Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Larry Massie's Presentation: The Allure of Association - The Appeal of Provenance: Stories Told by Old Michigan Books

By Frank Boles

(to see a podcast of this March 1, 2011 presentation at ITunes U, click here)

On March 1 Larry Massie spoke in the Park Library Auditorium. His  topic was The Allure of Association - The Appeal of Provenance: Stories Told by Old Michigan Books.  Although there are many book collectors in Michigan, Massie is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject.  With a private collection of more than 35,000 volumes, Massie has assembled the largest existing, personally owned collection of Michigan-related books.

Mr. Massie’s principal point, made through many examples, is that very often what makes a book interesting to a collector is not simply the book itself, but also the person who once owned the book.   The association of owner and volume, particularly in cases where the owner or others chose to inscribe the volume, can offer fascinating insights into history.

For example, one of the books Massie discussed was a relatively common book of music printed in the first years of the nineteenth century. This particular music book, however, was owned by Father Gabriel Richard. Richard was a Catholic priest who served in Detroit from 1798 until his death in 1832. He was an innovative, educated man who quickly became a community leader.  Michigan’s first printing press arrived at Richard’s instigation. Richard co-founded Michigan’s first University.  And Richard apparently enjoyed music.  Not only did he add a music book to his personal library, he likely placed the book on Michigan’s first piano, which he was responsible for having brought to Detroit. Through association with a fascinating man, a “common” music book took on interesting “associational” value.

In another example Massie produced two copies of Laura Havilland’s A Woman’s Life Work: Labors and Experiences of Laura S. Havilland.  The book is an interesting one in that Havilland, a devout Quaker, was a key conductor on the Underground Railroad, which led escaped slaves north to Canada. Supposedly she and her husband established the first Underground Railroad station in Michigan. Haviland herself traveled south several times to help slaves escape, in one case seeking the children of slaves who had already fled north. Her adventures were numerous, documented through endless legal actions filed against her by irate slave holders and more pointedly, by once being held at gunpoint by a slave owner who seems to have briefly considered shooting the Yankee troublemaker.

In one the copy of her book Haviland had written, “No word or tear of sympathy for the oppressed is in vain.” Haviland’s fierce commitment to abolitionism demonstrated in this passage was matched by her commitment in faith.   She inscribed a second book found by Massie, “No prayer presented in living faith is unanswered by Him who is the author and finisher of our faith.”

A third example from Massie’s talk was a Book of Mormon once owned by Wingfield Watson. In nineteenth century Michigan, Watson was a well-known follower of Mormon-leader James Jesse Strang. When Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered, Strang offered himself as Smith’s replacement. Strang profoundly disagreed with the church’s decision to appoint Brigham Young Smith’s successor. He refused to submit to Young’s leadership and founded his own branch of Mormonism.

Strang and his followers eventually settled on Beaver Island. Although Strang was murdered in 1856, until his own death in 1922, Watson continued to proslitzye on behalf of Strang’s interpretation of Mormonism.  Watson lent the copy of the Book of Mormon in Massie’s possession to individuals he hoped would join the faith. One of the most fascinating entries in the Book is signed by “A Blackbird.”  Andrew Blackbird was a well-known and well respected Indian leader who lived in Harbor Springs. Blackbird apparently read the volume, but was unmoved by it or by Watson’s words of persuasion.  As Blackbird wrote in the volume, “keep your books to home.”

In these and many other examples Massie demonstrated that the joy in collecting books is not just in finding a particular title, but in the story a particular volume  of a title may tell.