Monday, February 2, 2009

From the desk of David R. Godine

A Note on Bruce Rogers

People used to say of T. E. Lawrence that he had a genius for backing into the limelight. I think the same could be said of Bruce Rogers, the peripatetic American typographer, who probably has had more ink spilled over his work than any practitioner of the graphic arts of the book since Gutenberg. Rogers had certain natural talents, and among these were his abilities as a pasticheur; he could put himself into the skin of almost any century and make it his own. Nowhere are these talents displayed with more vigor and inventiveness than the books he produced in the sixteen productive years (1896-1912) he worked at The Riverside Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had big shoes to fill; D.B. Updike had left to start his own shop in 1893 and both Houghton and Mifflin saw the need for a captive private press that could produce first-rate editions and printing at moderate costs. They had the editorial taste; they had the plant at Riverside on the other side of the Charles; they had willing and skilled workman. What was needed was a leader who could both direct a program and oversee the details of design and production. In Rogers, they found the perfect candidate, a typographer who was able to take over a small corner of the enormous factory on the bank of the Charles, select the titles, and produce the volumes without regard to either estimates or costs.

This was the decade immediately following Morris's final efforts as a printer and designer and, above all, of the Kelmscott Chaucer, a book that appeared in 1896 and was, in so many ways, the culmination of Morris’s remarkable career as a craftsman and visionary. In its total integration of text and image, paper, printing, and ink, it would forever change what would be expected a privately printed edition and set the bar high (perhaps impossibly high) for any future "private press." Although Morris died shortly after DBU left Riverside, his influence was strong and pervasive on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps Rogers absorbed some of it; he could hardly not be aware of it. And how could he ignore it working in Boston alongside Goodhue, Copeland and Day, and the arts and crafts revival that took the region by storm? But BR was nothing if not eclectic and inventive, and his three decades at Riverside produced books that hearken back to Jean de Tournes and the French sixteenth century, to Bulmer and Bensley of the late seventeenth, and to Pickering and Whittingham of the mid- nineteenth. As I said, he could slip into almost any clothes and make them fit.

As Jerry Kelly makes clear in his fine appraisal of Rogers during this period, these were his happiest years. And it was no wonder, for he was given free reign, and was the highest paid employee at the plant, which must have grated the older workmen no end. BR could devote his attention (as did Morris) to every detail of the books’ production. Here is a small note from the Autumn 1905 announcement of Riverside Press Editions:

"For more than two years, the question of ink has occupied his (i.e. BR’s) attention, and now, after many trials, failures, and partial successes, it is believed that a thoroughly satisfactory printing ink has been obtained. Made only of the finest materials, and ground with special care, in a shop whose proprietor is the only workman, the result is a black ink of unusual density and richness, and without gloss. A red has also been produced, not brilliant, but full, clean, and of absolute permanency."

Rogers neglected to point out that it also cost $6.00/can, probably five times the going rate.

But to say that Rogers was “happy” is also not saying much, for BR was never, it seems to me, a very happy man. If you read his letters to Henry Watson Kent at the Metropolitan, he was always unsatisfied with something or someone — the climate, the food, the printing equipment, the heating system. Although they lived and worked in the same city, he and Updike were like oil and water, and while they were careful to respect each other's work and DBU went to bat for Rogers on any number of occasions, they were clearly uncomfortable in each other's company. This is not surprising; each was thorny and prickly characters in their own way; Updike clearly unhappy and repressed, and Rogers, although later married and a father, never displaying much loyalty to or affection for anything but his work, which always seemed to take precedence over the comfort or happiness of his family (at least if his letters are to be trusted). But at Riverside, Rogers was really his own boss and the cock of the roost. For his sixteen years in Cambridge, until he finally lost the support of the management after Henry Houghton’s passing in 1906, he had every reason to be “happy”; he was being paid the equivalent of $110,000/year, he had a full compliment of trained workmen at his disposal, and until some bright eyed accountant began looking at the real costs of the operation, he had the support of the publishing firm and management. Many of his editions sold out before publication. But the writing was on the wall. In a letter to Henry Louis Bullen, Rogers understands how precarious his position really was at the plant:

"The plain fact is that it doesn’t pay — at least not well enough to please the newer and younger element in the firm, and in the general retrenchment going on, my head, as that of the highest salaried man in the concern, was naturally one of the first to fall. I am really greatly pleased, though I haven’t any idea what I shall do."

By 1912, BR had left Riverside, although for two years (at east) the firm continued to issue books from his plans and designs. They were, and remain, among the most beautiful books ever produced by a large commercial establishment whose objectives were to make both beautiful books and a profit. But in this case, at last under Houghton, the books came first and BR himself said that only the books he printed while at Riverside Press “give me a definite satisfaction.”

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