Friday, April 14, 2006

An Old Book Story

La Lecturess has an interesting post about a great bookstore, now closed, and the books she bought at various stages of her life.

A book I purchased a few years back, an 1891 volume of stories by an author I write about, had within its covers more than the usual pleasures of reading a first edition. When I opened it, three items fell out: a bookmark apparently handmade of crocheted black thread, a newspaper clipping, and a poem written in pencil on a folded piece of paper.

The newspaper clipping is titled "Business Self-Reliance for Women." It reads, in part, as follows:

If a woman has come into possession, by saving or otherwise, of a sum large enough to be invested, there comes a perplexing question, "How can I safely invest this sum?" This question she should decide for herself, and not throw the responsibility on some one in her family whom she regards as a capable adviser.

On the back of the clipping, amid the ads for Scott's Emulsion ("Pure Norwegian Cod Liver Oil Combined with Hypophosphates," which the ad assures the reader is "as palatable as milk") and Burpee's Farm Annual, is an arresting one:


Mrs. M. S. Ramsey of Cedar Gap, Mo., writes: Three years since I procured TOKOLOGY, a complete Ladies' Guide in health and disease. I followed its teachings in two instances with happiest results. I cannot say enough in its praise. I ask every woman: Have you read Tokology?--if not, then get it at once--its value cannot be estimated in money. Mrs. K. writes, "Send me an outfit for Tokology. My aunt in Dakota says, 'If you must sell books, sell Tokology, as it is, next to the Bible, the best book I have ever read.'" Sample pages free. Agents Wanted. Prepaid $2.75. Alice B. Stockham & Co., 161 La Salle St., Chicago.


Despite the somewhat alarming opening question, Tokology is a practical book on midwifery and gynecology by Chicago ob/gyn and health reformer Alice Bunker Stockham.

The third item, handwritten on a folded sheet of faded, lined paper, is this:

My Share--

My share! Today men call it grief and death--
I see the joy & life to-morrow.
I thank our Father with my every breath
For the sweet legacy of sorrow:
And thro' my tears I call to each joint heir
With Christ--to ask Him for thy share--

To do God's will that's all
That need concern us--
Not to carp--and ask
The meaning of it--but to ply our task
Whatever may befall--
Accepting good, or ill, as He may send
And wait the end--


The two items tell a story. A little searching revealed that this is a poem by H. H., or Helen Hunt Jackson, best known these days for Ramona and A Century of Dishonor, but much esteemed as a poet in her own day. Published in 1869, the whole poem is at the Making of America site here.

Jackson's poem isn't "My Share," however, but "My Legacy," a much longer poem in which the speaker learns that she is an heir and learns gradually that her legacy is spiritual. The first stanza of the handwritten poem is the last stanza of Jackson's poem; the rest must have been written by the book's owner or may have appeared in a revised version of Jackson's text. [Edited to add: See the comments for a solution to the mystery of the second stanza.]

So a story emerges from the materials in this book--a story of a legacy left to the owner, perhaps, who struggles with the conflict between material and spiritual, wanting to do the best she can in this world ("Conservative business men in the East regard six per cent as the highest [interest] rate compatible with safety," advises the clipping) while not losing sight of the next.


FRANK said...

I was fascinated to find a reference in "An Old Book Story" to the stanza of poetry that begins "To do God's will..."

I just acquired today an original document that includes this exact stanza handwritten by Margaret J. Preston. I would love to know if anyone has a reference to whether this poem/stanza was ever officiallly published under her pen name.

I have posted a copy of the document at

Frank Baer

undine said...

That's really interesting! Thanks for solving the mystery of the second stanza. I haven't seen this published under Margaret Preston's name but will look when I'm next in the library.