Sunday, May 1, 2011

Robert M. De Witt Catalog

At bottom I posted an R. M. De Witt catalog found at the back of The Rifle Rangers; or, Adventures in Southern Mexico, by Mayne Reid (n.d.). Unlike many of De Witt's authors Reid was treated with some respect; the illustrations were tissue-covered. DeWitt’s Rifle Rangers would appear to be “War Life” privately printed in 1849 in New York. The book was later polished up and republished in 1850 as the “Rifle Rangers.” Reid complained bitterly of DeWitt’s piracies of works like The Tiger-Hunter by Louis de Bellemare, which Reid translated in 1861 as A Hero In Spite of Himself.

Unfortunately the catalog’s alphabetical listing ends at M, the last pages are missing. The catalog’s date, going by the publisher’s address at the time, would be between 1860 and 1869. Here can be found such titles as Female Depravity; or, the House of Death and Ned Buntline's The Ghals of New York. Here dwells Dick Flybynight; or, the Black Gang, torn from the pages of James Lindridge's Tyburn Tree (1845), as is Jenny Diver. All of their ‘blood’ piracies were issued in 100 page installments which allowed them to run in series.

Canadian authors, with few publishing outlets for their work outside of Montreal, published in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. One of these, Mrs. Moodie, author of the famed Roughing it in the Bush (1852), supplies Mark Hurdlestone; or, the Two Brothers. One Jennie De Witt (wife, daughter, sister, house pseudonym?) appears with Kate Weston; or, to Will and to Do which can be read online HERE. Claude and the Abbess can be read HERE.

Most of Dewitts books sold for 12¢, 25¢, 50¢, $1.00 and $1.25. The exception was Diseases of the Sexual Organs of Women, with upwards of 60 illustrations, translated from the French for a whopping $4.00.

One of the most “bizarre and baffling” De Witt publications was in the collection of collector Bill Blackbeard. The title was Life on the Road; or, Claude, Turpin and Jack, Being a Complete Account of the Most Daring Adventures of the Notorious Highwaymen, Claude Duval, Dick Turpin, and Sixteen-String Jack published at 12 Frankfort Street, which appears in this catalog under a slightly different title and was described by Bill thus at the B &D Group

“This particular DeWitt is (l) hardbound in publishers' green cloth, with embossed decorative illustrations in gilt on front and back covers as well as the spine, which is further embellished with a marvelously attractive design incorporating the title and publisher's name, a binding easily the equal of those found on many English novels by major authors of the period, and (2) illustrated within not only with the woodcuts from the original English blood pirated here, but with an additional half dozen engraved plates done very skillfully in the manner of Cruikshank's illustrations for Jack Sheppard: This is easily the most lavishly produced and bound blood I have ever seen -- yet one that incorporates one of the most abysmal texts ever perpetrated in the bloods.”

Robert M. De Witt’s publishing house was the last port of call for the “father of Canadian literature” Major John Richardson, who had a phenomenal success with Wacousta; or, the Prophecy: a Tale of the Canadas first published in 3 volumes in Edinburgh in 1832. Richardson moved to New York City in 1849 where the bulk of his work was done for De Witt and Davenport.

In 1850 De Witt and Davenport published his notorious The Monk Knight of St. John; a Tale of the Crusades, which reportedly was a bestseller, not surprising since it had scenes of lesbianism and homosexuality. In a short time the publisher’s names were replaced with “Printed for the Trade.” William Renwick Riddell wrote in 1923 that “The whole work reminds one of Matthew Gregory (“Monk”) Lewis’ “Ambrosio; or, the Monk,” after which it is in part modeled and which it rivals and outdoes in indecency.”

By 1852 Richardson’s career was on the wane and he was living in poverty with a Newfoundland dog, which he was forced to sell for want of food. He died penniless of erysipelas or “St. Anthony’s Fire” in New York on 12 May 1852, a painful death brought on by malnutrition and fever.

De Witt covers courtesy of E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra

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