Bibliography of American Literature

by Pamela Palmer

#48, 1 August 2005

Points to Identify Early Works

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When the value of a book turns on a few points, knowing how to decipher Jacob Blanck's bibliography can make all the difference. Take Alcott's Little Women for example. If you pick up a late 1860s copy at a sale, the size of your profit depends on recognizing the kind of detail Blanck serves up in Bibliography of American Literature (BAL). Is your book, for example, like the $7,000 copy in American Book Prices Current 2001-2002 (ABPC)?

The $7,000 work is listed in ABPC as "Little Women. Bost., 1868. 1st Ed, 1st Issue. 8 vo, orig cloth; front cover rubbed, spine ends worn. Some spotting. Doheny (Perryville) copy." A quick look at BAL reveals that the only Little Women of 1868 is Part I, with Part II following the next year. But determining exactly what you have is a bit more complex, so you need to know how BAL works.

What is BAL Anyway?

Back in the 1930s Jacob Blanck came up with the idea of providing bibliographic control for American titles written by authors who died prior to 1930. Nothing much happened until the 1940s when the Lilly Endowment provided funding and the Bibliographical Society of America became involved. Focused largely to belle lettres, BAL "is limited to the material which constitutes the structure of American literature of the past one hundred and fifty years" (xi) - dating back from 1955, the first volume's publication date.

When it came to bibliography, Blanck was self-taught but uniquely qualified. His career included stints as Americana bibliographer at the Library of Congress, rare book editor of Publishers' Weekly and Antiquarian Bookman, as well as revising Merle Johnson's American First Editions. Fans of children's literature may know him best for his tales, including Jonathan and the Rainbow and The King and the Noble Blacksmith.

After Blanck died in 1974, other editors completed volumes 7-9. Originally published by Yale University Press between 1955 and 1991, BAL has been reprinted, most recently by Oak Knoll Press in 2003. Complete sets listed on abebooks frequently contain volumes from the various printings. By the way, individual volumes of BAL are well worth selling, and whole sets often are listed above $1000; the currently reprint sells for $975. Over 1500 libraries nationwide own all or part of the set. Online databases that include it, however, are available in only a handful of libraries. Using BAL means a trip to your nearest large academic or public library but check first to see if they own the title and have the volumes you need. For a list of what part of the alphabet is in each volume, click here.

Arranged alphabetically by author, BAL features well-knowns such as Herman Melville and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, along with relative unknowns such as Cornelius Matthews and John Kendrick Bangs.

What BAL Can Do For You

Sellers and collectors turn to BAL for points to differentiate their book from similar ones. BAL does not include prices. When the owner of Little Women, part 1, 1868 looks for the points the $7,000 copy listed in ABPC, here is part of what the BAL entry contains -


Partial BAL Entry

Here are 5 key elements to note-

  1. Title and imprint
      BAL
        LITTLE WOMEN OR, MEG, JO, BETH AND AMY . . . BOSTON ROBERTS BROTHERS 1868

      What it means

        This is the title from the title page and the imprint. It does not indicate capitalization, line endings, or font. The second line shows the place, publisher, and date

  2. Pagination
      BAL
        <¡>-<vi>, 7-341; blank, p. <342>; . . . Frontispiece and 3 plates inserted. 6 " x 4 7/16".

      What is means

        <¡>-<vi> means at least one of the six preliminary pages has a roman numeral (otherwise we would not know they were designated by roman numerals) but i and vi are unnumbered

        7-341 means the body of the text has page numbers that run from 7 through 341 and that all those pages are numbered

        blank, p. <342>; means the unnumbered page 342 is blank

        Frontispiece and 3 plates inserted indicates the illustrations are inserted and not an integral part

        6 1/2" x 4 7/16" is the size of the leaf - height followed by the width in inches

  3. Binding
      BAL
        C cloth: green, purple, terra-cotta. Brown-coated end papers. Flyleaves.

      What is means

        C means the cover has grain like example C pictured in vol. 1. Cloth means a cover of cloth-covered boards. Often books were available in a choice of several colors, such as those named. End papers other than white are specified by color. Flyleaves are white, unwatermarked and of wove paper unless otherwise specified.

  4. Notes
      Several important notes are included. These specify the existence of forgeries, note that all 1868 copies are not first printings, explain that two often-cited indicators of a first printing are flawed. There are also notes on the first English edition.

  5. States
      ABPC
        ABPC 2002-2003 lists "Little Women. Bost., 1868. With: Little Women ... Part Two. Bost., 1969. 1st Eds., 1st State of LW, 4th State of 2d part. 2 vols. 8vol. original cloth; Vol. 1 hinges cracked & becoming loose. sg Oct 24 (5) $1,800.

      What is means

        BAL names Part Two as Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy Part Second . . . first published in 1869. It also describes its four states, helping to clarify what was, along with the 1868 volume, was sold for $1,800.

        BAL details the states as -

        1: No notice for Little Women, Part First, at p. iv.

        2: At p. iv is a note: Little Women, Part First, is published in a volume uniform with this. P. <364> has four entries. P. <366>: Handy Volume Series. / I. / Happy Thoughts . . .

        3: The note present at p. iv. Five entries, p. <364>. P. <366> headed: Handy Volume Series. / I. / Happy Thoughts . . .

        4: The note present at p., iv. Five entries, p. <364>. P. <366> headed: The Handy Volume Series. / / Messrs. Roberts Brothers . . .

These are only a few of the elements contained in BAL. For a full list, click here.

Using BAL alongside ABPC can answer many questions about a book's points and value. Some questions, though, defy their joint ability to explain. For example, what elements led to the value gap between the $7,000 Part I and the $1,800 Parts I and II?

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