previously paid by the trade publishing industry. As such, it also benefitted from the cost savings inherent in uniformity. In May 1917 the initial volumes were priced at 60 cents; by May 1920 the price had risen to 95 cents where, remarkably, it stayed until November 1946.

By the fall of 1919, with some 70 successful titles in the series, Boni and Liveright could issue a promotional flyer with their advertising copy entirely written for them by the critics:


"Once again I urge you to gallop to the nearest book store and inspect the volumes in 'The Modern Library.' " New York Evening Mail.
"I was surprised to find them of such exceptional quality and workmanship. They surpassed my expectations." J. W. Morrison of The Kansas City Star.
"The Modern Library comes with a certain aggressive modernity that is very intriguing."The Chicago Post.
"A series that ought to be welcomed by all book lovers." The New York Herald.

The New York Herald was right. Witness the introduction to a 1920 catalogue bound at the back of a volume:

". . . in publishing circles it was considered impossible to continue the sale of these attractive Hand Bound Limp Croft leather books, printed in large clear type, at any price under One Dollar a volume. But the large number of intelligent book buyers, a much larger group than is popularly supposed, has not only made possible the continuation of this fine series at the low price of Eighty-five Cents a volume, but has enabled us progressively to make it a better and more comprehensive collection."

The popularity of the Modern Library continued to increase and provided a steady income for the firm of Boni and Liveright, now headed solely by Liveright following a disagreement between the partners which they settled by the toss of a coin. Liveright paid little attention to the Modern Library; he was interested in other publishing ventures and also in the exciting and speculative worlds of Broadway and Wall Street.

Perennially short of money, in 1925 he sold the Modern Library to a young vice-president of the firm, Bennett Cerf. With a friend, Donald Klopfer, Cerf paid $215,000 cash plus his interest in Boni and Liveright for the Modern Library - lock, stock, and barrel, perhaps the best bargain since Manhattan Island changed hands for 24 dollars some years previously.

Bennett Cerf tells of the early days of The Modern Library, Inc.:

"To show that what an incredible purchase The Modern Library was: in two years we had made back not only the fifty thousand we had borrowed, but the entire investment. The minute we gave our full attention to it, the series simply boomed. The only competition was Everyman's Library, and it was languishing."

"For a while all Modern Library orders still went to Liveright, so the first thing we'd do every day, Donald and I, the two great publishers, was go to 48th Street and collect them. Then we'd rush back and count the number of books ordered. We did this for months. It was great fun. When we'd get a big order from Macy's, we'd dance around with glee because it ran the total way up."

Cerf and Klopfer devoted their energies entirely to the Modern Library, weeding out unprofitable titles and experimenting with new authors. The Modern Library became part and parcel of American intellectual life; it was on sale in every college bookstore; its volumes were inexpensive, durable, and reliable, and were the texts of choice across the land. As such the series and its authors became the staples of the diet of the educated.

Two fine articles by Gordon B. Neavill establish Modern Library scholarship on a firm basis. One, published in 1981, explores the intellectual climate which fostered the Modern Library, the historical impact of the early Modern Library, the evolution of the literary content of the Modern Library throughout its long life, and the corresponding changes in its place in American publishing and literary life. The other, published in 1979, describes 60 lively years of change in the manufacture and design of the books of the Modern Library.

From its formation in 1916 and throughout the 1920s Boni and Liveright was a respected trade publisher; in 1927 Cerf and Klopfer began Random House, publishing new titles, as they described it, at random. Neavill (1979) has said it clearly: "The Modern Library has the distinction, therefore, of having served as the foundation from which two publishing firms of great significance were built."

The Modern Library is of interest to collectors and dealers as a series, as a record of a publishing enterprise, and as history of 20th-century American literary and popular tastes. As a series it can be sought solely for the satisfaction of completion, from the simplest accumulation of every title, without or with dust jacket, through a collection of first printings in jacket, to the probably unattainable ideal: a collection of every title in every edition and every variation in every jacket.

As a popular reprint series the Modern Library set standards for form and style that are still industry benchmarks, standards of care and attention to detail which rivaled those of the best trade publishers of the time. Volumes were properly sewn and bound, had stained top edges, came with dust jackets, and, beginning in 1919, illustrated endpapers. Some early titles had frontispiece illustrations of the author (Wilde, Moore, Flaubert); many had introductory material written for the Modern Library, and most gave some copyright or other bibliographic information.

The earliest bindings were imitation leather (Croftleather); in 1929 this became flexible boards covered with balloon cloth, and in 1940 linen-covered hard boards. This was no cheap throw-away series borrowing title-pages, fly sheets, and everything else except profits from former publishers; these were real books.

The earliest dust jackets were typographic. In the 1920s new titles began to be issued in pictorial jackets, and from then on jacket design became an increasingly important marketing device. Many titles show a delightful sequence of jackets demonstrating the changing styles in advertising design from art deco to the most recent.

The sequence of books in the early Modern Library also makes up a record of the evolution of printing styles in the publishing of an extensive series. The Modern Library was Boni and Liveright's first major publishing venture, and it is tempting to see in the bewildering variety and combination of printing and binding styles from 1917 to 1925, a record of education on the job.

No less than five major styles of title-page combine with two types of endpapers and three bindings in nine so-far-discovered combinations. Eight early titles have been found each showing four of these combinations by itself. Two more minor (one unique) title-page styles create two additional combinations. Does any title come in all of these styles? Good hunting.

The Cerf and Klopfer years from 1925 to 1970 were more orderly. Nonetheless, three types of binding material, seven styles of lettering and decoration variously applied to those bindings, three endpaper designs, two regular, and a large and unknown number of individually designed post-1939 title-pages give ample scope for the enthusiast.

The collector of an individual major author, a Flaubert or Butler for example, will find the Modern Library rewarding. Ten variants of Madame Bovary and 12 of The Way of All Flesh are known, not including dust jacket varieties. These are admittedly minor additions to the bibliographies of these authors, but what dealer will gainsay the specialist?

Although primarily a reprint series, the Modern Library boasts a number of true first editions, as well as several First Modern Library Editions (FMLE) being the first appearance of the text as the author wished it. Three notable examples follow.

Rockwell Kent., Wilderness, FMLE 1930. From "A Second Preface," p.viii:

"Privileged by conviction to confirm, as I have, my thoughts of years ago, I am again privileged by the broad-mindedness of the proprietors of the Modern Library to restore to the following journal two lines of German folk-song that my original publishers . . . in the fervor of postwar patriotism, secretly deleted, and subsequently would not put back. They are on page 68, and mean: 'Good moon, you go quietly through the evening clouds."

C. S. Forester. The African Queen, FMLE 1940. From "A Very Personal Explanation," p[viii]:

"I do not know what novel it was that I was writing by the time the typed script of The African Queen reached Messrs Little, Brown and Company. . . . Whichever it was, however, I could not work up any interest when they told me that they did not like the end of the book and had thought of a simple way of changing the end without calling for any effort from me. The fact that no effort was called for was sufficient inducement. I wrote blithely and agreed, and it was only when my complimentary copies reached me in England that I really appreciated what had happened to the book when it had been docked of its last two chapters. . ."

So it is with very great pleasure that I welcome this reissue of  The African Queen for the opportunity it gives me of presenting the book in the form in which I first pictured it."

          C. S. Forester

Jerzy Kozinsky. The Painted Bird, FMLE 1970, September 1970. The following appears on p[ii]:

"This Modern Library Edition of  The Painted Bird incorporates some changes which did not appear in any previous edition. The Author"

In addition, many of the collections and anthologies listed in the catalogue under Miscellaneous were original with the Modern Library. Some of these anthologies were prepared by authors interesting in their own right, such as Conrad Aiken and W. B. Yeats. Perhaps of more interest are the Modern Library's first printings of two small collections from the works of two acknowledged 20th-century giants: Bertrand Russell, Selected Essays (1927), with a preface written for the Modern Library by the author; and Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1962).

Many Modern Library books had introductory material written specially for the Modern Library by prominent critics and scholars; the following had special Modern Library introductions written by the author:

  • Sherwood Anderson Poor White
  • Pearl Buck The Good Earth (rev. ed. 1944); 
  • Erskine Caldwell God's Little AcreTobacco Road
  • John Dos Passos The 42nd ParallelThree Soldiers
  • Norman Douglas Old Calabria
  • Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie
  • Havelock Ellis The Dance of Life
  • Howard Fast The Unvanquished
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
  • John Gunther Death Be Not Proud
  • Lillian Hellman Four Plays, Six Plays
  • John Hersey A Bell for Adano
  • Robinson Jeffers Roan Stallion and Others
  • Rockwell Kent Wilderness
  • D. H. Lawrence Women in Love
  • I. P. Marquand The Late George Apley
  • W. Somerset Maugham Cakes and Ale
  • Margaret Mead Coming of Age in Samoa
  • James Michener Selected Writings
  • Christopher Morley Human Being
  • A. Edward Newton Amenities of Book Collecting
  • Clifford Odets Six Plays
  • John O Hara Appointment in Samara
  • Katherine Anne Porter Flowering Judas
  • William Saroyan The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze
  • Budd Schulberg What Makes Sammy Run?
  • Irwin Shaw Selected Short Stories
  • Vincent Sheean A Personal History
  • John Steinbeck Tortilla Flat
  • George Stewart Storm
  • Irving Stone Lust for Life
  • Horace Walpole Fortitude
  • Robert Penn Warren All the King's Men
  • Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway

In writing these introductions, several authors mention their pleasure at having their work included in the Modern Library. For instance, Sherwood Anderson:

"To the Editors and Readers of the Modern Library:

This is something I like doing. . .

There is this book,  Poor White - now to be published in The Modern Library, tricked out in a new dress, going to call on new people. The Modern Library is something magnificent. Long rows of books - illustrious names. My book,  Poor White, feels a little like a countryman going to live in a great modern sophisticated city....

That it is to go into The Modern Library and perhaps find many readers, that it may again live in the life of the imagination other people lead, also excites me.

And in 1935 the series even received the slightly condescending praise of A. Edward Newton:

"A final distinction has befallen The Amenities of Book Collecting. It has received the accolade of a popular edition. The publishers of the Modern Library have for some time sought and have finally secured the right to publish The Amenities at a price less than the author has hitherto received as a royalty for each copy sold.

Of the many series of popularly priced books, the Modern Library is, in the opinion of the writer, the best. The books are well printed in clear type on good, if thin, paper, and are well bound and of convenient size. So much for the format; the publisher's claim that the world's best literature is to be found in the Modern Library is everywhere admitted.

"Oak Knoll" Berwyn, Pennsylvania. June 1, 1935. A. Edward Newton.

He nonetheless apparently did accept the smaller royalty.

Four of the most popular titles were issued in clearly identified new Modern Library editions. From the copyright page:

"New Modern Library Edition 1931 
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in the Modern Library for the first time in 1917. In the ensuing fourteen years, over 150,000 copies of the book were printed, after which the original plates were destroyed. The first edition from new plates was printed in October, 1931."

Given new editions at the 100,000-copy mark were Madame Bovary, 1918 to May, 1927; Candide, 1918 (the citation gives 1920) to June 1930; and Diana of the Crossways, 1918 to October 1931. Many other titles were issued in new or revised editions but carry no such identifying citation.

In his bibliography of the works of Robert Graves, Higginson states that 89,000 copies of the ML edition of I, Claudius were issued from 1937 to 1964. Oddly enough, The Great Gatsby sold poorly and most of its initial printing of 5,000 copies was remaindered or destroyed (Neavill 1981).

Relative Scarcity
An attempt to establish the current relative scarcity or availability of the various titles may be in order. Estimating scarcity is always a risky business. If a title has been seen often, it is not too scarce; if it has not been seen very often, all that can be said is that it may have been looked for in the wrong places. On the basis of visiting a fair number of mostly New England and middle Atlantic bookstores and libraries, the following remarks are hazarded; other localities may yield different results.

The number of years a title remained in the Modern Library catalogue may possibly be an indication of the number of copies issued, but it is often a very poor measure of the frequency with which that title now appears in used book stores. Some titles seem to appear on the market out of all proportion to their probable sales.

Neavill (1981) reports a total printing of 9,000 copies of George Douglas Brown's House with the Green Shutters and very poor sales, yet, although the title is uncommon, it is not overly so. On the other hand, Stevenson's Treasure Island, one of the original 12 and in the catalogue for nine years, is difficult to find in any state, and downright rare in the original issue. The same seems to be true of The Modern Library Dictionary listed from 1959 to 1970. Some early titles seem to be endlessly available; George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man and Anatole France's The Red Lily are two good examples.

As for the first issue of the original 12 titles, the Ibsen, France, and Schopenhauer seem to be the most common; the Wilde, Stevenson, and Wells the scarcest; the other six fall somewhere between. Original dust jackets for any of these are, of course, very rarely seen.

The availability of a title, especially as an FMLE, does not depend on its age in any obvious manner. Life With Father (l944) and The Best Short Stories of 0. Henry (1945) have both been hard to find in FMLE.

Asking prices for Modern Library titles at present seem to be mostly a matter of dealer whim. First Modern Library Editions, especially in a clean jacket, usually command a small premium, but except in a few well-known, and expensive, cases of titles by important authors, like Gatsby with the new introduction by Fitzgerald, Faulkner's Sanctuary, or Hammett's Maltese Falcon, there seems to be no consensus on value. All titles have gotten more difficult to find over the past five or so years, but whether this will lead to a corresponding significant increase in price is not clear.

Scarcity vs. Price
It is often imagined that because the price of most items decreases as their supply increases the converse is also true, that the scarcity of an item will guarantee a high price. This can only be true if the item is in demand. The Modern Library series clearly illustrates this.

The series contains a number of what today are obscure titles by nearly forgotten authors - Love's Coming of Age by Edward Carpenter (1918), Yama by Alexandre Kuprin (1932), Men in War by Andreas Latzko (1920), Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti (1920), Maurice Guest by Henry H. Richardson (1936), and The Time of Man by Elizabeth M. Roberts (1935), to pick an easy half-dozen. These are not especially common items, yet they are never offered for sale at any particular premium. Scarcity in and of itself does not promote value.

Because of the Modern Library's special niche in American publishing history, its content is as important as its form. Taken as a whole, the series is an important record of our nation's changing literary values and tastes from the first World War through the Vietnam experience. Even the least expensive and easiest to assemble collection of titles constitutes an important reference library on mid-2Oth-century American literary sociology.

It is humbling to consider the literary range of the Modern Library; perhaps the comparison is unfair, but in breadth it certainly exceeds Charles W. Eliot's Harvard Classics, the reading of which was supposed to provide the equivalent of a college liberal arts education.

A quick survey of authors yields: Drama - Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, O Neill, Schnitzler, Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks, Moliere, Hellman, Wilde, and numerous anthologies; Poetry - Whitman, Swinbume, Longfellow, Auden, Dickinson, Jeffers, Milton, Hoffenstein, Baudelaire, Villon, and the collections; Women - Austen, du Maurier, Porter, Wharton, Schreiner, Cather, Welty, Webb, Dinesen, Buck, Colette, Renault, Stein; The Philosophers - Nietzsche, Aristotle, Aquinas, Schopenhauer, Plato, Confucius, Russell, plus historical and cultural anthologies.

Also to be mentioned are translations of Dante, Cervantes, Rabelais, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Merejkowski, Mann, France, Gide, Camus, Racine, and all of Proust.

Add to the list Henry Adams and The Arabian Nights in the Burton translation, Lafcadio Hearn and Thorstein Veblen, D. H. Lawrence and Margaret Mead, and the immense scope of the Modern Library becomes evident.

For both collector and dealer, assembling a set of the works of a major author or school of authors is a commonplace collecting objective, an objective which grows ever more difficult and expensive as the number of items available for sale or purchase becomes fewer and fewer. The important authors have replaced the major ones as public and private collecting steadily inflates the market; in its turn important will no doubt yield to seminal or some other euphemism for the minor.

Collecting the imprints of important printers or publishers from Canton to Aline, to Ticknor and Fields, to Stone and Kimble has also always been considered a legitimate enterprise. The acquisition of an extensive publisher's series is certainly as worthy a goal for the collector who wishes to document the literate past, or printing history, or public taste and who wishes to exercise intelligence, taste, and care in the process.

In part, this practical consideration is one reason why the Modern Library provides an ideal and almost inexhaustible collecting challenge. Collecting these inexpensive and in some respects almost ubiquitous volumes requires knowledge, patience, and persistence though not especially deep pockets. The Modern Library collection resembles a mosaic; the significance of the whole is indeed much different from that of its individual parts; and the value of the individual volumes are much greater in the company of their fellows. In comparison to its size there are few "high spots." The collection's value comes almost exclusively from its scope.

In some bookstores Modern Library volumes are set off in a section by themselves; in others they are distributed throughout the general stock. Regardless of whether they boldly announce themselves as a series or shyly hide from the eye of a purchaser, the novelists, poets and playwrights of the Modern Library are still to be found, as Boni and Liveright proudly proclaimed 70 years ago, in "attractive books, printed in large clear type and available at a surprisingly low price."

George M. Andes. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Modern Library: 1917-1970, Boston: Boston Book Annex, 1989.
Bennett Cerf. At Random, New York: Random House, 1977.
Walter Gilmer. Horace Liveright. Publisher of the Twenties, New York: David Lewis, 1970.
Gordon B. Neavill. "The Modern Library Series: Format and Design, 1917-1977." Printing History, Vol. I, No. 1, 1979.
Gordon B. Neavill. "The Modern Library Series and American Cultural Life." Journal of Library History, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1981.

This article first appeared in AB Bookman's Weekly Nov 27, 1989, and is Copyright © 1989 George M Andes and Helen Kelly. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.


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