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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Pirates: A Tale for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth

[Noah Webster, 1758-1843] The Pirates: A Tale for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth...
Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1813. A 813p

This little book caught my eye as I trolled through the Library shelves one recent morning. Actually, I could only see the spine, which is blank, but that's really the only invitation one needs to pull a book off the shelf. You never know what lurks between the covers of a book around here. This one turned out to have a great binding with an embossed (I guess you would call it) portrait of a pirate. (The pirate himself bears a vague resemblance to Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickock in HBO's Deadwood. (Incidentally, Keith Carradine also played Pierce Butler in the TV movie Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble. There's another Rosenbach connection there, but I digress.) Whoever did the leatherwork here had trouble with the pirate's right foot and left pistol and had to go back to redo both. Only adds to the charm, if you ask me. I also like the touch of the deck boards receding into the background.

So, underneath the wonderful cover is The Pirates: A Tale for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth... (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1813). I've read it, and frankly, it's hard to see how the youth of 1813 could have been amused by this tale. Instructed, perhaps, but not likely too amused. It tells the story of Fidelo, a psychopathic Sicilian teenager who murders his dog, terrorizes neighborhood children, tries to drown his brother, and steals his poor widowed father's fishing boat. He falls in with bloodthirsty pirates and goes about plundering the coast of Italy. He eventually becomes their captain, but is caught by the King of Naples. "After making confession of some of the most diabolical action that ever was heard of, [Fidelo was] hung, and gibbeted in the most public part of the town, with this inscription painted in large letters on the gallows: "THE REWARD OF PIRATES.""

That does sound amusing. Unless the children of that era had the same enthusiasm for camp and irony that good American sons and daughters of the late twentieth-century do, I doubt they clamored for this one at bedtime. Speaking of which, this story reminds me of that epiosode of The Brady Bunch in which Bobby idolizes Jesse James, only to learn from kind old Mr. Jethroe Collins, whose father was shot in the back by the outlaw, that "Jesse James was a mean dirty killer... a mean dirty killer... a mean dirty killer..." (Click here and scroll down to relive Bobby's nightmare after talking to Mr. Collins.) Maybe there is something timelessly cautionary about Fidelo's tale. Bobby didn't become an outlaw, right? Perhaps none of the youth who read The Pirates took to plundering the high seas.

Aside from the cover, the woodcuts which accompany the text are quite nice, too.

I completely overlooked this detail before, but the author of this diverting little tale is none other than Noah Webster, the famous American lexicographer. That adds another dimension to this discussion, but I just don't know enough about Webster. If I retained anything from a recent New Yorker article about him, it's that Webster wasn't a lot of fun. Reading this story along with the stern, moralistic prose and verse pieces that fill out the book certainly confirms that impression.

I should note that the fact that Webster wrote a children's book probably explains why the book is here -- Dr. Rosenbach collected early American children's books. And this one appears to be pretty rare. Yale is the only library listed on WorldCat with a copy.

Anyway, that's your dispatch from the Rosenbach's Library for this week.

UPDATE: Rosenbach docents are sharp. One recently wrote to ask why this book didn't go to the Free Library of Philadelphia with the rest of Doctor Rosenbach's famous collection of early American children's books. I checked the Free Library's catalog, and it turns out they have a copy, too (call number: RBD ROS 479). I suspect that copy was part of Dr. R.'s gift, but I'm waiting for confirmation on that. Their catalog record also notes that Webster bibliographer Emily Skeel has questioned the attribution of authorship to Noah Webster.