“…but they will linger.” – Poets and Poetry of the First World War

This post, prompted by new additions to our inventory, touches on four First World War poets – Brooke, Graves, Owen, and Sassoon – and the wounds, exhaustions, extinguishments, and scarred endurances these poets lived and expressed. 

103 years ago tomorrow, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War ended. Much ink has spilled analyzing how the unprecedented carnage of the First World War fundamentally disrupted and reshaped social, political, and cultural conceptions. It turned out that even the spilling of ink was altered; the romantic conceits of poetry numbered among the many casualties of the First World War, and the changes wrought in some of the leading poetic voices became both reflection and herald of a terribly altered world. “Modernity”, with all of its cruel candor, was born of – and borne by – poetry and poets as much as the battlefields.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) rather makes the point. Among his most famous poems is “The Soldier”, published in early 1915, just a few months before his death, roughly half a year after the start of the First World War, and before the protracted horrors of the conflict tainted the poetic sensibilities and national sentiment of his poems.

If I should die, think only this of me:

      That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

      In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

      Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

      Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

      A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

            Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

      And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

            In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

As if to punctuate his poem, not long after it was published, Brooke died. His body was taken to the Greek island of Skyros, from whence Achilles had sailed for Troy, and buried in an olive grove. 

In The Times, on 26 April 1915, Brooke was eulogized by Winston S. Churchill:

“Rupert Brooke is dead. A telegram from the Admiral at Lemnos tells us that this life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime. A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar. The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger.

During the last few months of his life, months of preparation in gallant comradeship and open air, the poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit. He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”

Churchill’s was a lovely, panegyric eulogy, an evocation and echo of Brooke’s own poem, limning the poet’s death in the poet’s own sentimentality and glorification. But Brooke never saw front line action. He died of blood poisoning, presumably brought on by an insect bite to his lip. This may have been fortunate, as Brooke died en route to the charnel house of Gallipoli, where his Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division landed days later, and where nearly half a million Turkish and Allied troops became casualties.

The conspicuous romanticism of Brooke’s interment eclipses his undistinguished, unheroic ending – and provides a literary line of demarcation. Brooke’s ending, more than his burial, better symbolizes the bleak and bereft brutality of the First World War battlefields. Brooke’s poems proved an elegy to both himself and to his brand of poeticism, which, as the war progressed, gave way to a poeticism as mudded, bloodied, and bare of romance as the war’s trenches and No Man’s Land. Churchill, who would himself be serving on the Western Front by the end of 1915, had some inkling of the growing disillusions accompanying “this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.” But Churchill did not know – could not yet know – the full literary measure of his opening statement “Rupert Brooke is dead.

The death of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) came three and a half long years of war later and is a study in contrast. After stint at Craiglockhart War Hospital to treat shell-shock, Owen returned to the front. By the end of October, 1918, he found himself poised on the western side of the Sambre-Oise canal. Biographer Guy Cuthbertson relates how “Wilfrid Owen and his band of friends tried to cross the Canal. War veined the water with a dreadful red, before it all mingled to one tint.” (Cuthbertson, p.290) Owen was cut down by a German machine-gunner just a week before the Armistice. 

While still convalescing at Craiglockhart, Owen had written verse of soldiering experience entirely unreconciled to Brooke’s “Soldier”. Fittingly, “Dulce et Decorum Este” was first published in the Hospital magazine, The Hydra, on 1 September 1917.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. But it changed poetry. And it made – and unmade – poets. A scrappy pugilist, Robert Graves (1895-1985) reputedly earned the respect of his fellow soldiers and his first command through erudition with his fists, not his letters. After surviving the annihilation of his Royal Welch Fusiliers, he was transferred and met Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Graves’s senior by a decade, Sassoon’s pre-war poetry was highly romantic and imitative. “He was always ‘waiting for the spark from heaven to fall’, and when it fell it was shrapnel…” (ODNB)

Graves initially thought Sassoon too gung-ho about the war. Indeed, Sassoon, known as “Mad-Jack”, was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous bravery and considered for the Victoria Cross. But he was anything but gung-ho when he chucked his MC ribbon into the River Mersey. And when Sassoon wrote a scathing anti-war declaration that was read in Parliament, his friend Graves lobbied for his hospitalization in lieu of a court martial. At Craiglockhart War Hospital Sassoon met a young poet named Wilfred Owen. While Owen published “Dulce et Decorum Este” in the Hospital’s literary magazine, which he edited, Sassoon contributed poems, including “Dreamers” and “Wirers”, that would later appear in his collections Counter-Attack and Other Poems and War Poems. Owen met Graves during the latter’s Hospital visits to Sassoon. Upon release, Sassoon was lucky to be once again merely wounded. His life and literary career, like that of Graves, would be long. Owen, like Brooke, suffered the bargain of Achilles – glory in lieu of longevity. 

Theirs – Brooke, Owen, Graves, and Sassoon – were certainly not the only poetic voices shaping and shaped by the First World War. But these four encapsulate many of the agonies, contradictions, convolutions, and evolutions endured by the poets and poetry of the First World War. Together they span the war’s poetic preambles and its long, more knowing, less exulting and less lyrical aftermath. 

A.J.B. and W.S.C. – “friendship, across the vicissitudes of politics”

We recently had the privilege of spending some time with a compelling inscribed Churchill book – a British first edition of The World Crisis: The Aftermath. The story is one worth telling. Hence this post.

The Aftermath is the penultimate volume of Churchill’s history of the First World War. This particular copy is inscribed and dated to Arthur James Balfour, the man who replaced Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty when Churchill was forced to resign in 1915, who was Prime Minister when Churchill dramatically repudiated the Conservative Party in 1904, and beside whom Churchill worked in both Coalition and Conservative Governments of the 1920s. Of course, Churchill’s own words testify most eloquently to his association with Balfour, which both included and exceeded that of a colleague, mentor, or rival:  “…this remarkable man whom I knew, and whose friendship, across the vicissitudes of politics, I enjoyed in a ripening measure during thirty years.” (WSC, Great Contemporaries, p.240)

The inscription

Churchill inscribed this presentation copy of the first edition six days prior to publication. Using their respective initials, the tone is familiar, befitting their long association, and the first and third lines have a hint of playful versification – almost certainly intentional from a seasoned wordsmith like Churchill. Inked in four lines, the blank sheet recto preceding the half title reads:

A. J. B 


  Winston S. C. 

1 Mar 1929

This was the last book Churchill published during Balfour’s lifetime; Balfour died a year after Churchill inscribed this copy to him.

The edition

A quarter of a century before the Second World War endowed him with lasting fame, Winston Churchill played a uniquely critical, controversial, and varied role in the “War to end all wars”. Then, being Churchill, he wrote about it. The World Crisis was published in six volumes between 1923 and 1931. The first four volumes span the 1911-1918 war years, with two supplemental volumes. This fifth volume, The Aftermath, covers the postwar years 1918-1928 – a decade-long span during most of which Churchill and Balfour both served in high Government office. 

The work has both literary and collector appeal – particularly jacketed first editions like this one. But those comparatively prosaic virtues are far eclipsed in this particular copy by the singular inscription and association. 

The association

Arthur James Balfour, first Earl of Balfour (1848-1930) was among the most significant influences and associations of the first half of Churchill’s political career. The two were already tethered by friendship and politics when Winston was born, and during Winston’s first three decades in Parliament they were almost perpetually connected by oscillations of alignment and opposition, of concurrent and opposing political ascendance. 

Balfour’s early education and preoccupation was philosophy, but in 1874 – the year Churchill was born – Balfour was elected to Parliament as a Conservative. There – notably opposite to Winston – his “lifelong antipathy to the physical process of handwriting” served him well, as it “led him to develop a remarkable ability to dictate lucid memoranda on complicated subjects.” This, coupled with the “habit of rationalistic discussion and debate that prevailed within his family circle”, contributed to Balfour’s formidable capacity for political debate.

Balfour was friends with Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and together with two other Conservative MPs they formed a “self-styled Fourth Party”, harrying and rebelling against their party leadership. However, Balfour’s inclination to rebellion proved less than that of either Randolph or Winston and Balfour eventually heeded loyalty to the Conservative Party. Indeed, by 1891 Balfour became First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. Balfour led his party – either in opposition or in Government – for two decades. 

From his exalted position, Balfour supported Winston in his early endeavors. In 1897, it was Balfour who advised that young Winston entrust his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, to the literary agent A. P. Watt, who successfully made publication arrangements with Longmans on Winston’s behalf. (R. Churchill, Vol. I, p.367) When Churchill lost his first election, Balfour wrote to Winston “I had greatly hoped to see you speedily in the House… I hope… you will not be discouraged… this small reverse will have no permanent ill effect upon your political fortunes.” (letter of 10 July 1899) When Churchill ran again, this time as a famous hero of the Boer War, Balfour wrote encouragingly “I have great hopes that you will win the seat… you have had fresh opportunities – admirably taken advantage of – for shewing the public of what stuff you are made.” (letter of 30 August 1900).

Churchill won his first seat on 1 October 1900. Taking his seat in Parliament at the age of 26, Churchill was soon following family form, dissenting from, and fomenting backbench revolt against, the Conservative Party – ironically now led by Balfour. In late May 1904, during Balfour’s 1902-1905 premiership, young Winston dramatically left the Conservative Party and crossed the aisle to become a Liberal, swiftly earning a reputation as both a brash young radical and a traitor to his class. Indeed, the great political battle over The People’s Budget and the authority of the House of Lords – battles in which Winston proved such a powerful Liberal advocate – exacerbated the political pressures on the Conservatives. Hence young Winston the Liberal contributed to both electoral and parliamentary defeat of the Conservatives and to Balfour’s resignation as party leader in November 1911 – only weeks after Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.

Arguably, Balfour’s most important legacies and most potent time in power came in the decades ahead, after he no longer formally led his party. Moreover, the First World War and its aftermath – apropos the title of the inscribed work in question – tethered Balfour and Churchill even more than had the preceding decades. 

In 1911, Churchill pressed Prime Minister Asquith to make Balfour a permanent member of the Committee of Imperial Defence. (WSC, Great Contemporaries, p.255) Churchill’s efforts to dramatically enhance naval preparedness were supported by Balfour “who, though regarding an Anglo-German war as a virtual impossibility… saw the dominant need to maintain British naval supremacy.” (R. Churchill, Vol. II, p.571). In differing with Churchill over submarines, Balfour was more prophetically astute. “Balfour tried without success to get… Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, to appreciate that submarines were essentially the weapon of the weaker naval power; and in correspondence with Admiral Lord Fisher it was Balfour who pointed out that, if war should come, U-boats would probably sink British and other merchant shipping without restraint”. It is worth noting that Balfour would prove equally prophetic when, in his final time in office in 1928, “He also wanted additional spending on naval anti-aircraft weapons ahead of cruisers.” (ODNB) On both counts, Balfour anticipated the weapons that would revolutionize naval warfare in each world war – the submarine in the First and the aircraft in the Second.

On the Dardanelles, the strategic initiative that would end Churchill’s tenure at the Admiralty, the two men were in accord. Balfour had supported – indeed had “argued persuasively in favor” of – Churchill’s proposal to attack the Dardanelles with ships alone. (ODNB) When the Dardanelles disaster engulfed Churchill and forced his resignation, it was Balfour who succeeded Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty – to Churchill’s professed “great relief”. (Gilbert, Vol. III, p.468) 

Churchill eventually resigned even his nominal Cabinet posts to spend the rest of his political exile as a lieutenant colonel leading a battalion in the trenches at the Front. Then came yet another dramatic political misstep, this one with Balfour at the center. Within days of his return to London from the Front in May 1916, despite this manifest support for Balfour succeeding him at the Admiralty, Churchill decided to publicly attack Balfour. 

“Twelve years had passed since Churchill had last spoken in the House of Commons as the critic of a Government. Then, his had been the lance of youthful anger hurled, always with agility and sometimes with venom, against the Conservative Prime Minister, A. J. Balfour. It had seemed impudence for so young a Member of Parliament to attack the Leader of the ruling Party, from whose back benches he had only just migrated… When he rose to speak from the front opposition bench late in the afternoon of Tuesday 7 March 1916, it was with the accumulated experience of those twelve years behind him; but it was also with his credibility impaired by the controversies and disasters of the previous year. After twelve years, it was again A. J. Balfour whom he rose to attack.” Churchill assailed the efficacy and urgency of Balfour’s Admiralty administration. “The House of Commons had not heard such a strong indictment of a Government Department since the war began.” (Gilbert, Vol. III, p.716-718) In his attack, and in his prescription for righting the proverbial Admiralty ship, Churchill gravely miscalculated. 

Even in his politically weakened state, Churchill’s defeat in debate was a notable occasion. Balfour’s memorable rebuttal, on 8 March 1916, of Churchill’s attack, brought Churchill to admit that Balfour was “a master of parliamentary sword-play and of every dialectical art” (Mackay, Balfour, 291). As Churchill would say years later of Balfour, “Whatever had to be said, he knew how to say it; and when others blundered into foolish or offensive remarks, he knew how to defend himself or retaliate with point, justice or severity.” (WSC, Great Contemporaries, p.241) This was singular praise coming from Churchill, and it is difficult not to speculate that Churchill had this particular occasion in mind. Perhaps Churchill also remembered – maybe with a touch of autobiographical admission – his bruising House of Commons altercations with Balfour when he framed Balfour’s memory thus: “I had the privilege of visiting him several times during the last months of his life… I felt… the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience, and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling…” (WSC, Great Contemporaries, pp. 241-257)

Balfour’s tenure at the Admiralty ended along with the end of Asquith’s premiership in December 1916. By the time of Churchill’s exoneration and return to the Cabinet as Minister of Munitions in mid-1917, Balfour was already serving as Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s Foreign Secretary. During Balfour’s tenure at the Foreign Office, Churchill would also serve as Secretary of State for War and for Air. Echoing the same resolution Churchill would show a quarter of a center later during the Second World War, Balfour “never swerved from insistence on the military defeat of Germany.” (ODNB) Also echoing the future Churchill, Balfour “had for long attached much importance to Anglo-American friendship” and did much to “smooth the way for American co-operation” in the war effort. Churchill would later say of him “Never has England had a more persuasive or commanding ambassador and plenipotentiary.” (WSC, Great Contemporaries, p.256) And it was the Balfour Declaration that formally stated that the British government supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – an unequivocally Zionist position to which Churchill would also commit. As Churchill would later be to the genesis of the United Nations, Balfour was committed to the U.N.’s ill-fated forerunner, the League of Nations, serving as Lord President of the League’s Council from 1919-1922. Their final service together was in the government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin; from 1925-1929, Balfour served as Lord President of the Council while Churchill served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

On 1 March 1929 – six days before publication – Churchill inscribed this volume for Balfour. In the autumn of 1928, ill-health had finally removed the octogenarian Balfour from active work. “Out of courtesy and respect” Baldwin insisted on his retaining his office until the 30 May 1929 general election brought the end of Baldwin’s government. Balfour died the next year. Churchill would not serve in a cabinet again until the outbreak of the Second World War, more than a decade later. In 1937, two years before the war that would see him finally ascend to the premiership and cement his own place in history, Churchill devoted an entire chapter of his book Great Contemporaries to Balfour, of whom Churchill wrote:

“He acquired and possessed from earlier life profound and definite conceptions; and by a marvelous gift of comprehension and receptivity he was able to adjust all the new phenomena and the ever-changing currents of events to his solidly-wrought convictions. His interest in life, thought and affairs… was as keen at eighty as it was at twenty: but his purpose, his foundation, and his main theme were obstinate, obdurate, and virtually unchanged throughout the memorable times in which he lived, played his part, and even ruled. He was a man to whom without commonplace extravagance one might apply the word ‘Statesman.’” (WSC, Great Contemporaries, pp.238-39)

It seems worth noting that Churchill’s incisive praise might apply as well to the author as to the subject, perhaps explaining the long association that spanned and survived “vicissitudes of politics”.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

In 1955, a dozen years before the film starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy, octogenarian Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill starred opposite a young Queen Elizabeth II, more than half a century his junior, in their own version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Substitute generational separation for racial segregation and the vicissitudes of time for the vulgarities of prejudice and we have the scene…

Churchill was 80 years old when he resigned as Prime Minister on 5 April 1955. By that time, Churchill’s Parliamentary career spanned more than half a century. During every decade of that half century Churchill had held Cabinet office, including high Cabinet office during both world wars and two premierships spanning more than eight and a half years at 10 Downing Street. By contrast, Queen Elizabeth II was just 28 years old and had been monarch for little more than three 3 of the 69 years she has reigned to date.

On the evening of 4 April 1955, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid Churchill the unprecedented honor of dining with him at 10 Downing Street on his final night as Prime Minister. “Among the guests were not only Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, and their wives, but also Anne Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain’s widow. Churchill’s after-dinner speech that evening was his last as Prime Minister. The notes from which he spoke have survived, set out, as were so many of his speeches, in the ‘speech form’ or ‘psalm form’, as his secretary called it, which he had used for more than half a century:”

Raising his glass, Churchill led his guests in toasting “The Queen.”  After the toast, guests departed and the Queen was escorted to her car by Churchill. (Gilbert, Vol. VIII, p.1120)

We were recently reminded of the moment by a rather extraordinary item – a photograph of Churchill escorting the Queen to her car, signed by both the Queen and Churchill in 1955. The photograph is mounted on heavy cream card, signed below the image by both subjects. Centered directly below the image, Queen Elizabeth II signed “Elizabeth R”. Slightly below and to the right, she dated her signature “1955”. Churchill signed “Winston S. Churchill” below and to the left.

Regrettably, it appears that some time ago the signed, bottom portion of the mount was briefly exposed to moisture. We’d be willing to see flogging re-integrated into the justice system just to appropriately punish those who caused or allowed this damage. But despite the aesthetic detraction to an otherwise compelling piece of history, these are unequivocally and still quite legibly the signatures of Britain’s longest reigning monarch and the first and most iconic prime minister of her unprecedented reign. And the moment captured – both in their image and their signatures – is unequivocally poignant, a lovely intersection of two of the great figures of twentieth century Britain, each honoring one another, one entering the twilight of his long service, the other newly embarked upon hers.

After the Queen left 10 Downing Street that night, Jock Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary, recorded that Churchill “sat on his bed, still wearing his Garter, Order of Merit and knee-breeches.  For several minutes he did not speak… Then suddenly he… said with vehemence: “I don’t believe that Anthony [Eden] can do it.”” (Colville, The Fringes of Power, pages 707-9)  He was right. But perhaps he was also voicing the sentiment of his secretary, Elizabeth Gilliatt: “I had wished he could die in office.” (Gilbert, Vol, VIII, p.1125) 

At noon the next day, Churchill held his last Cabinet “almost fifteen years after the first Cabinet of his wartime administration, and almost fifty years since he had first sat in Cabinet.” (Gilbert, VIII, p.1122) Then Churchill strode out the front door of 10 Downing Street – the moment captured by this image, in which staff can be seen applauding – to go to Buckingham Palace for his last Audience with the Queen as Prime Minister and formally submit his resignation. 

A final bit of theater lay ahead. When Churchill resigned, the Queen offered him a dukedom (having earlier ascertained from Colville that he would refuse the offer – in keeping with the notion that no further dukedoms would be given to non-Royal personages). Fortunately for all, the greater temptation of ending his life in the House of Commons caused Churchill to decline. Churchill later told Colville, “I very nearly accepted, I was so moved by her beauty and her charm and the kindness with which she made this offer… But finally I remembered that I must die as I have always been – Winston Churchill.” Unaware that Colville himself had reassured the Crown that the offer would be refused, Churchill noted “…it’s an odd thing, but she seemed almost relieved.” 

The ceremonial offer of the dukedom aside, the Queen’s regard for Churchill was clearly genuine. The Queen wrote that same day to Churchill’s wife: “Though I don’t think it was intentional that your kind invitation to dinner should be a farewell occasion, in fact it could not have been more perfectly arranged, coming just before today’s resignation. I hope you will both now have time for rest and relaxation in the sun…” Churchill became “a living national memorial” of the time he had lived and the Nation, Empire, and free world he had served. 

Less than 10 years later, the Queen redoubled the farewell dinner honour she had bestowed on Churchill. The day after Churchill died, on 25 January, 1965, the Queen sent a message to Parliament announcing: “Confident in the support of Parliament for the due acknowledgement of our debt of gratitude and in thanksgiving for the life and example of a national hero” and concluded “I have directed that Sir Winston’s body shall lie in State in Westminster Hall and that thereafter the funeral service shall be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.” This was in accord with longstanding plans; twelve years before, in 1953, at Queen Elizabeth II’s direction, planning for Churchill’s eventual state funeral had begun. The elaborate plans, running to hundreds of pages, came to be called “Operation Hopenot”.

Churchill’s state funeral was attended by the Queen herself, other members of the royal family, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and representatives of 112 countries. It was the first time in a century that a British monarch attended a commoner’s funeral.

The outpouring of national and international regard – from friends and foes, sympathizers and opponents alike – was both remarkable and effusive. Before the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Churchill’s coffin had passed through the countryside on a train. The Oxford don, Dr. A. L. Rowse, recorded “The Western sky filled with the lurid glow of winter sunset; the sun setting on the British Empire.” Arguably that glow was already apparent in this image of Britain’s young Queen and her first Prime Minister.

H is for Hawk, B is for Book, and other observations

During the summer I incline to read at least a few books that are not on my ever-lengthening “To Read” list. This summer, one of my wild card reads was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

No – despite the title this is not a children’s book. It is … well it is an oddly bereft yet emboldening meditation on loss, passion, otherness, and engagement threaded by the life events of the author, the affinities and arcana of falconry, and the peculiarities of the life of T. H. White. Yeah, I know. That’s a lot.

I am a sucker for those who, like the Fates, apprehend and isolate seemingly disparate threads and skeins in the tangle of our days, coax from them pattern and sense and singularity. This Ms. Macdonald most certainly does. Hers is neither a conventional journey nor a garden variety summer read.

And this is not supposed to be a book review…. 

The reason I’m writing is because, buried in Chapter 12 of H is for Hawk, I found this little gem:

I once asked my friends if they ever held things that gave them a spooky sense of history. Ancient pots with 3,000 year old thumbprints in the clay said one. Antique keys, another. Clay pipes. Dancing shoes from World War II. Roman coins I found in a field. Old bus tickets in second hand books. Everyone agreed that what these small things did was strangely intimate. They gave them the sense as they picked them up and turned them in their fingers of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who had held that object in their hands. “You don’t know anything about them, but you feel the other person’s there” one friend told me. “It’s like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them somehow.” History collapses…

Wow. Nested within a greater dialogue of what it means to heed and hold a hawk is this rather lovely explanation of why one might wish to have and hold a book. S is for Surprise. A is for Agree.

I found Ms. Macdonald’s entire book engaging, but this particular passage felt like an intentional pluck on my own string. An explanation of what a mere thing can convey. In certain books – for me and, I expect, for some of you reading this post – there is a sense of connection embodied in the physical object that exists simultaneous with, yet apart from, the words therein.

H Is for Hawk. B is for Books. CBC is here to help put them on your shelves. Wishing you good fortune, good company, and good reads in these waning days of summer.

“…as long as you have said you would…” President Theodore Roosevelt on 16 February 1909

Books are our stock-in-trade, but it is hard not to love letters. As we’ve written before, the published work of a seasoned author has inherent limitations. The very acts of drafting and editing, of expert input, careful consideration, and diligent preparation – these can deprive a published book of the immediacy of a moment or perspective. Leave the ink a little too dry on paper that’s just a bit too clean.

But letters. Even from the most careful and polished of writers, letters incline to be more ephemeral, more candid, more distinctly in and of the moment. Often the glimpse a letter offers is only tantalizingly small and beguilingly brief … but tantalizing and beguiling nonetheless.

Which brings us to the subject of this post – a typed, hand-emended, and signed 16 February 1909 letter on White House stationery from President Theodore Roosevelt to his friend, Lawrence F. Abbott, editor of the weekly newspaper The Outlook. The letter, dated just 16 days from the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, touches on a person integral to the murky political machinations that gave birth to the Panama Canal, as well as Roosevelt’s imminent post-presidential future as a contributing writer to The Outlook

The letter is printed on the first and final leaves of a folded, four-panel sheet of “THE WHITE HOUSE | WASHINGTON” stationery. Acknowledging Abbott’s letter “of the 15th” the letter states “There is no reason at all that you should not publish Bunau-Varilla’s article.” Tellingly, a hand-emended caveat added by Roosevelt reads “as long as you have said you would.” From there, the first paragraph – particularly coming from the famously un-reticent “Bull Moose” Theodore Roosevelt – is a study in conflicted political doublespeak. 

Roosevelt spends the rest of the paragraph – four more sentences in fact – continuing to express what can only be considered a dutifully professed but obviously reluctant and qualified accommodation. 

“It is simply that I ought not to be in a con-

troversy with him. It would be like Balfour having a

joint debate with Poultney Bigelow. Let me repeat,

there s no reason that you should not publish the art-

icle. If I had known of it in time I should have ad-

vised against it, but I do not think it would be worth-

while, or, indeed, desirable, for you now to alter your


Interleaved with “Let me repeat, there is no reason that you should not publish the article” and “I do not think it would be worth while [sic]… for you now to alter your intention” are the obvious reservations “…I ought not to be in a controversy with him… It would be like Balfour having a joint debate with Poultney Bigelow… If I had known of it in time I should have advised against it…” The net effect is of TR seeming to claim high moral ground and not press presidential prerogative while clearly wanting and wishing to say no to publishing the article in question.

Why? Well, we can only speculate.

Roosevelt’s manifest concern about an article by Bunau-Varilla (and Lawrence’s attendant sensitivity to Roosevelt) is both intriguing and unsurprising. Philip Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) greatly influenced the selection of the construction site for the Panama Canal and surreptitiously collaborated with Roosevelt in the orchestration of the Panamanian Revolution.

A Frenchman, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla was integral to the diligent lobbying and dubious political machinations that resulted in the Panama Canal. Bunau-Varilla was no ineffectual dilettante, but truly a relentless, shaping force. “..so Gallic was he in his gamecock fierceness, all frown and spiked mustaches. Had he stood a foot taller, he might have looked as formidable as he in fact was. He had the bruising willpower and aristocratic intelligence of the best French education d’elite. Yet he had earned that privilege through scholarships. His great wealth… was self-made.” (Morris, Theodore Rex, pp.85-86)

A decade and a half before Roosevelt’s presidency, Bunau-Varilla had risen to become chief engineer of a preceding canal attempt. Like Roosevelt, he was enamored not only of the feasibility and practicalities, but of the great Idea of the canal. While “it is difficult to apportion the credit for the choice of Panama… Certainly Bunau-Varilla… performed miracles.” (Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt, p.216) 

The pertinent parts of this very complicated story will have to be summarized. When Columbia balked at a Canal treaty, Bunau-Varilla was integral to the solution. He met with Roosevelt at the White House in October 1903 and circumspectly discussed Columbia, a notional Panama, and Canal prospects. By mid-November, Bunau-Varilla had conspired, with U.S. support, to foment the “revolution” that resulted in the secession of Panama and the immediately subsequent Canal treaty with Panama. This was executed by Bunau-Varilla as the expeditiously and very briefly vested “Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Panama”, who managed to conclude the treaty hours before the Panamanian diplomatic delegation reached Washington and learned of the fait accompli. 

Courtesy of Bunau-Varilla, Roosevelt had plausible deniability, a favorable treaty, a lynchpin of his legacy, and the means for an interoceanic express route for the American Navy. No surprise, then, that Roosevelt might feel conflicted about a notional article by Bunau-Varilla.

Bunau-Varilla would incur the lasting resentment of Panamanians, but would nonetheless live “to lose a leg at Verdun and to stump the boulevards of Paris with the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole.” (Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt, p.212)

There is, of course, more to the letter.

            “I am very glad you are to publish the three lectures

            in The Outlook. I shall send you on the Tolstoy in a

            few days. The point is that I may want to make addi-

            tions to it, or perhaps send a new article to be pub-

            lished just before it, dealing with the Japanese


In the letter’s second and final paragraph, Roosevelt bends his attention to his imminent, post-presidency “Contributing Editor” role. Roosevelt refers to forthcoming publication of “three lectures in The Outlook, as well as forthcoming pieces on Tolstoy and a piece “dealing with the Japanese question”. After the typed valediction “Faithfully yours,” Roosevelt signed “Theodore Roosevelt” in the same ink as the emendation. Abbott’s name and New York address are typed thereafter.

The letter’s recipient, Roosevelt’s close friend Lawrence Fraser Abbott (1859-1933), was to become Roosevelt’s editor and nominal boss weeks after this letter was written, and would write about Roosevelt following his death in 1919 (Impressions of Theodore Roosevelt). In 1908, as he contemplated the end of his presidency, Roosevelt had no shortage of lucrative, prestigious, and high-profile employment prospects, including a number of offers from publishers. “Roosevelt let his conscience, rather than greed, guide him. He had long ago been approached by the father-and-son team of Lyman and Lawrence Abbott to join their magazine, Outlook, as a contributing editor writing on current affairs… Although Outlook was not a wealthy periodical, its middle-class, mildly progressive profile appealed to Roosevelt” and “He gratefully remembered its support during the crises and controversies of his presidency…” So it was that the Abbotts proudly announced, on 7 November 1908, that “on or after the 5th of March, 1909, Theodore Roosevelt will be associated with Outlook’s editorial staff as a special Contributing Editor.” (Morris, Theodore Rex, pp.540-41) Roosevelt would continue in that role until his death. 

Statesman, reformer, explorer, naturalist, soldier, rancher, and author, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the 26th and youngest ever U.S. president, both herald and agent of America’s assumption of global power. Before the Spanish-American War, as Under-Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt pushed the boundaries of his authority to prepare the American Navy, enabling decisive victory over the Spanish at Manila Bay. But no sooner had Congress declared war on Spain, on April 25th 1898, than Roosevelt declared he would resign to volunteer for the army, contrary to wishes of his friends, colleagues, and President. Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill with his “Rough Riders” became emblematic of his boldness, courage, and unapologetic assertion of both moral and military American hegemony. However, more substantively, it was the Panama Canal – the great linking of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bisecting, empowering, and asserting the western hemisphere, that would indelibly embody Roosevelt’s unfettered ambitions for America.

This item may be purchased HERE.

“I have no intention of writing anything more.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” has occupied a prominent place in popular imagination for a century. By this time, there should be little new to say about him. But, despite books, movies, and countless biographical examinations and portrayals, not to mention a staggering amount of press attention and speculation during and after his lifetime, Lawrence remains a remarkably enigmatic figure. Perhaps that’s why Lawrence’s correspondence continues to be so interesting. Correspondence – by its nature more ephemeral, candid, and more distinctly in and of the moment than published works – can convey a vital sense of the correspondent. Hence our post today about a letter we have just catalogued.

This is a 30 March 1923 autograph letter signed by T. E. Lawrence, noteworthy for testimony to his perpetually unresolved conflict over his magnum opus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, evolving complications of his public persona and media stardom, and for being signed with the name he would soon abandon. 

The letter is inked on the first panel of a single sheet of laid paper folded once to form two 6 x 4.44 inch (15.24 x 11.28 cm) panels. Lawrence’s letter, in 10 lines, reads: “30.3.23 | Dear Madam | This letter will do as an autograph. I | hope. | My account of the Arab Rebellion was first | in print (privately) some years ago, & | I have no intention of writing anything more. | Newspapers are seldom accurate | yours v. sincerely | T E Lawrence”. The letter to which this one replies and the recipient are unknown to us. But it seems quite likely that the unidentified “Madam” wrote to Lawrence as an admirer, both seeking an autograph and inquiring about the book he seemed always about to publish. Quite plausibly, elevated media preceding this letter is what prompted the recipient’s inquiry to Lawrence.

T. E. Lawrence’s (1888-1935) remarkable odyssey as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War transformed him from an eccentric junior intelligence officer into “Lawrence of Arabia.” He spent the rest of his famously short life struggling to variously reconcile, reject, share, and repress this indelible experience, ultimately recounted in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

As indicated in this letter, Lawrence famously resisted publication for the general public during his lifetime. By 1923 he had already undergone a tortuous saga of writing and re-writing, including the loss of his original draft. In 1922, a 335,000 word version was carefully circulated to select friends and literary critics – the famous “Oxford Text” referenced in this letter – somewhat misleadingly – as “in print (privately)”. George Bernard Shaw called it “a masterpiece” and in December 1922 Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, told Lawrence “…it is one of the most amazing individual documents that has ever been written… Your book must be published as a whole.” 

In early 1923, many pressures came to a head for Lawrence. Months prior to this letter, Lawrence had been preparing an abridgement for publication by Cape. “He had often said that the purpose of the abridgement was to escape from the Airforce.” But Lawrence then resolved to stay in the RAF. He wrote to his agent “I .. made up my mind .. not to publish anything whatever: neither abridgement nor serial, nor full story: at least this year: and probably not so long as I remain in the R.A.F.” Consonant with this decision, Lawrence abruptly withdrew from his agreement with Cape on 1 January 1923. 

Of note, this withdrawal deprived Lawrence of a source of income unless he remained in the Royal Air Force or found some other form of employment. But two days after Lawrence jilted Cape, he was visited by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard, who warned Lawrence his presence in the newspapers was making his continued presence in the Air Force untenable. Lawrence again flirted with the idea of publication, this time about an unabridged, illustrated, limited subscription edition. But by the end of January, he had again abandoned publication. And he had been discharged from the RAF. (Wilson, p.701)

With the RAF closed to him, Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps. Concurrently, he seemed to close the proverbial book on publication; “Lawrence took the surviving manuscript of Seven Pillars to Oxford and presented it to the Bodleian Library”. On 12 March – 18 days before this letter was written – Lawrence arrived at Bovington Camp for his eighteen weeks’ Tank Corps basic training. (Wilson, p.711) Lawrence had enlisted in the Tank Corps as “T. E. Shaw” – a name he would later formally adopt, both signing his correspondence and publishing thus. Hence it is noteworthy that this letter is signed “Lawrence”.

Lawrence’s comment “Newspapers are seldom accurate” is telling. Media attention had just cost Lawrence his preferred life in the Royal Air Force. “Hitherto, journalists had eaten out of his hand, and this had led him to the dangerous illusion that he could influence them as he pleased.” But “From now on he would be regarded by the world’s press as an enigmatic figure, whose motives and influence were open to endless speculation .. popular interest refocused inescapably on his own life ..” and “.. imposed very real restrictions on his personal freedom ..” (Wilson, pp.701-7) 

As for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I have no intention of writing anything more” was either a failure of candor or, more probably, indicative of the tempestuous oscillations in his perpetually unsettled feelings about publication. In 1926, a 250,000-word “Subscriber’s Edition” was produced by Lawrence – but fewer than 200 copies were made, each lavishly and uniquely bound. The process cost Lawrence far more than he made in subscriptions. 

To recover the loss, Lawrence finally authorized an edition for the general public – but one even further abridged, titled Revolt in the Desert. It was only in the summer of 1935, in the weeks following Lawrence’s death, that the text of the Subscribers’ Edition was finally published for circulation to the general public. But the text released to the world as “Complete and Unabridged” in 1935 and which became so famous is, in fact, a significantly abridged version. 

The considerably longer “account of the Arab Rebellion… in print (privately) some years ago” remained unpublished. Not until 1997 was the text referred to in this letter published in an edition available to the public. When the full text – 84,500 words longer – was finally prepared for publication, it was checked against the copy Lawrence surrendered to the Bodleian Library not long before writing this letter.

Today, we most often access and investigate Lawrence’s character through his published works. But it may be that Lawrence’s letters offer some of the clearest views. It is worth noting that after he wrote Lawrence’s official biography and published Lawrence’s long-suppressed Oxford Text, renowned Lawrence scholar Jeremy Wilson (1944-2017) spent many years collecting, editing, and publishing many volumes of Lawrence’s correspondence. Wilson knew Lawrence as well as anyone can or will. Perhaps Wilson recognized that the fragmentary candor and verities of Lawrence’s correspondence may best enable us to approach this singular, complex, and fascinatingly conflicted person.

Click HERE to view this letter on our website.

Witnessing History – Churchill Pamphlets & Leaflets

On the eve of an attempted invasion or battle for our native land… The Prime Minister expects all His Majesty’s servants in high places to set an example of steadfastness and resolution…

These are the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a leaflet dated 4 July 1940. This extraordinary – and extraordinarily scarce – wartime message is a tangible reminder that, less than two months into Churchill’s wartime premiership Britain’s peril was dire and her resolve needed stern bracing, even at the highest levels. This leaflet conveys a visceral sense of the urgency of the moment that is harder to absorb from any of Churchill’s book-length works. Even his war speeches volumes.

Recently, we added a small hoard of 55 Churchill pamphlet and leaflet publications – including this one – to our listed inventory. Collecting Churchill’s words is often approached via books. After all, he wrote a lot of them. But it turns out that far more pamphlets and leaflets featuring Churchill’s words were published than books. Often they are printed on cheap paper and bound with little more than staples or string – if they are lengthy enough to be bound at all. Moreover, many of these ephemeral items are quite considerably scarcer than their bookish counterparts. Some are the first published appearance of the words they carry. More than a few are so rare as to be more elusive than all but the two rarest of Churchill’s book-length works.

But pamphlets and leaflets are compelling for reasons beyond mere scarcity. Churchill’s myriad pamphlet and leaflet publications span nearly the entirety of his public life. (The earliest of which we are aware dates from 1 June 1899.) More often than not they publish either his speeches (what the Nobel Prize folks called his “…brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”) or other exigent communication ill-suited to either the bulk or slow publishing process that appends to books. This exigence often results in a publication that feels more tethered to the immediacy of the moment that produced it. The leaflet discussed above is an excellent example. 

The historical narrative of Churchill’s Second World War Britain is tinted with a deeply-rooted sacrificial resolve that saw Britain persevere – and persevere with the inspiring, confident Churchillian persona that girded British resolve. Yet this unsettled message to Britain’s institutional leadership – and the notional necessity that provoked it – muddles a conventional narrative. 

The message is only 241 words printed on one side of a leaflet, but those words are quite striking. Perhaps not surprising is the exhortation to “maintain a spirit of alert and confident energy”. But it is telling that senior government officials needed to be explicitly told that “there are no grounds for supposing that more German troops can be landed in this country… than can be destroyed or captured…” Likewise, some of the phraseology of this message in Churchill’s name seems less than sure-footed. The phrase “The Prime Minister expects…” cannot help but feel like a rhetorical knockoff of Nelson’s famous Trafalgar message “England expects that every man will do his duty.” The more negative exhortations are understandable in the context of the time, but are nonetheless unsettling, bordering on Orwellian. Officials are directed to “check and rebuke expressions of loose and ill-digested opinion” and “report, or if necessary remove, any officers or officials…consciously exercising a disturbing or depressing influence, and whose talk is calculated to spread alarm and despondency.

This rare early wartime intra-governmental communication is a blunt reminder that when Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, Britain’s war was not so much a struggle for victory as a struggle to survive. Churchill’s first months in office saw, among other near-calamities, the Battle of the Atlantic, the fall of France, evacuation at Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain – which was less than a week from commencing when this communication was distributed. Hitler’s massive, sustained aerial assault that began on 10 July 1940 was the preparatory effort to gain air superiority for a planned invasion of England, “Operation Sea Lion”. By most accounts, that outcome was only narrowly avoided. British resolve eventually became axiomatic, but as late as April 1941, the Ministry of Information and the Prime Minister were still issuing printed instructions to all British households regarding what to do in the case of invasion.

Of course, know all this from the volumes that have been written about the Second World War – both by Churchill and others. But we feel it when we read this leaflet. The moment actually seems to echo in this mere scrap of paper, which has improbably survived its original purpose and seems to convey far more than the few words printed on it.

Even less obscure wartime pamphlets and leaflets can convey the sense of the moment in which they are rooted. A compelling case in point is the series of Churchill’s speeches printed by the British Library of Information (BLOI) in New York, a branch of the British Foreign Office.

The British Library of Information published thirty-two statements, speeches, or broadcast addresses by Prime Minister Winston Churchill beginning with his first speech as Prime Minister of 13 May 1940 and ending with the broadcast address of 29 November 1942. These editions were often issued within two or three days of delivery and “reveal the political determination of the British government to bring the inspiration and steadfastness of the Prime Minister and the British nation to an American nation not yet engaged in the war. Indeed, twenty-two of the BLOI speech pamphlets were published before Pearl Harbor.”

In many cases, these BLOI publications of Churchill’s speeches in America were the first time these speeches were available in print to the public. Speed was deemed essential and “it was not always possible to check with the authoritative text.” Comparison of these BLOI texts with later definitive editions often reveals discrepancies. (Cohen, Vol. I, A120, p.513) These discrepancies are telling; given Churchill’s legendary attention to the specificity of his words – particularly those he committed to print – one can hardly imagine a more significant indication of the sense of urgency manifest in these publications.

Of course, Churchill’s pamphlet and leaflet publications are not all speeches and wartime. In those listed on our website you will find correspondence with world leaders, wonkish public policy prescriptions and presentations, prescient speculation and plans for the future, ruminations on the past, reflective essays, political exhortations, and poetic quotations.

The myriad campaigns and conflicts in which Churchill engaged over roughly two-thirds of a century in public life are now long-settled history. Churchill’s many published books testify to this history. Carefully crafted, soberly considered, diligently edited, and duly bound, they are a fixed and dignified presence, a still, sober weight on our shelves. But save some space between them. Certainly, Churchill’s myriad published pamphlets and leaflets are more humbly bound, often hastily conceived, slight in stature, and ephemeral in both material and purpose. But they are often very much of the time and place they were meant to influence. Many convey a sense that they still actively witness the history they – and their author – helped to make.


Beginner’s guide to book collecting

My colleagues here at CBC have been pestering me to post some thoughts on a so-called “beginner’s guide to book collecting”. I’ve resisted. But knowing I like to talk, one of them tricked me by asking me questions and typing down the answers while I paced the library pontificating. So here it is!

What kind of rare books should I collect?

That’s an easy one. Collect the books you love. 

I often remind myself – and customers who care to listen – that here at CBC we don’t sell anything that anyone actually needs. In no case of which I’m aware can the actual contents of a rare or valuable book in our inventory not be read or accessed less expensively. Once you embrace the fundamental impracticality of book collecting, it makes sense to collect what stirs you, what kindles and informs your personal passions. 

“Rationalize the obsession as an investment”

Don’t get me wrong, book collectors should be great rationalizers. Once we decide on what we want, then it’s OK to be rational. Once we know what we’re after, we should set about acquiring it in the most logical and even methodical way possible, sensible to condition, edition, state, and all those things. And, as is the case with real estate, not only should we buy sensibly, but should plan to hold the item for an appreciable period of time. This allows a chance to see value increase – and so gives us a chance to rationalize the obsession as an investment. But the prime directive that should underpin any indulgent impulse to collect is to seek and acquire what you love. Like all great loves, you don’t have to explain it for it to be valid.

How can I learn more about rare books?

Well—I suppose there’s really three things to learn, each different but of a piece. 

The first thing is to learn about the physical nature and characteristics of books. That is, how they are printed, how they are bound, and all the many permutations of materials and methods, and all the cool terms of art that pertain to the process and product. One of many books on the subject that’s worthwhile is The Dictionary of the Book: a Glossary for Book Collectors, Book Sellers, Librarians, and Others by Sidney E. Berger. 

The second edict is to know your author. For whatever author(s) you collect, you should familiarize yourself with what they wrote, when and where and how they published, and the many editions, printings, states, and issue points that pertain to their canon. Most noteworthy authors have a bibliography. A good bibliography is a map for the strange and wonderful journey of collecting. 

Of course, not all bibliographies are equal, but all are informative to some degree. Some authors, of course, do not have a bibliography, which presents its own interesting challenges to a collector, as you have to accumulate the knowledge on your own. Most of the time, it’s a bit of both. I consider Ron Cohen’s three volume bibliography of Winston Churchill to be perhaps the most exhaustively thorough bibliographic effort I’ve ever seen published. Ron devoted nearly a quarter of a century of research to the effort. Nonetheless, over decades, as I’ve encountered items unknown to Cohen, I’ve made a great number of emendations to my copy of his work. I think of it as adding my own notes to the map as I make the journey.

“old books aren’t necessarily precious, and precious books aren’t necessarily old”

Third and lastly, familiarize yourself with the market. You should have some idea of prevailing market history and trends for the items you seek to collect. If you are collecting a specific author, you should get to know all the nuances of value for different titles, editions, printings, etc. More broadly speaking, be aware that this is a terribly subjective market. Just because something is truly rare, doesn’t mean it’s valued or valuable. Moreover, old books aren’t necessarily precious, and precious books aren’t necessarily old. 

One example among many is Harry Potter mania. If you have a fine first edition of the first Harry Potter book—a book that is only a quarter of a century old—your book is worth more than some people’s homes. On the other hand, a few years ago, we had a nearly 500-year-old treatise on Justinian Law in an ancient sheepskin binding that had so little market interest we ended up donating it. 

Are there any memorable instances where you missed out on something valuable?

If by “memorable” you mean painful, then yes. 

Every collector has them whether they admit it or not. You accumulate stories of things you missed out on almost in equal proportion to stories about cool things you actually got. Sadly, sometimes the “one that got away” stories are better than tales of success. 

Years ago we were considering bidding at auction on a rather tattered copy of the first edition of Churchill’s Savrola – the author’s first, last, and only novel written and published before he entered politics. The reason we considered bidding is that it was inscribed and dated to “Pamela” half a century after it was published. We decided to pass, since condition was poor and we’d not identified “Pamela”.

Only a day or so after the auction was over did it occur to me that the Pamela in question was none other than Pamela Plowden, the woman to whom Churchill had been engaged when he was writing and publishing Savrola. After slapping my forehead, I checked the auction results and saw that the item had mercifully passed. No one had bid the reserve! I immediately phoned the auction house to see if I could still buy the item. To my chagrin, someone had beaten me to the punch by mere minutes. 

Now the really painful part. Years later I was at a book fair, and fell to talking with an accomplished Churchill collector. Naturally we were swapping tales of collecting triumphs and tragedies. I told this very story. As I was winding up my tale of woe, he was grinning. It was not empathy. Turns out that my missed opportunity was on his shelves. He thanked me for being a few minutes later than he was in calling the auction house. 

Can I collect rare books on a budget?

“be a true collector, not just a trophy hunter” 

Absolutely. You can collect worthwhile items with just about any budget. The most important thing is to align your expectations with your means. If you are the kind of person who gets jealous every time you see a better copy than yours, you’re going to be frustrated. But if you are the kind of person who can appreciate the singular arc of experience that brings any particular collectible book to you – if you are able to appreciate that every nick, or bump, or scuff, or dog-eared page, or stray bit of previous owner graffiti is part of the accumulated history that renders your book singular and special – then you’ll be a true collector, not just a trophy hunter. 

I want to go back to the question you asked about the one that got away. I didn’t pay enough attention to that copy of Savrola at the outset because it was tattered and worn. Now I realize that it was tattered and worn because fifty years after it was published the old man who had written it had to go find a first edition to inscribe for the old woman he had loved when he was an impetuous young man – and who some think is represented in the novel. Yeah. But if you just looked at the covers, you’d pass it over as a raggedy first edition not worth a serious collector’s time.

A worn first edition or humble later printing can be compelling even without such lofty provenance. Even the most modest books can have their own quiet stories and history. Indeed, much of the fun in collecting lies in teasing out those stories and lost fragments of history. And in appreciating books for what they are – remarkable physical encapsulations of distilled human enterprise, experience, and imagination.

How do you know if a book’s value will appreciate?

You don’t. You also cannot predict whether you’ll win big in Vegas, or whether your life insurance agent’s actuarial tables will accurately predict the span of your years. 

As with gambling and life insurance, you can play the percentages. But the bottom line is that what’s valuable in the collecting market place is ultimately a question of what’s regarded. And what’s regarded ends up being a strange, lucky strike alchemical mixture of exposure, popularity, and ever-evolving notions of quality and relevance, not to mention shifting socio-political and cultural tides. 

Winston Churchill gives us a great example. When he began writing, the future British statesman and Nobel Prize winning author was often conflated with a far more popular American novelist named… Winston Churchill. Today, when anybody bothers to look at the American novelist’s books, it’s on the assumption that he is THE Winston Churchill. Were he alive to do so, the American Winston, could testify that authorial fortunes are fickle. 

Do you have any advice for would be collectors – something you wish you had known or done early on?

I do. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on something you don’t think you will be happy to have on your shelf five years from now. A lot of beginning collectors buy “compromise copies”, by which I mean books that aren’t what they really want, but rather what they are settling for at the moment. Then a few years later, they find themselves buying what they actually wanted in the first place – and are left with something on the shelves from which it is difficult to derive either pleasure or return on investment. 

“a happy collector and a good steward to the objects that history is entrusting to your care” 

Let’s acknowledge that this is a passion. There is nothing practical about rare book collecting. That’s part of what makes collecting beautiful. If it doesn’t stir you when you see it, don’t buy it. There’s a reason we gift wrap every book we sell. Every time you put a new book on the shelves it should feel a little special. What you put on your shelves should give you an enduring sense of wonder and appreciation. That’s what will make you a happy collector and a good steward to the objects that history is entrusting to your care.

The Christmas Truce

We’ve just been reminded of a remarkable moment of holiday season humanity in the midst of the First World War that seems appropriate to share during these more than normally fraught 2020 holidays.

It begins with a bookplate

The catalyst is a set of the signed, limited, numbered, and finely bound first edition of Winston Churchill’s four-volume biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough – one of England’s most celebrated military leaders. Marlborough: His Life and Times is noteworthy for being Winston Churchill’s final monumental interregnum work. Churchill had served both in the Cabinet and on the Front during the First World War. Almost exactly one year after publication of the fourth and last Marlborough volume, Churchill returned to the Cabinet at the outbreak of the Second World War. 

The publisher’s 150 signed, limited, numbered and finely bound sets of Marlborough are coveted, so it’s easy to dismiss the presence of old bookplates in each volume as merely a “previous owner’s bookplate”. But the bookplate in each volume of set #107 happens to be the armorial bookplate of “BUCHANAN-DUNLOP”. 

You’ve probably not heard the name, but it is one that merits attention, particularly at this time of year. On Christmas day, 1914, Lt Col. Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop (1874-1947) did what even the Pope could not. 

“There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter”

The First World War was only a month old when Benedict XV ascended to the papacy. The first four of his seven and a half years as Pope were consumed by diplomatic attempts to quash the conflict he described as “the suicide of civilized Europe”. But secular exhortations proved no match for the terrible pent political and military forces that had been unleashed. That November Benedict XV said of the combatants in his Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum encyclical “…well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain.”

The Pope pressed his impassioned appeal for peace; on 7 December he called for a hiatus from war to last at least over the holiday, so that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His request for an official cease-fire was universally ignored. Almost. A truce came not on the scale of secular institutions, nation states, and official decrees, but instead through a modest package, delivered to a British officer on the edge of the cold, muddy morass of No-Man’s Land in Ypres. 

“…it seems so silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.”

The recipient was Lt Col. Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop. He had written to his mother about how he missed the songs the students would sing at the Chapel of Loretto School, where he had been a student and a teacher. The package from his mother contained a small program, a book of carols for the school’s annual Christmas production. On Christmas day, Buchanan-Dunlop organized an impromptu song among his company, which quickly erupted with more and more soldiers joining down the trenches. The Germans responded in kind, each side cheering after the other. Soldiers climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with their enemies. Some exchanged gifts of cigarettes and plum puddings. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

In retrospect, historical accounts tend to garland a single individual as the sole instigator of an event. In this way, of course it might be over-zealous to ascribe the 1914 Christmas Truce wholly to Lt. Col. Buchanan-Dunlop, but only marginally so. In a letter he sent to his wife on Christmas day 1914, Buchanan-Dunlop wrote, “Even out here this is a time of peace & goodwill. I have just spent an hour talking to the German officers & men who have drawn a line half way between our left trenches & theirs & have all met our men and officers there. We exchanged cigars, cigarettes, and papers. They are jolly, cheery fellows for the most part, & it seems so silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.” It’s clear from the remainder of the letter that Buchanan-Dunlop did not take credit for the truce—a testament to his character—but letters sent from fellow soldiers name him as the cause. 

2014 marked the centennial anniversary of the fabled events and a remembrance for the man who was said to have – even if only for a moment – “stopped the First World War”. Stained-glass windows were commissioned in commemoration of the truce, which have been installed in Loretto School’s Chapel. Descendants of Buchanan-Dunlop, as well as those of the German officer involved in the truce, Hauptmann Maximilion Freiherr Von Sinner, congregated as their forebearers did, during the unveiling of the windows, which in Latin read, Gloria in Excelsis Deo et in terra pax, meaning, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace.

The return to exchanging fire

Many of the men who sang and shook hands on Christmas 1914 did not survive; they returned to exchanging fire. It went on for nearly four more desperately bloody and destructive years. Then it all began anew in 1939. The First World War had been called “The Great War” and even “The War to End All Wars”. Only four decades into the twentieth century the world was already jaded; the next global conflict became merely the “Second” World War. And in that sequel, three of Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop’s own sons took up arms and served. 

It occurred to me as I was writing this post to search out an inventory of current global conflicts – incidences of organized, sustained, mass violence fueled by large-scale sectarian or political strife. This proved such a lengthy and dismal catalogue that I stopped.

Even the lovely, erudite, eminently worthy books in which we found the Buchanan-Dunlop bookplates suggest terrible inevitability. Winston Churchill’s history of his great ancestor – a vaunted military commander of the early 18th century – was written while Churchill himself was desperately seeking to forestall the next great engulfing conflagration of his own time. Churchill failed. Instead, it fell to him to lead his nation in war.

One can become understandably pessimistic. But there is more to it than that. Were there not, I’d be unable to write these words today. 

The “Moral of the work”

In the trenches of Ypres on Christmas 1914, Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop sensed that there was more and helped his fellow soldiers, allied and enemy both, to momentarily do the same. We regard the Christmas Truce moment – we enshrine it in stained glass 100 years later – because we understand that even the depths of senseless depravity may harbor the fragile, stubborn, never-quite-fully-extinguished possibility of beneficent humanity.

After the First World War, Winston Churchill was asked to pen an inscription for a French First World War memorial. In response, Churchill offered the following:

In War: Resolution

In Defeat: Defiance

In Victory: Magnanimity

In Peace: Good Will

Churchill’s proposed inscription was rejected. France – and most of the leadership and populace among most of her allies – were in too vengeful a mood to enshrine any notions of magnanimity or good will. Indeed, the venomously punitive terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles are widely credited (including by Churchill) with helping aid the rise of Hitler. 

Like the resumption of hostilities after the Christmas Truce, the rejection of Churchill’s proposed inscription is a tremendously fitting commentary on the persistent failure to learn – to secure peace not just with frightful loss of blood and treasure, but with comprehending and conciliatory spirit. Prophetically, Churchill’s rejected inscription for a First World War memorial instead became his “Moral of the Work” when he published his history of The Second World War.

Wishing us all the resolution and defiance necessary to show magnanimity, achieve peace, and proffer good will.

This item may be purchased HERE.


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Do I have a valuable book?

Is my book rare or collectible? 

How do I sell my book? 

Do you want to buy my book? 

What is my book worth? 

How much will you pay me? 

Since we’re booksellers, we’ve been asked all of these questions. Many times. Because a tremendous number of factors are involved, the only universally applicable answer is “It depends…” Nonetheless, it seems long past time to write a bit about what makes books precious.

I say “precious” to acknowledge the curious passions and peculiarities that inform book collecting. Old does not necessarily mean valuable. I might have a 400+ year-old Latin treatise on Roman law that takes years to sell and fetches only a few hundred dollars. Or I may have a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that’s less than half my own age and yet will sell quickly and fetch enough to buy a car. A really, really expensive car. The kind of car you’d be afraid to park at the grocery store.

So is value a matter of scarcity? No, not necessarily. We’ve sold items of which only a handful of copies are known for 10x less than items of which there are more than 1000x as many surviving copies. Is that confusing? Tell me about it. But I’ve got to get us past some of the “It depends”. So here goes.


Have you ever bought a diamond? I did. Only once, thankfully. I remember trying to study up in advance for my parley with various diamond merchants. As a layman, it all came down to three big, overarching factors – cut, color, and clarity. Granted, there were a daunting number of additional factors, but the big three helped me orient to the market.

The good news is that there’s a similar big three for books. Generally speaking – albeit with a significant number of exceptions – the factors in determining a book’s value are:




Of course, there are a legion of devils in the details. Let’s tackle a few.  


“First edition” is the holy grail for most collectors. Behind that collecting goal and simple definition is a simple wish – to have a copy of the author’s work as it first appeared, by itself, between its own covers (i.e. not serialized in a magazine, etc.). But “First edition” is a far more complicated label than it seems.


Technically speaking, an edition is all copies of a book printed from the same setting of type. Later editions begin only when there are substantial changes made to the text or a new publisher takes over. But there can be many printings (also called “impressions”) of a first edition. 

Here’s one of many scenarios. Winston’s Churchill’s only work of pure autobiography – My Early Life – was first published in October 1930. That was the first printing of the first edition. But pre-publication demand was so strong for the book that a second printing was ordered by the publisher before the first printing was even published. The book sold well, so the publisher kept cranking them out; there were ultimately six printings of this first edition spanning a decade between October 1930 and December 1940. All of these are legitimately first editions. But it is likely the first edition, first printing that you really want – and probably what you really mean when you say “First edition”.


Just in case that’s not complicated enough, one first printing can be more first than another. Yeah. There can be different “states” of a first edition. Let’s say the printer notices a small error – like a punctuation mark or a page number or a missing book title in a list of other works by the author – and corrects this error during a print run. Or let’s say the publisher used a certain texture of cloth to bind part of the first printing but then ran out or changed their mind and started using a different cloth. Or let’s say they altered the layout of the title on the front cover during a print run. Then whatever came first becomes the first state of the first printing of the first edition. Whichever is more first is more desirable and valuable.

For Churchill’s My Early Life, there is a first state of the first printing of the first edition, identified by a minor text omission in the prelims corrected during the first printing. 

There are also multiple binding states, because for the first printing the publisher used two different textures of binding cloth and stamped the title on the front cover in two different layouts.

Confused? Wait, there’s more!

Back to that Churchill book. As byzantine as it sounds, we have two factors going for us. First, the publisher at least did us the courtesy of denoting “Second Impression”, “Third Impression” and so forth on the copyright pages of subsequent printings. Second, someone went through the trouble of writing an extensive bibliography about Churchill’s published works, which enumerates what we call “issue points” of each printing and the various states thereof.


It’s often not easy. Publishers differ vastly in how – or even whether – they denote first editions and various printings. Some make it easy for us, printing “first edition” or even “first printing” right there on the copyright page. Some are a little less clear but still decipherable, using a number code to denote various printings of the first edition. Some publishers use more arcane methods with no easy or universal way to distinguish between editions and printings. 

It can get worse. Publisher’s make mistakes, sometimes conflating the terms “edition”, “printing”, and “impression”, so that even when you see the actual words “edition” and “printing” and “impression” right there in black and white on a copyright page, you cannot necessarily trust their accuracy. Yes, sometimes the publisher is wrong. Then it is up to professional booksellers, expert collectors, and bibliographers to sort out the actual publishing history. Moreover, sometimes an individual publisher will change how they designate editions and printings, so even if you know what method the particular publisher used to denote publishing history, you must also know when they used that particular method. Denotation methods among publishers have changed and will continue to change over decades and centuries.


If you’ve ever shopped for a house, you’ve probably heard a real estate agent say “Location Location Location.” Condition Condition Condition is the rough equivalent for collectors and booksellers.

First, we need to acknowledge the underlying madness – or, to be kinder, the deep irony – of book collecting. Books are inherently perishable objects created to be consumed. As we’ve written before, books are a tenuous combination of perishable materials and discordant chemistry – paper and glue and string and cloth, material animal, vegetable, synthetic, or all of the above, all of which conspire to decohere almost from the moment they’re bound together. 

Under most circumstances, people are supposed to help books decohere. By fulfilling a book’s purpose – actually reading it – you accelerate the inevitable deterioration. Every time you merely open a book, you kill it just a little, letting in a little moisture or dust or finger oil, stressing the binding, pulling the head of the spine, creasing page corners… And that’s how it should be. If books have a single purpose, it is to encapsulate and convey the distilled perspective of another consciousness, and in so doing to be read and read until they’re wrecked.

But that’s not what most collectors want. They want the precious few books that did not suffer the depredations of actually being read. The more unblemished the better. Better still, unread.

I know. I know. But it does make a certain sort of sense in context. If the whole point of a first edition is a sort of communion with the very first time the words were printed and bound together, then it makes sense that there would likewise be a desire to feel like this book has been waiting, in a patient state of special preservation, for you.

Accepting this particular sort of madness for what it is allows you to understand (1) that condition is paramount and (2) that small gradations in condition can translate to considerable differences in value.

In general, for a collectible first edition to be of maximum value, it needs to be in excellent condition, as close to original as possible. If there was originally a dust jacket and that jacket is missing, that can make a stupefying difference in price. Spotting or soiling or some previous owner’s name written inside are all strikes against value. If the book or dust jacket has been repaired – even if it has been repaired professionally – that’s likely a significant mark against it, too.

Think of it this way – most of us would prefer a new car to a used car. Even though we are going to drive it ourselves. Even though the purpose of a car is to be used. Even though the age and mileage we put on a car will incrementally, inevitably ruin it. We still want it all shiny and low mileage if we can get it. And if we are considering a used car, we don’t consider dents and dings and seat stains from previous owners as desirable selling points. As for repairs… once a car has been in a serious accident and then salvaged with repairs, its title is legally changed and all future sellers must disclose that it’s been salvaged. Most people don’t want a salvage-titled car and those willing to buy one expect to pay a whole lot less for it. Much the same is true of books.


Booksellers use a gradation of terms to describe the condition of a book. These grades generally include, in descending order, as new, fine, very good, good, fair, and poor. But there are two problems with this system. One is that, since it is inherently subjective, one bookseller’s grading can differ significantly from another’s, not even factoring in the obvious incentives to grade a book as better than it actually is. Second is the fact that even the ostensibly straightforward condition terms used by professional booksellers can be misleading. Grades of “As new”, “Fine” and “Very good” are relatively self-explanatory, but “Good” actually means quite worn and not so good, “Fair” means bad, and “Poor” means that you should keep this book on hand just in case there’s another pandemic and you run short of toilet paper.


I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the how the big three – edition, printing, and condition inform the desirability and value of a book. Now it’s time to contradict myself. Sometimes edition, printing, and condition take a back seat to provenance.

“Provenance” is the fancy bookseller term for a book’s history – the details of who’s owned it, where it’s been, and what it’s been up to since it was published. This typically manifests in the form of “extra ink”, by which we mean words, numbers, or notation of some sort applied to the book after it was published. Most of the time provenance is pedestrian, and either diminishes value or is neutral. A previous owner name and address written on the endpapers. A small stamp or sticker from a bookseller affixed to the rear pastedown or the front flap of a dust jacket. That sort of thing. But…

A collectible book is valued as a physical piece of history. When you can add more compelling history to the book, the book naturally becomes more valuable. What do I mean? When an author signed or inscribed a book. If a previous owner was famous, or, even better still, both famous and connected with the author. If the book was demonstrably present at an interesting, relevant, or important place and time. These sorts of things can dramatically enhance the story, value, and appeal of a book as a physical artifact.

A few examples may help. We once had a worn copy of the 1933 third edition of The River War by Churchill. This third edition was abridged and published a third of a century after the first edition. Moreover, this copy had lost its original dust jacket and was considerably soiled and worn. Ordinarily we’d not even bother offering it for sale. But this copy had been owned by a hero of both World Wars who died gallantly in the field during Churchill’s wartime premiership. And this copy had been purchased in 1934 by this same soldier from a Sudanese bookseller in Khartoum – the epicenter for the events that led to the titular River War. This became a case where the provenance actually became worth significantly more than the inherent value of the book itself. 

Another such case was a later printing of the American edition of Robert Frost’s second published book – North of Boston. Normally, a later printing of the American edition of this book is not a value proposition. The true first edition was published in England, preceding the American edition. And this copy was not the first printing, had lost its dust jacket, and was a bit worn. As if to make things even worse, the publisher had incorrectly designated this as “Third edition” on the copyright page, even though this was actually the second printing of the first American edition. So why did we bother offering this book? Because this humble and confused second printing of the first American edition had belonged to the author’s friend and fellow poet David McCord. The book featured both McCord’s dated ownership signature and a 28 April 1924 autograph letter from Frost to McCord referencing a review McCord had written about New Hampshire – Frost’s first book to win a Pulitzer Prize. McCord’s late 1923 review is actually published on the Pulitzer website. Another case of the value of provenance far exceeding the value of the book itself.

A more straightforward example came to us just a few days ago. The first edition, first printing of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction masterpiece, Dune, is legendary. After being repeatedly rejected, Dune was first published by Chilton – a publisher best known for auto repair manuals. Dune went on to win the Hugo and Nebula Awards and has seen film adaptations and enduring acclaim. Dune also went on to multiple printings, Chilton issuing new printings of the first edition well into the 1970s. A first printing of the first edition can be worth many thousands, later printings some hundreds. A sixth printing of the first edition is typically not exciting. But this sixth printing is signed by Herbert. Twice. 


Don’t fret if your book is not a first edition and nobody interesting scribbled in it. First editions are the primary focus of many collectors, but they are by no means the sole focus. And provenance is not the only way to render a non-first edition compelling.

There are hosts of later editions that end up being quite coveted by collectors. Pretty much any of the hand-made books produced by the Kelmscott Press in the late 1800s are quite desirable and valuable indeed. If you have a Kelmscott Chaucer or Shakespeare, you definitely don’t have a first edition – and you definitely do have a very precious book. The first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922. But if you have the 1935 edition published by the Limited Editions Club in New York, you have a very valuable non-first edition. This 1935 edition was illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse. And make sure you look carefully, because some were signed by Joyce, too. There are myriad fine, limited, collected, commemorative and other editions of works by authors that are not first editions but nonetheless valuable.


That valuing collectible books is complicated and depends on a variety of mutually influencing and sometimes seemingly disparate factors. That appropriately identifying and assessing these factors requires a little intuition, a little alchemy, and a lot of experience. That the market for rare books is just as ancient, enduring, and capriciously evolving as the learnings, loves, and lusts that drive us to possess books. That even nearly 3,000 words on the subject just scratches the surface. But that despite all of this complexity and arcanum, there are some identifiable signposts and considerations, some of which we hope you found in this post.


We’ve just implemented an effort to make it easier for you to ask us to consider your book(s). Please see our new SELL TO US page on our website, which includes a straightforward, easy to complete submittal form. 

One final question to address before we finish writing:


We buy and sell books in dozens of nations spread over six continents (Sorry Antarctica!). Chances are that we have sent or received valuable books from someplace way more exotic than where you live. With email and digital images we can typically accomplish much of the communication we need to consider a book or collection. And international shipping is, in our experience, safer than rush hour traffic or a COVID-19 trip to the grocery store.


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