Beauty & The Book, Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America, by Megan Benton

This is an excellent book about the heyday of fine press printing in the United States. The author gets it right about the admiration certain printers, typographers and book designers, such as the iconic Bruce Rogers, enjoyed in the early part of the 20th Century. However, she has a single-minded focus on her hypothesis that fine printing was a harkening back to a grander past and catered to those who wanted to flaunt their social and economic status.

There was another important movement of the times, particularly after World War I. Some fine press printers were publishing the work of new and adventurous writers and artists. Egmont Arens’ Playboy magazine featured such newcomers as e. e. cummings, D. H. Lawrence, and Rockwell Kent. Arens’ Flying Stag Press published a portfolio of Kent’s drawings in 1924. His protégé, Paul Johnston (PJ), who also wrote about the history of fine printing, urged printers to publish the new literature. There is some evidence that PJ printed copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover after it was banned, and he certainly corresponded with Frieda Lawrence (his 1934 letters to Frieda Lawrence are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin). This spirit of rebellion and enthusiasm seems lost in Beauty and The Book.

Benton assigns publication of the daring new literature to “private presses,” differentiating them from the work of fine printers, although she admits the line is blurred. However, and most notably, fine printers Albert and Charles Boni, as well as Bennet Cerf and Alfred Knopf, were publishing contemporary writing and art. Founded in 1929, Charles Boni’s Paper Books meant “to place good books, well-designed and carefully made, within the reach of any reader.” This venture included the fine printer Elmer Adler, writers Padraic Colum and Louis Untermeyer, and artist Rockwell Kent. The first “paper book” was Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

If she had expanded her vision a little, her analysis of the innovations of the 1910s to the 1940s would have added to the wholeness of the subject.

Review posted on Goodreads at:

Paul Johnston (PJ) is the subject of my book, Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press in August 2013; available on Amazon/print and Kindle/ebook.

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