The Definitive Dwiggins no. 2—My Long Pursuit of WAD 1966–1977

I first became aware of W.A. Dwiggins at the age of eleven or twelve when my great aunt gave me two volumes of Erik Lindegren’s marvelous ABC of Lettering and Printing Types (New York: Museum Books, 1965)—books which I have mentioned elsewhere in my blog posts. Volume A (Lettering), p. 91 reproduced the opening page of The History of Susanna (New York: Archway Press, 1947), a small book entirely hand lettered by Dwiggins. [1] It did not make much of an impression on me, though. I was much more interested in the work of the Europeans Rudolf Koch, Hermann Zapf, Friedrich Neugebauer, Karl-Erik Forsberg, Herbert Lindgren, Sven Höglind, and Erik Lindegren himself. Dwiggins lacked their dash and elegance.

Page from The History of Susanna

Page from The History of Susanna as reproduced in ABC of Lettering and Printing Types, vol. A, p. 91. Calligraphy, decoration and design by W.A. Dwiggins. The colors are not those of the original book.

Book jacket by Karl-Erik Forsberg

Book jacket by Karl-Erik Forsberg for Caesar, Härskaren by Rex Warner (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1961).

When I began to learn calligraphy on my own in the mid-1960s there were very few books in print on the subject. I didn’t start collecting books on a serious basis until I went to college. At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, due to the influence of Lloyd J. Reynolds, the bookstore was well stocked with whatever calligraphic titles were then available, including some from Europe and some that were out of print. I bought as many as I could afford. Dwiggins was in all of the 20th century surveys (e.g. Modern Lettering and Calligraphy edited by Rathbone Holme and Kathleen M. Frost [London: Studio Publications, 1954]) and all of the books that had modern histories of the craft, such as 2000 Years of Calligraphy edited by Dorothy Miner, Victor Carlson and P.W. Filby (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Peabody Institute Library and Walters Art Gallery, 1965), the catalogue of a seminal exhibition. Paul Standard even singled out Dwiggins in his essay Calligraphy’s Flowering, Decay & Restauration (Chicago: Society of Typographic Arts, 1947), but I was in thrall to blackletter at the time and paid no attention. [2]

It wasn’t until September 1977 that my appreciation of Dwiggins began. That was my first month as a student in the Department of History of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Columbia University, a month I spent rummaging around the open stacks of the Graphic Arts collection in Butler Library. (The collection is now part of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.) I made an inventory of every book in it that pertained to calligraphy or lettering, a guide intended to help me with my future purchases. Somehow in all of my poking around in the Library of Congress NC and Z call numbers, I had discovered William Morris and the individuals in the American Arts & Crafts movement he inspired. Among the latter was Daniel Berkeley Updike, Bruce Rogers, Frederic W. Goudy, T.M. Cleland—and Dwiggins.

At the end of the month when my MA thesis advisor, Prof. Stuart Bruchey (1917–2011), an economic historian, asked me what I wanted to write about, I said “The Supreme Court and Labor Law.” He asked why? I replied that I wanted to begin work for my dissertation on that subject. Prof. Bruchey’s response changed not only my career but my life. He said that an MA thesis had nothing to do with a PhD dissertation. It was merely a means of learning how to do research and how to write. The subject was irrelevant. In that case, I said, “Can I write about William Morris and his influence on American printing and design?” Although he did not know who Morris was, he said yes. And thus began my long pursuit of Dwiggins.

[1] Dwiggins is briefly profiled in volume C (An Historical Survey), p. 106 with his jacket for Faust, Parts One & Two by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1941). I acquired the last volume of Lindegren’s trilogy when I was a freshman at Reed College in 1972.

[2] See p. 7 which reproduces Dwiggins’ lettering “Kristin Lavransdatter” and “Rector Magnifice”.