February 28, 2009

PRINTED 1691. Earliest Extant Evidence of American Mother Goose?


An American Incunable in a wonderful “tree-bark” binding.

Mather, Cotton, 1663-1728. The triumphs of the reformed religion in America. The life of the renowned John Eliot, a person justly famous in the church of God, not only as an eminent Christian and an excellant minister among the English, but also as a memorable evangelist amoung the Indians of New-England : with some account concerning the late and strange success of the Gospel in those parts of the world which for many ages have lain buried in pagan ignorance – written by Cotton Mather. Boston : Printed by Benjamin Harris and John Allen for Joseph Brunning …, 1691. [8], 148 of 152 p. [- 2 lvs.; M2-M3, likely never bound]. Small 8vo., 15 x 9 cm., Contemporary calf over tree-bark, boards with expected warping, light dampstain throughout. Poor presswork, resulting in slight lower marginal loss to 148-149, as well as binder’s error with the exclusion of M2-M3, numerous spelling errors, printing ink smears and typographical problems, demonstrating the difficult colonial conditions under which it was printed. Still, a remarkable, newly discovered surviving copy, UNWASHED AND UNSOPHISTICATED in its contemporary colonial tree-bark binding. Provenance: Robinson family with annotations and signatures; primarily, (likely) Increase Robinson (b. 1642 – 1699) – Taunton surveyor, liquor customs official and juror. Surviving copies of Mather’s work in contemporary boards are very rare, given the harsh conditions of colonial New England and the tendency of well intentioned 19th century bibliophiles to wash, trim and rebind American incunabula in lush morocco.  [$28,000- SOLD]

The “Triumphs of the reformed religion in America” is the short title given to the First American Edition of Cotton Mather’s biography of John Eliot, the Puritan missionary instrumental in the conversion of Massachusett Indians. Eliot’s famous Bible (the “Eliot Indian Bible”), in the Natick dialect of the region’s Algonquin tribes, was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1660 and 1663 and was the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond its his well known historical importance and consideration as a piece of American incunabula, a fascinating aspect of the work for sale here, and certainly one worthy of further scholarly investigation, is the short contemporary manuscript inscription on the lower margin of pg. 87 : “A man of Words and not of Deeds is Like A Garden ful[l] of weads.” This rhyme was eventually incorporated into the canon of Mother Goose. This Puritan couplet, casually penned in the margin of this Boston imprint, is certainly among the earliest extant manuscripts of an American Nursery Rhyme .

The rare and unusual inscription is especially important in light the controversy regarding the American origins of Mother Goose. “When Boston widower Isaac Goose, or Vergoose, married Elizabeth Foster (1665-1758), he already had ten children. The couple then proceeded to have six more and eventually numerous grandchildren. To entertain this large brood, Elizabeth would recite rhymes that she had learned in the past or created herself. Eventually, according to family tradition, Elizabeth’s son-in-law, printer Thomas Fleet, compiled them into a book, Songs for the Nursery or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children, allegedly published in 1719” Thus, despite earlier uses of the term Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) in French literature by Charles Perrault et al., and the consequent French claim on the origin of Mother Goose, this inscription supports the view that if not the very name Mother Goose, then the canon of nursery rhymes itself under that name, may have come together in Puritan Massachusetts. It is plausible that Elizabeth Vergoose may have appropriated the befitting “Mere L’Oye” for her collection from Perrault’s very popular Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697) as a pun on her own name. [Ref: Opie, Iona. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951; Baring-Gould, William S., The Annotated Mother Goose. New York, C.N. Potter, 1962]

This rhyme is also inextricably linked to Puritan religious dissent and political rebellion. According to Percy B. Green in “A History of Nursery Rhymes (1899)” “[in] a copy of rhyming proverbs in the British Museum, written about the year 1680, occurs the following Puritan satire on Charles II’s changeability”…

“A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds
And when the weeds begin to grow
It’s like a garden full of snow
And when the snow begins to fall
It’s like a bird upon the wall
And when the bird away does fly
It’s like an eagle in the sky
And when the sky begins to roar
It’s like a lion at the door
And when the door begins to crack
It’s like a stick across your back
And when your back begins to smart
It’s like a penknife in your heart
And when your heart begins to bleed
You’re dead, and dead, and dead indeed.”

posted in: Rare Books