03 July 2024

The rarest book in American literature

If ever a book ought not to be judged by its cover, Edgar Allan Poe’s debut collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, is that book. Known as the Black Tulip, only twelve copies appear to have survived since its publication in July 1827...

Both Poe and the novice printer Calvin F.W. Thomas were just eighteen when the poet handed over his manuscript, presumably at Thomas’s shop at 70 Washington Street in Boston, and paid him to make it into a book. The result was forty pages of unevenly printed verse bound in drab tan wrappers the shade of a faded tea stain. Tamerlane’s front cover features a potpourri of discordant typefaces within an ornamental frame that resembles a geometric queue of conifers—a heavy-handed period design I have grown to adore. It’s clear that Thomas, as a workaday job printer whose usual commissions were show bills, apothecary labels, calling cards, and the like, had his shop stocked with a mishmash of typefaces to fit any taste. On this occasion, he seems to have drawn liberally from his inventory... 

The Holy Grail of book collecting, Tamerlane is one of those books that—like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the original boards, which sold at Christie’s in 2021 for $1.17 million, or Shakespeare’s first folio, priced at $7.5 million and sold last year by the London-based rare book firm Peter Harrington on its 400th anniversary—causes a stir among rare book enthusiasts whether or not they have any hope, or desire, of acquiring it. (Not to mention the Bay Psalm Book or even the Eliot Algonquin Bible, other ultra-rare early American printed books, though religious texts, not literary.) Whenever a first edition of Tamerlane comes under the hammer—a rare event in itself—its past legacy and future home become the topic of discussion among booksellers, archivists, collectors, and Poe scholars around the world.

Originally produced in an edition estimated at forty or fifty copies, Tamerlane was from its inception a rarity. The Morgan Library doesn’t own a copy. Nor does the Library of Congress. The copy once held by the University of Virginia, Poe’s not-quite alma mater, was stolen in 1973 from the McGregor Room vault in Alderman Library. If it is never recovered, an unfortunate possibility, the number of known copies drops to eleven. At least one prominent Poe expert I know speculates it may have been destroyed to hide the evidence. 
More details about Tamerlane at Literary Hub.  

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