June 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Rivers of America at 75 Years

A Guest Blog by Carol Fitzgerald, author of the bibliographies The Rivers of America and Series Americana, both of which are available from Oak Knoll Press.

The Rivers of America
75th Anniversary

kennebec.jpgJune 14, 2012, will mark the 75th Anniversary of the publication of Kennebec: Cradle of Americans by Robert Peter Tristram Coffin, the first volume in The Rivers of America Series. The series, conceived and planned by Constance Lindsay Skinner in the mid-1930s during the depth of the Great Depression, was to cover about twenty-four rivers, but the quality and popularity of the books carried the series far beyond the original plan, topping off at sixty-five volumes when the series ended in 1974 with the publication of The American: River of El Dorado by Margaret Sanborn.

americanriver.jpgA succession of publishers: Farrar & Rinehart; Rinehart & Co.; and Holt, Rinehart & Winston, as well as several editors: Constance Lindsay Skinner, who planned and started the series; Stephen Vincent Benét; Hervey Allen; and Carl Carmer, kept the series going during some of the darkest days in our nation's history. The books, written by some of the finest writers of their time, and illustrated by artists, some of whose work today hangs in fine art museums, captured and preserved the folklore and history of not only the United States, but of Canada, and even of a river in Panama, The Chagres: River of Westward Passage.

chagres.jpgOver the past 75 years, the Rivers of America books have become highly collectible for several reasons: their regional appeal, their authors or illustrators, or for those like me, collectors who wanted to own a complete set of the books in the series.

We should not let this anniversary go unnoticed, as the Rivers of America series is a testament to our heritage, and for future generations the series will serve as a perspective of where we as a nation stood so long ago, as well as our appreciation of our country and its resources, our culture, and literature that mattered during the mid-1900s.

As I reflect on the joys of collecting books in the Rivers of America series, it is hard to decide which of the books are most important or meaningful, as each title is an important part of the whole, with a distinguished author and, if illustrated, a talented artist who, together tell the story of a great river and the region it served.

But as I developed what would be the definitive collection of Rivers books, and had the pleasure of sharing my collection through my work, The Rivers of America: A Descriptive Bibliography, a few books hold special meaning to me, and some have become valuable beyond my expectations.

st johns.jpgI shall never forget my first Rivers of America book: The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities by Branch Cabell, and illustrated by Doris Lee. The purchase of that book in 1986 began a grand adventure of visits to untold numbers of dusty bookshops across the U.S., and led to precious and unforgettable friendships with authors and illustrators of books in the series, as well as others who shared my passion and interest in the series, an adventure that continues today.

By far my most thrilling "find" was the elusive edition of Powder River: Let 'er Buck, by Struthers Burt, published in German in 1948, and titled Der Pulverfluss. I learned of this edition while reviewing the Rivers of America files at the offices of Henry Holt in New York, and through Inter-library loan I was able to examine the book -- a cheaply-produced paperboard edition of five thousand copies. But despite years of online and personal searches abroad, I had no luck finding a copy for my personal collection until one afternoon about twelve years ago, when, for what seemed the 100th time, I did a search on abebooks.com, and there it was. A book dealer in Germany was offering it for $11.00 U.S. The book arrived in a thin manila envelope, still in the original publisher's protective plastic wrapping.

Although it is still possible to assemble a nice collection of first edition Rivers books, many titles command a respectable price in today's market. For serious collectors the signed, limited editions are particularly attractive, but they can be very expensive, and hard to find.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite and most memorable books in the series.

brandywine.jpgThe Delaware Edition of The Brandywine, signed by Henry Seidel Canby and Andrew Wyeth (his first commercial illustrations), is currently offered for $500, but I have seen it offered for as much as $900.

everglades_river_of_grass.jpgThe Florida edition of Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and illustrated by Robert Fink is currently offered for $900.

cape fear.jpgThe Cape Fear by Malcolm Ross, published posthumously and not illustrated, is one of the scarcest books in the series. The book is currently offered for as much as $600.

hudson.jpgThe Hudson by Carl Carmer, with magnificent illustrations by Stow Wengenroth, was issued with four different dust jackets, a challenge for serious Rivers collectors.

st lawrence.jpgFour titles were issued as Armed Services Editions: The Hudson; Powder River; The St. Lawrence; and The Colorado. Of the four, The Colorado and Powder River are difficult, if not impossible to find today.

songsoftherivers.jpgAnd finally, Songs of the Rivers of America, edited by Carl Carmer, with music arranged by Dr. Albert Sirmay, a distinguished composer, conductor, and musical editor. The book, published in 1942, included illustrations taken from fifteen books of the Rivers series. This scarce book is currently offered at between $400 and $500.

And now, on a personal note, regarding my first Rivers purchase, The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities, my life is coming full circle as my husband and I will soon relocate from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville and reside directly on the St. Johns River.

[Many thanks to Carol for this guest post on one of the most interesting Americana series of the last century. For interested collectors, Town's End Books frequently handles Rivers of America books and has a dedicated page on their website devoted to the series, offering many titles for sale.]