March 2012 | Nate Pedersen

List Lust: Carol Fitzgerald

Bibliographers are the unsung heroes of the antiquarian book world.  Today marks the start of a new, occasional series at the Fine Books blog where we profile some of these unsung heroes.  We begin with Carol Fitzgerald, who has published two excellent bibliographies with Oak Knoll Press. The first, Rivers of America, covers that landmark series on American rivers, while the second, Series Americana, covers the variety of Americana series that sprang up in the wake of the Federal Writers' Project.  Nicholas Basbanes spoke with Carol about her Series Americana three years ago when it was first published.  Today, we check in with Carol to hear more about the careful art of bibliography:

NP: When and how did you become interested in writing bibliography?

CF: Until I started collecting books in the Rivers of America series in the mid-1980s, I never gave bibliography much of a thought. But over the years, as my Rivers collection grew, I occasionally found special, limited, signed, and variant editions of titles in the series, which sparked my curiosity about other series titles that might also have been so issued. About that same time, I began to research the authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers, gathering information about their roles in the series, hoping to augment my expanding list of Rivers of America titles.  The names of many of the men and women chosen to write the books in the series were unfamiliar to me, as they were popular writers long before I was born, and most had either died or were no longer actively writing.  I found a few living series authors to whom I wrote, asking how they came to write their book and for any other information they might have about the series. Those authors and illustrators provided valuable first-person information, and several became good friends for many years. My collection continued to grow, as did my files from months of research of old Publishers' Weekly magazines on microfilm, correspondence with the few living authors and editors, and photo copies from the files of numerous libraries.

Still unable to find a comprehensive list of the books in the series, aside from the sometimes sketchy lists on the back of dust jackets, I compiled my own list, based on the books I already owned or knew existed. By the early 1990s I decided I had a story to tell: a bibliography augmented with first-person and other accounts of how the books were written, a story of the publishing history of the series, and perhaps a novel approach, the biographies of the authors, illustrators, and editors. It was a huge undertaking for someone who had never been trained in this type of work, but I felt strongly that the story should be told. As you may know, my work has been described as a history-biography-bibliography, and perhaps has broken new ground for presenting a comprehensive bibliography.
NP: What do you love about bibliography?

CF: Perhaps putting things in order. I guess I might be called a "completist" and enjoy the challenge of finding missing pieces. I find research exciting and the rewards great. In addition to finding elusive volumes, the search for biographical information for authors, artists, and editors was sometimes especially difficult. While most the authors were well-known and respected in their field, a few were "one-book" authors whom I had to track down using Census records, the Social Security Death Index, local news clips, etc. In turn, series illustrators often pursued careers other than book illustration and women married and changed names.

Although there are formulas for composing a bibliography, I believe the most important thing a bibliographer can do is to let the books themselves determine how the bibliography will flow. Every bibliography, whether it is of a single author or a series of books such as I have chronicled, will have unique characteristics that dictate how the books should be described. I love to learn the story behind the writing of a book. Often there are real human events that make a particular book more precious. For example, Frank Ellis Smith, author of The Yazoo in the Rivers of America, had been given a $1000 advance to write his book, but his duties as a Mississippi congressman caused him to delay the writing of the book. When asked to produce the book or return the advance, Smith, not having the $1000 to return, wrote the book in four months. Funny story; good book; nice anecdote.

NP: What's the hardest part about composing a bibliography?

CF: Finding and personally examining each book. In my case I personally owned nearly all of the books in my two bibliographies. Some books are exceedingly hard to find. First edition, first printings are usually easy, but a seventh printing, in dust jacket, might be difficult.  In the Rivers of America series, for example, for many years the publisher kept all volumes in print, sometimes issuing a new printing of as few as 500 copies. To find one of these reprints is challenging, to say the least! Tracking down publication prices of variant editions is often difficult as these editions may not have been widely advertised or distributed. Most publishers' files, which might contain such information, no longer exist, the victims of mergers and the resulting destruction of old records.

NP: The most rewarding part?

CF: Organizing a body of work into a useful order and putting into perspective various aspects of an author's or publisher's purpose for creating or producing the books.  Further, a chronological order of an author's work puts his life's work in perspective.

NP: What drew you to the Rivers of America series, then onto the various entries in Series Americana?

CF: It was a casual purchase, in 1984, at the Miami Book Fair, when I purchased a lovely first edition of The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities by Branch Cabell and A.J.Hanna for $15.00.  I had planned to give it as a Christmas present to my sister, Jeannie Knoepfel, and her husband, Hans, who live on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. A bookseller friend who had accompanied us to the book fair noted, "That would make a nice collection."  "A collection of what?" I asked.  And, he replied, "The Rivers of America series."

The seed was planted.  I kept the book for myself, found another gift for my sister, and several years later had assembled a growing collection of Rivers books.  Over time, my collection included several other series I call Series Americana that were conceived around the same time that the Rivers books became popular. The collection of such series came about partially because some of the Rivers authors also contributed volumes in other series such as Regions of America, American Folkways, American Trails, etc., and I often bought books in these other series to learn more about the authors. And wonderful booksellers would suggest books in series I did not know of or own. So, as my Rivers collection grew, so did my collections of other Series Americana.
After the Rivers of America bibliography was published I felt I had accumulated enough information on other series for a companion book, but I had intended it to be small, and mostly a listing of books in other series.
As you can see, the second book, a two-volume, nearly 1,000-page bibliography of thirteen different series, grew into a major project. And using the template of the Rivers of America book, once again I wrote biographies of the authors, illustrators, and a publishing history, but, except for variant and special editions, I did not describe every printing of every edition as I had done with the Rivers of America.

That is a long answer, but it's a little like The House That Jack Built - one thing led to another, and I'm glad I had an opportunity to do the research, buy the books, meet fabulous people along the way, and make some order out of what was a scattered array of important American literature.

NP: What's your favorite entry in the Rivers of America series?

CF: This is difficult -- each book in the series is a treasure, as are the friendships forged over the years through correspondence and personal meetings with all who helped me write the story of the Rivers of America series.  But . . . The Kentucky by Thomas D. Clark stands as my favorite. Not only did my research on this title lead to an unforgettable friendship with Dr. Clark and Barbara Allen, the sister of John A. Spelman III the illustrator, I was fortunate to visit Lexington, Kentucky and the University of Kentucky on two occasions to meet with Dr. Clark. The purpose of my first visit was to give a gallery talk at the opening of an exhibit of books from my Rivers of America collection, expertly curated by Gail Kennedy, at the University's new William T. Young Library. On this visit, Dr. Clark and his wife, Loretta, took my husband and me on a day-long tour of the Lexington area - Blue Grass country, horse country, the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and, most exciting of all, Dr. Clark personally showed me the Kentucky River -- an unforgettable day. My second visit to Lexington was to attend the University of Kentucky's celebration of Dr. Clark's 100th birthday, which provided another memorable opportunity to visit with this great historian and writer.

NP: What's your favorite Americana series in Series Americana?

CF: While it is difficult to choose one of the 163 titles from among the thirteen series described in Series Americana, Tropic Landfall: The Port of Honolulu by Clifford Gessler, a title in the Seaport Series, seems to exemplify the era that spawned some of the other series I cover in my book. Written, and ready for publication in late fall 1941, it was a "stop the presses" moment for Tropic Landfall when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. A new Prologue was prepared, titled "The Port at War," with the chilling first sentence reading, "The bombs fell. When this book went to press, Honolulu was a closed port . . ." Doubleday's ads for the book (published January 23, 1942) in Publishers' Weekly emphasized that our country was at war, and thus a new dimension of life was in place for all Americans. The author, Clifford Gessler, was one of the most difficult about whom to find biographical information. He died in 1964.

NP: What's your next project?

CF: When I wrote the Rivers of America bibliography I could not have imagined that I would write another two-volume bibliography, but I did. So, never say never, but right now my focus is on putting my personal library in order, identifying the best possible "homes" for some of my reference books, biographies, and other bibliographies, some of which are elusive in today's market. Many of my reference books, indispensable to my understanding the literature and publishing houses of the 1930s and 1940s, might help other students of that period better understand and put in perspective the difficulty of publishing during the Depression-era and the war years. The country was united for the most part, dealing with a desperate economy, and then came the sacrifices required of everyone during World War II. But people were still buying books, and publishers struggled to maintain a balance between the demand for literature and scarce raw materials, such as paper, for the production of books.

On a personal note, my work could not have gone forward without the help and encouragement of my husband, Jean, who edited both books. And I am forever grateful for the friendship and encouragement of Alexander McLeod, who arranged for a Rivers exhibit in Nashville, which was attended by John Y. Cole, Director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, who arranged for a symposium at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the 60th Anniversary of the publication of the first book in the Rivers series. It was John Cole who worked with Oak Knoll Press to co-publish both books, and I am forever grateful for both his and Oak Knoll's interest in my work.
So, everything worked out. And, by the way, all of the books, ephemera, files, art work, etc. connected with both books are now housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress, available to those who are interested in personally examining these truly American books.