Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mitchell S. Buck

Mitchell S. Buck  (b. Waterbury, Connecticut, 10 February 1887; d. near Philadelphia, 12 May 1959)

Mitchell Starrett Buck was second child and only son of Roswell Hollister Buck, a travelling salesman who was born in Pennsylvania in 1841, and his wife Minnie A. Donaldson, born in Connecticut in 1856, who were married in 1878.  Mitchell’s sister Marian was eight years older than him. Little is known of his early life.  He was educated at the Vermont Military Academy. According to the 1900 Census, the Buck family was still in Connecticut, but as of 1910 Mitchell is listed as a heating engineer in Philadelphia, living with his brother-in-law, H. Leon Stoll, an electrical engineer.  Buck would remain in the Philadelphia area, as a heating and ventilating engineer, for the rest of his life.  

Buck’s earliest known publications (signed “M.S. Buck”) appeared in The New Age (New York), a magazine of literature, science and freemasonry. These include an essay on “Present Day Occultism and Its Literature” (June 1911) and a follow-up piece, “The New Science” (September 1911); “A Treatise on Immortality”, an attempt to assist in the establishment of a scientific basis for a belief in the immortality of the soul (in three parts, January through March 1912); and some quasi-historical fiction, including “While Egypt Slept” (June 1913), “The Story of Isis and Osiris: From the Writings of Harkases, the Scribe, Son of Nargases” as “collected and prepared by Mitchell S. Buck” (September 1913), and “The Builder: A Leaf from the Past” (April 1914).  From that time until the late 1930s Buck mined a narrow vein of literature, often classically inspired, and often tinged with eroticism. Some of his most interesting writings are what Buck himself termed “pastels”. Buck’s writing was secondary to his work as a heating engineer, and the money he made professionally allowed him to become a noted book-collector, specializing in first editions, English literature, Greek and Latin classics. In 1917 he married Helen N. Boyer (1890-1976). During World War I he served as a Supervising Ship Camoufleur.

Buck’s first book was a translation of Aphrodite by the French decadent Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925). It appeared in 1913, and was “privately printed”, probably at Buck’s expense.  It may have been arranged through the Philadelphia bookseller Nicholas L. Brown, who officially became a publisher in 1916, and thereafter issued most of Buck’s output.  Between 1916 and 1932, Brown published small editions of poetry, belles lettres, translations, sometimes without his imprint but stating that the title has been “issued privately for subscribers” (in order to evade prosecution for dealing in obscene materials). Such classical erotica is very tame by modern standards, but in the teens and twenties such material was policed by self-appointed authorities such as John S. Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Sumner and his ilk had success in getting various literary works banned, such as Theodore Dreiser’s The Genius (1915) and James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen (1919). Nicholas L. Brown moved from Philadelphia to New York around the end of 1918. 

Buck’s second book was Syrinx: Pastels of Hellas (1914), issued by Claire Marie of New York, a small avante-garde publisher who in the same year issued Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. Claire Marie was run by a poet from Philadelphia, Donald Evans (1884-1921).  Nicholas L. Brown issued four of Buck’s works under his imprint while still in Philadelphia, first an expanded edition of Syrinx under a new title, Ephemera: Greek Prose Poems (1916); followed by The Greek Anthology (Palatine MS): The Amatory Epigrams (1916); a small collection of prose poems entitled The Songs of Phryne (1917); and a nonfiction work Book Repair and Restoration: A Manual of Practical Suggestions for Bibliophiles, including some translated sections from “Essai sur l’art de restaurer les estampes et les livres”, par A. Bonnardot, Paris, 1858 (1918). Without Brown’s name listed as publisher, there was also Buck’s translation from Lucian, Dialogues of the Hetaerai (1916), which was “privately printed for subscribers only”.

The dust wrapper of the first edition (1924)
After moving to New York, Nicholas L. Brown continued with Buck’s various books, including  The Life of Casanova from 1774 to 1798: A Supplement to the Memoirs, drawn from the work of J.F.H. Adnesse and other sources (1924); Afterglow: Pastels of Greek Egypt, 69 B.C. (1924); and Rose of Corinth (1929), all with the Brown imprint, and the following “privately printed for subscribers”, without Brown’s imprint: a new edition of Buck’s translation of Pierre Louÿs’s Aphrodite (1919); Buck’s new translations of works by Louÿs, The Songs of Bilitis (1919) and Byblis, Leda, A New Pleasure (1920);  and translations from, respectively, the Greek and Latin of The Mimes of Herondas (1921), and Martial: Epigrams in Fifteen Books (1921).

In 1932, Liveright Publishing of New York issued a very large volume of The Collected Works of Pierre Louÿs, with a new introduction by Buck, along with his translations of Aphrodite, The Songs of Bilitis, The Twilight of the Nymphs, and Psyche. The translation of Sanguines is by James Cleugh, and the translations of Woman and Puppet and The Adventures of King Pausole are unattributed. It seems possible that Buck translated the latter (or was involved with the process), for it was originally published out of Philadelphia in 1926, as a limited edition “privately printed for the Pierre Louÿs Society”, with illustrations by Clara Tice, but such an attribution is only guesswork. 

Frontispiece and title page of Rose of Corinth (1929)
In his Foreword to Louÿs’s Collected Works, Buck noted how the times have changed:  “Unless we are professional reformers, we are no longer shocked, except at tragedy. . . . we can, in the main, observe public semi-nudity without rioting. Even the sinister manifestations of sex are known to all who care to read about them. And our physical health and perfection now receive as much, if not more, attention than the ultimate destination of our soul. All of which is a rather encouraging development.”  As applied to the works of Louÿs, Buck sums up their attractions to him, based on decades of close attention and study:  “We know, as he did, that worship of the physical, literally, is essentially the religion of youth; and that any religion or scheme of existence, such as the Alexandrian, which ignored maturity and old age, which depended for stimulation on physical pleasures, is falsely based and cannot endure. We can appreciate, also, throughout his works, many scenes of indescribable charm which haunt the memory, often with a touch of wistful sadness. Perhaps he may help us better to feel the spirit of the nocturnal, silver-flooded landscape, the glory in the surge of the sea, the mystery of life in the shadowy glades of the forest. We need someone to teach us such things.” 

Buck’s final book was another translation from the Latin, The Praipeia: An Anthology of Poems on Priapus (1937), privately printed in an edition of only one hundred and fifty copies. 

Buck’s own creative writing can be found in four volumes: Ephemera: Greek Prose Poems, which contains and expands his earlier Syrinx; The Songs of Phryne; Afterglow; and Rose of Corinth, the latter being Buck’s most extended narrative, around eight thousand words telling of the sexual awakening of a beautiful young woman on Corinth, published with decorations by Franz Felix. Afterglow is probably the most representative volume, and the most collectible, for it includes a thirteen page preface by Arthur Machen.  The original edition was remaindered with a binding that gives prominence to Machen’s name, also giving his originally untitled preface a title. The cover itself makes the book appear to be primarily as by Machen, with On Paganism, by Arthur Machen, given above the title of Buck’s work.  Following the latter example, the book was reissued by Tartarus Press in a two hundred copy edition in 1998, with a short biographical note on Buck by Stephen Michaluk, Jr.

The binding of the first edition (1924)
The remainder binding of the first edition
Mitchell S. Buck and his wife are buried in Beverly, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. They had no children.

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