Rediscovered: Every Copy of an Edition

I think I had my longtime pal Donald Sidney-Fryer really going for about two or three weeks late last year, when I told him I was thinking about collecting the entire print run — a reported 2045 copies — of his 1971 Arkham House book Songs and Sonnets Atlantean.

You’ve got to admit that getting every copy would make for the ultimate collection.

But it’s a nightmare scenario — any small press publisher who’s ever tried to move out 2000 copies of a title would yell, Good God, don’t do it! It defies reason, and laughs at economics. I can almost hear a thousand small press guys break out in sobs, and August Derleth starting to crawl from his grave.

And the shock for the artist would be to have a book vanish from the world, almost if not quite as if it never existed. The cornerstone of DSF’s fame, locked away on shelves in one crumbling redoubt, not in hundreds of collections — approaching Bond villain diabolism!

If you had enough money, you could almost do it. Figure that a good chunk of the run simply doesn’t exist any more. House fires, drowned in spilt beer, left on the commuter train. I can imagine an easy 500 copies gone forever after fifty years. Maybe more. Jumping on eBay or ABEbooks you could sweep up lots of copies today, usually priced from $15ish to $25ish. Fill up a couple of shelves, no problem.

But you could never buy them all. Because of guys like John D. Haefele, Arkham House completist — the guys who have assembled complete sets of Arkham titles, and the guys who dream about assembling complete sets. I don’t know exactly how large the count of that crew. I know several personally, and if they don’t own a copy of the 1971 S&SA they don’t have a Complete Arkham.

While I was kidding about buying up every single copy, some impulse nudged me into getting a couple — and a couple more.

First pair popped up for sale. One to Richard Brisson, whoever he was (a copy of the DSF monograph The Last of the Great Romantic Poets also inscribed to him has been on the block, but I’m only curious about S&SA, not every book DSF has done — tentatively). $20ish, I think, cheap enough to open the door. And about the same week another copy came up for sale, described as inscribed to a fellow poet, while coyly withholding the name.

Intrigued, I popped the $30ish to see who it was and found G. Sutton Breiding’s personal copy inscribed and dated “San Francisco 19 January 1975.” Score. Since then DSF has written intros to two or three GSB collections.

Soon enough I tracked down the copy inscribed to cartoonist Gahan Wilson (he reviewed S&SA on publication). Hand-corrected throughout, including the typo on the inside back flap (the last in Last of the Courtly Poets isn’t capitalized — I’ve only got three copies where DSF made that emendation). Plus the Wilson copy includes the business card DSF had made up: The Art of Incantation, with a holograph note on the back explaining why DSF insisted on a print run of 2000 copies for his first poetry collection. That’s a lot of copies for an Arkham poetry release to that point, usually they had fallen into the 500 range, like Stan McNail’s Something Breathing from 1965.

But DSF insisted, as part of his stance to continue the legend of the California Romantic Poets, and talked Derleth into it.

The card also supplies evidence that DSF adopted the name Donald Sidney-Fryer just as the book hit print — on S&SA itself he is bylined Donald S. Fryer.

The Wilson copy inscription is dated “20 June 1971.” One of the famous claims about the book is that it was the last Arkham title released under the personal purview of August Derleth, who died July 4 that year. The copy DSF inscribed to Derleth — held in private hands other than my own — is dated “17 June 1971.”

In the same order with the Wilson I nabbed one of my current favorite copies, inscribed to DSF’s San Francisco dope dealer. The bookseller didn’t emphasize that detail. Perhaps he didn’t know. Only one hand-correction — but it did come with the bookmark DSF had made up to promote the release.

Emphasizing the personal priorities involved, this copy is dated “3 June 1971.” As of this moment, that’s the earliest date I’ve found.

I’ve picked up a few more copies — a “23 June 1971” is another good one. Depending on what shows up, I suppose I’ll go after associational value, and keep looking for early dates. I wonder if DSF got a box of S&SA in before June 1st and put his mark into some copies.

Thus, a little reverie in celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary publication of Songs and Sonnets Atlantean. Sometime in June? Or was it possibly May?

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