Last August I visited Winchester, Virginia, to interview for a cataloging job with Lorne Bair Rare Books. When I left, I returned home to Brooklyn with two things: the promise of a job starting that fall, and reading Lorne had assigned me as preparation: Volume Oneof Donald Drew Egbert and Stow Person’s Socialism and American Life. For those of you unfamiliar with Egbert (as I will refer to the text from now on —sorry Persons), the work, published in 1952 by Princeton University Press, is comprised of two volumes, the first a collection of essays on the history of socialism in America, beginning with its pre-1848 origins in Europe, and covering communitarianism, secular utopian movements, Marxist socialism, and concluding with American socialist authors and artists. The second volume is a more purely reference work, a descriptive bibliography, compiled by T.D. Seymour Bassett, of works on socialism in America. Though issued together, the two volumes could be considered disparate publications—a dip into either index will not necessarily yield the presence of the same names and events.
Volume one, which was the portion Lorne assigned me to read,looks like a large octavo but, if you’re lying on your back trying to read yourself to sleep, it handles like an elephant folio. As I struggled to keep my elbows from buckling I wondered to myself if it might be necessary to take up Russian kettle bell lifting in order to harness the muscle mass required to read Egbert without harming myself. I didn’t. Namely because after reading this sentence: “The French syndicalists took over as one of their foundation stones the Marxian concept of the class struggle and sought ever to sharpen that concept” (p. 78), I discovered that I couldn’t remember anything I’d read between pp. 1 and 77. So I started taking copious notes. No more reading in bed. Simply the act of writing in longhand every single time a shard splintered off of what I can only describe as a rat king of political affiliations was enough to at least resemble learning. I started reading Egbert in late August, almost a year ago. I have yet to finish it, but I can say that I was still reading it almost every day up through late January (my bookmark states I’ve at least passed my eyes over everything leading to p. 705).
Recently, when I told Lorne that I wanted to begin writing a regular blog for The Minivan of the Revolution, he asked me to write the first one on my experiences reading Egbert.I said “Egg who?” Then in a Pavlovian spurt of muscle memory, my arms suddenly felt tired and weak.
Because I abandoned Egbert sometime in January, I admit the experience is no longer quite fresh in my mind, though I do continue to refer to it, probably two or three times a month, when cataloging Eugene Debs pamphlets. As a book I’ve (mostly) read, I can only write about it in terms of ranking it in comparison to other lengthy works that stopped time, namely War and Peace (which I read from August to October, 2012) and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (August through November, 2013). Experience scientifically proves that the longer I spend time on a book, the less I remember of it, other than begging it to stop, please stop.
What can Itell you about Egbert, other than that it is terribly long? Surely it has improved myability to catalogue Eugene Debs pamphlets, I say to myself; but then again, I’ll never really know, as I had never catalogued a Eugene Debs pamphlet prior to reading Egbert. There is no B.E. as far as my time with Lorne is concerned. My time as Rob Rulon-Miller’s cataloger counts as the B.E. era, but I don’t look back on that as a timeof pagan innocence, because back then the bible was Fleeman’s bibliography of the works of Samuel Johnson, where the reference numbers look like this: FLEEMAN 59.4R/264b+/$25472446redrum. A very special mind, one like Egbert’s or Lorne’s, for example, is required for pleasurably reading Egbert cover to cover. I’m arguing that I don’t have that kind of mind, but I will also say this: the difficulty of producing a history of socialism in America is at least partly due to the complexity and enormity of the subject. Socialist thought does not exist linearly; it’s a Russian nesting doll/Venn diagram monster, from which all of these organizations sprouted and fought and differed in some small but irreconcilable way: Social Democratic Federation, Social Democratic Party of America, Social Democratic Party of North America, Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party, Socialist Labor Party (also known as the Socialistic Labor Party), Socialist Labor Party (Cincinnati), Socialist Party, the Socialist Party Militants, and the Socialist Workers Party. There’s Christian socialism, religious socialism, democratic socialism, evolutionary socialism, Fabian socialism, Neo-Calvinist socialism, neoliberal socialism, revisionist socialism, revolutionary socialism, scientific socialism, state socialism, Tory socialism, utopian socialism, and socialistic realism; there were four Internationals, the second socialist, the third Bolshevist, the fourth Trotskyist. All of these figure in Egbert, some more prominently than others. It will take many years of full-time immersion in the Lorne Bair Rare Books backlog before I can readily tell them apart. So far I’ve got the Socialist Party covered. And the Militants, but only because I catalogued a Militant publication last week.
I hope all of the forgoing will serve as an introduction to the real purpose of this blog post: to introduce the Minivan of the Revolution Book Club. It’s a lot like Oprah’s and Mark Zuckberg’s book clubs, but with a larger impact on the southwest corner of suite 206, 661 Millwood Ave., Winchester, Virginia. Every month I will read a book from our recently catalogued inventory, which is affordable, relevant to our many specialties, and relatively obscure. If I choose a title that you find is too mainstream, do not take offense, even if you wrote it. I’d never heard of it before it walked across my desk, or I wouldn’t be reading it. So next month’s book is a 1920s edition of Scottish author Susan Edmonstone Ferrier’s novel Marriage (first published in 1818), with an introduction by H.L. Morrow. I mean the book has an introduction by Morrow, not the blog. H.L. Morrow is long dead. I’m still alive, Egbert notwithstanding.