The Definitive Dwiggins no. 82—The Colophon (Part V)

In the fall of 1928 W.A. Dwiggins was completing work on the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson for Random House. The printer of the book was Pynson Printers, headed by Elmer Adler (1884–1962). [1] The two men had previously worked together on Nobodaddy: A Play by Archibald MacLeish (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Dunster House, 1926) and two editions of My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926). [2] Their professional friendship led Adler to invite Dwiggins to serve on the editorial board of The Colophon, the quarterly journal for book collectors that he founded in October 1928 with Vrest Orton (1897–1986), John T. Winterich (1891–1970), and Burton Emmett (1871–1935). [3] Although he was notoriously averse to joining groups, Dwiggins accepted the invitation, presumably out of gratitude for Adler’s support of his efforts to forge a new career as a book designer. “EA has been most kind to me during the past year,” he wrote to Donald S. Klopfer (1902–1986), partner in Random House, in early 1929. [4]

The Colophon, which Adler described “as a boon to booklovers and an adventure in enthusiasm,” was an outgrowth of the fine printing frenzy of the 1920s. [5] But the Stock Market crash of 1929 delayed its first issue until February 1930 and the Great Depression that followed severely affected its financing. The only reason that the journal got off the ground to begin with was that banker and book collector Frank Altschul (1887–1981) had guaranteed to underwrite the first four issues. A month before the Crash Adler told Altschul that he already had the designs for three covers—by Rockwell Kent, Dwiggins, and Edward A. Wilson—in hand. [6]

Dwiggins’ cover, though, was not done. “But before it is used,” he wrote Adler near the end of the year, “I want to send you a new line for ‘A Book Collector’s Quarterly’ in a better letter. Ital., but with more style, this one looks poor to me now.” [7] Dwiggins need not have worried about the cover being used before he had a chance to improve it since Adler hung onto the design for nearly a year before announcing his plans for it. In September 1930 he told Dwiggins he intended to make it the cover of Part IV, the holiday issue scheduled to be published that December. But he needed a spine design. In October Dwiggins agreed to make one, including a special ornament, but he did not deliver the artwork until November 3. Although Adler did not say so, it seems that the delay forced him to change his plans and ask Dwiggins if he minded if the cover design was held over for Part V. Dwiggins had no objection and thus, nearly a year and a half after it was designed, his only cover for The Colophon was finally published in March 1931. [8]

The Colophon, Part V (1931). Cover design by W.A. Dwiggins.

The Colophon: A Book Collectors’ Quarterly, Part V (1931). Cover design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Spine for The Colophon, Part V (1931). Design, lettering and ornament by W.A. Dwiggins.

Spine for The Colophon, Part V (1931). Design, lettering and ornament by W.A. Dwiggins.

Adler was eager to get Dwiggins’ response to the first two issues of The Colophon. “Why in the deuce don’t you open up and say something once in a while?” he querulously wrote him on June 10, 1930. “You might just as well be in China, for all the help you are with suggestions for The Colophon, and we really need your help.” He especially wanted suggestions of Boston printers, other than The Merrymount Press, who could contribute to The Colophon. Adler needed to find new printers of reliable quality beyond the usual suspects because The Colophon was comprised of collated inserts designed and printed by a variety of contributors. Pynson Printers, his company, merely handled the cover, title page, and colophon page.

Several weeks later Dwiggins responded, “Boston is a skunk of a town, aint [sic] it?” He suggested both Gehman Taylor (1884–1960) of Gordon-Taylor, Inc. in Cambridge and the McGrath-Sherrill Press in Boston as potential contributors. He described the latter as “a good everyday working plant with ambitions,” but said that he could not work with them. However, he was willing to work with Taylor—if Taylor was interested in being part of The Colophon. “Anyway, he [Taylor] would do a bang-up job, as to finish,” Dwiggins wrote, “and I would supply part of the style. But the proposition wants to come from you, in detail, with the mere mention that I would be glad to help. (i.e., not that I told you to ask him.) Tell him what you can pay, and time factor.” Dwiggins went on to apologize to Adler for not helping out much with The Colophon despite being one of its contributing editors:

I am not much help on the Col., I admit. Output of energy rather limited. Think you are doing a top-hole job. If I appear lukewarm (I am lukewarm) it is because I haven’t an ounce of collector or bibliophile blood in my veins. I rather shy off bibliophiling for some reason—I don’t know what. I guess I don’t care much for shoptalk anyway: rather do the job than talk about it, etc., etc. Not a pose—actual fact.

The only idea I ever had for the Col.—my own production I mean—was a four-page imaginary printing-news-sheet, such as I fancied would feed me the kind of food I craved. Sort of dream of the kind of periodical I might look forward to seeing so often. This notion resulted, I think, from looking at the Inland Printer, and American Printer, and that sort. I thought it would be fun to write it all myself—letters from our correspondents in Prague and Stockholm and Milan, with cuts of new type, illustrations, title-pages, etc.—editorials, news about ourselves, etc. etc. Good idea, but a fearful amount of work—maybe do it if I live long enough.

You see, I am on the making end of the job—not the collecting end—so my principle interest in the COL is the fact that you are steering it. I think you are steering it famously. Given the formula, I do not see how you could do it better. The letterpress is first chop, and your printer-contributors usually do a fit job. The reason I do not stand up on the table and cheer is within myself. COL. interests me, but it doesn’t feed me. [9]

Despite Dwiggins’ lukewarm attitude toward bibliophilic printing, Adler was ecstatic at his response: “A letter like yours of yesterday justifies your whole existence, not to mention your participation in The Colophon.” He immediately suggested that Dwiggins and Taylor print a “frank” manuscript by novelist James Branch Cabell. The result was a four-page insert, “Recipes for Writers,” with an ornamental title by Dwiggins. [10]

I believe that Dwiggins agreed to work on the “Recipes for Writers” insert in order to raise Taylor’s profile within the bibliophilic community. The year before Dwiggins had convinced Bennett Cerf to accept Taylor as the printer for the edition of The Time Machine he was designing for Random House. However, Taylor was unknown in the fine printing world. In order to help sell The Time Machine, it was necessary to show book collectors that Gordon-Taylor Inc. was a printer of the first rank. [11]

"Recipes for Writers" by James Branch Cabell in The Colophon, Part V (1931). Ornaments by W.A. Dwiggins.

“Recipes for Writers” by James Branch Cabell in The Colophon, Part V (1931). Ornaments by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Colophon page for The Colophon: A Book Collectors' Quarterly, Part V (1931). Typography and decorations by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Colophon page for The Colophon: A Book Collectors’ Quarterly, Part V (1931). Typography and decorations by W.A. Dwiggins. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society.

At some point between October 1930 and March 1931 Dwiggins designed the colophon for The Colophon Part V. The design is notable for its three stencil figures: a horse, a man with upraised arms, and a gryphon. These figures recur in other works by Dwiggins. The gryphon had already been used a few months earlier for the “Recipes for Writers” insert (above) and all three are present throughout his design of The Time Machine: An Invention by H.G. Wells (New York: Random House, 1931). They are in the frame of his famous double-page title design: the gryphon at the upper left, the horse at the upper right, and the man on both sides in the middle. The man is also part of the Preface decoration and the headpieces for Chapters 3, 10, and 12; while the horse and gryphon are both part of the headpieces for Chapters 4 and 5.

Title page spread from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (New York: Random House, 1931). Design, ornamentation, and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

Title page spread from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (New York: Random House, 1931). Design, ornamentation, and lettering by W.A. Dwiggins.

Although he contributed to “Recipes for Writers,” Dwiggins remained unenthusiastic about The Colophon. In October 1930 he wrote Adler:

Relating to Col. at large: I can’t reconcile myself to the patch-work, but I imagine that is the only way you can manage to get it out at all. I always come away wishing that one Elmer Adler had printed the thing throughout in his own inimitable style. (BOUQUET, but sincerely meant.)

You get a bangup result, as it is, and I’ll bet it takes a lot of your own time free gratis. [12]

Despite his criticisms of The Colophon, Adler kept him on as a contributing editor. Dwiggins made no attempt to resign because he knew that being on good terms with Adler and being associated with The Colophon was beneficial to his goal of leaving the world of advertising to become a full-time book designer. Four years later, forced to rethink the format and premise of The Colophon in the face of continued economic difficulties, Adler turned to Dwiggins for more than a cover design.


Notes
1. For an overview of Elmer Adler’s multifaceted life see Elmer Adler in the World of Books edited by Paul A. Bennett (Princeton, New Jersey: The Princeton University Library, 1964). Pynson Printers was founded 20 March 1922 by Adler with Hubert Canfield (1892–1969), David Silvé (b. 1889), and Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960), but by the fall only Adler was left. See “Elmer Adler: The Pynson Printers” by Paul Johnston in Publishers’ Weekly (March 7, 1931), p. 1184. Adler was also one of the original founders of Random House, along with Bennett Cerf (1898–1971) and Klopfer. His role in the firm ended after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. See “The Four Lives of Elmer Adler” by Frederick B. Adams, Jr. in Elmer Adler in the World of Books, p. 5; and Johnston, p. 1188.
2. My Mortal Enemy was the first book that Dwiggins designed for Knopf. Adler is widely credited with introducing Dwiggins to Knopf in 1924 and thus jump-starting their productive thirty-year collaboration. See typescript of talk by Alfred A. Knopf at “Design as a Function of Management” Conference in Aspen, Colorado, 26 June 1952, p. 5 in Folder 3, Box 666, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas; and “Elmer Adler: Visionary” by Philip C. Duschnes in Elmer Adler in the World of Books, p. 9. Elsewhere, though, Knopf says it was Frederic Melcher of Publishers’ Weekly who first introduced Dwiggins to him. In “Some Random Recollections: An Informal Talk Made at the Grolier Club, New York, 21 October 1948” by Alfred A. Knopf (New York: The Typophiles: Typophile Chapbook XXII, 1949), p. 6 he says Melcher made the introduction in 1922. The year must be a mistake since “Tribute to a Designer, Dwiggins” by Alfred A. Knopf, an insert in the Christmas issue of Esquire (December 1958), says the meeting took place in 1923, citing his diary entry for 17 September 1923: “W.A. Dwiggins brought to office by Fred Melcher.” See Folder 132, Box 31, W.A. Dwiggins Collection 2001, Boston Public Library. But Knopf fudged his diary entry. The actual entry, kindly provided to me by Richard Watson, Head of Reference and Research Services at the Harry Ransom Center, says, “Had a very pleasant visit from Dwiggins who was brought around by Melcher.” See Box 621.2 in the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Papers, Harry R. Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas.
3. See Elmer Adler to W.A. Dwiggins, 24 October 1928 in Box 1, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library; and 17 December 1928 report on progress of The Colophon in Box 173, Random House Files, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Orton, then on the advertising staff of The American Mercury, was supposedly Bennett Cerf’s choice for editor of The Colophon, but Adler chose Emmett, vice-president of the Newell-Emmett Company, an advertising agency. See Trading Words: Poetry, Typography and Illustrated Books in the Modern Literary Economy by Claire Hoertz Badaracco (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 186.
4. See W.A. Dwiggins to Donald S. Klopfer, 26 April 1929 in Random House files at Columbia Box 165, Folder—Stevenson, Robert, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Random House Records, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
5. For an overview of the fine printing mania of the 1920s see Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America by Megan L. Benton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000). Although Benton’s account of Dwiggins’ activities is flawed, her overall portrait of the period and its players is informative and entertaining.
6. See Elmer Adler to Frank Altschul 17 September 1929 and Adler to Altschul 10 December 1929 in Folder 3A, Overbrook Press, Frank Altschul Papers, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Regarding Altschul’s financial support, also see Burton Emmett to Altschul 2 January 1931 in Folder 62, Overbrook Press, Frank Altschul Papers, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
7. W.A. Dwiggins to Elmer Adler 11 December 1929 in Box 1, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library.
8. Elmer Adler to W.A. Dwiggins 22 September 1930; Dwiggins to Adler 10 October 1930; Adler to Dwiggins 29 October 1930; and Adler to Dwiggins 3 November 1930 in Folder D 1930–1931, Box 6, Pynson Printers Collection, New York Public Library. And Adler to Dwiggins 30 October 1930 and Dwiggins to Adler 3 November 1930 in Box 2, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library. The cover for Part I (February 1930) of The Colophon was by Edward A. Wilson, but Rockwell Kent’s purported cover design never appeared. Instead the cover for Part II (May 1930) was by Joseph Sinel, the cover for Part III (September 1930) by Gustav Jensen, and the cover for Part IV (December 1930) by Donald McKay. For a complete list of the cover artists for the twenty issues that comprise the First Series of The Colophon (1930–1935) see the Wikipedia entry.
9. Elmer Adler to W.A. Dwiggins 10 June 1930; Dwiggins to Adler 2 July 1930 in Box 2, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library. It is unclear why Dwiggins did not want to work with the McGrath-Sherrill Press. He had collaborated with the firm in 1925 on an insert for a District of Columbia Paper Manufacturing Company promotional book and in the years between 1916 and 1919 on several advertising jobs. Perhaps there had been a change in the company’s management. On the other hand, Dwiggins had previously worked with Gehman Taylor on The Sinner by Watson Gordon (1927), a small booklet designed as a Christmas gift for the author’s friends and clients, and apparently enjoyed the experience. He subsequently worked with the printer on several projects in the 1930s and 1940s.
10. Elmer Adler to W.A. Dwiggins 3 July 1930 and Adler to Dwiggins 19 August 1930 in Box 2, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library. Also see Adler to Dwiggins 9 July 1930 in Folder D 1930, Box 5, Pynson Printers Collection, New York Public Library. Original artwork for both the decorative title frame and the gryphon within a circle are misidentified in Folder 41, Box 6, W.A. Dwiggins 2001 Collection, Boston Public Library as “AIGA WAD 1938.”
11. Bennett Cerf was willing to take a chance on Gordon-Taylor Inc. as the printer of The Time Machine because he had become fed up with slow work and high prices of Pynson Printers on previous Random House projects, including the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1929). See for example Bennett Cerf to Elmer Adler 23 March 1929 in Box 165, Random House Files, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library; also many letters in Random House 1929–1932 Folder, Box 18, Pynson Printers Collection, New York Public Library (e.g. Cerf to Adler 20 June 1929: “…I consider the enclosed bill for ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ plates thoroughly absurd.”).
12. W.A. Dwiggins to Elmer Adler 19 October 1930 in Box 2, The Colophon Papers, New York Public Library.