Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review: "Liberty & the American Revolution"

Liberty & the American Revolution: Selections from the Collection of Sid Lapidus (Princeton University Library, 2009) is the catalog to accompany an exhibit of the same name now on display at Princeton's Firestone Library (through 3 January 2010). If the catalog is any indication, the exhibit itself is undoubtedly quite a show, and I certainly urge anyone who can get there to go to Princeton and see this remarkable collection of materials. These 157 items (broadsides, books, prints, but mostly pamphlets) are drawn from Sid Lapidus' 2,500-item collection relating to the "intellectual origins of the American Revolution; the Revolution itself; the early years of the republic; the resulting spread of democratic ideas in the Atlantic world; and the effort to abolish the slave trade in both Great Britain and the United States."

The body of the catalog comprises four major sections: Revolutionary Origins, The American Crisis, Contagious Liberty, and Abolition of the Slave Trade. These are further subdivided into categories, which contain several works apiece; each work is introduced with a short contextual paragraph about the author and the text, followed by an appropriate selection from the text. Most of the items are accompanied by a high-quality image of the title page, a relevant passage, or the binding.

Curator of Rare Books Stephen Ferguson provides a preface to the volume, noting that the exhibited materials should be viewed within at least three separate 'frames' (the story of expanding liberty in the Atlantic world, a narrower frame such as the specific events or topics discussed in the work, and finally the item itself as physical object).

In his foreword Sid Lapidus, the collector, discusses his background as a book collector, musing on how this collection came to take shape and offering much insight into the mind and methods of a truly dedicated, interested and serious collector. He writes about his process of purchasing, of his delight in perusing well-researched dealer and auction catalogs, and of how the creation of his collection has been "a voyage of discovery of part of me I didn't know existed" (p. xxi). This short essay alone would make this catalog worth reading for any collector, since it gets to the heart of what many of those of us who enjoy collecting enjoy about it.

Sean Wilentz, who holds the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professorship in the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton, provides a worthy introduction to the catalog, laying the groundwork and providing much important contextual information to the materials included in the exhibit. This is a succinct and able encapsulation of the themes illustrated by the exhibited texts, and is as good a short summary of the ideas of liberty and rights during the Revolutionary era as any I've read.

This catalog is set in a very appropriate and frankly quite beautiful font, and is extremely well designed (even with a very useful and comprehensive index). It is a lovely complement to Mr. Lapidus' work, and will be a lasting testament to this small portion of his notable and extensive collections (and will stand in its own right as a useful bibliographic resource).