The twenty-second publication from the Allen Press is, to my eye, the greatest of their many great works. Just back from their two years of typographic study and printing in France, Lewis and Dorothy Allen embarked on what was to be a period of tremendous work on a series of folio sized publications, of which Youth, from Joseph Conrad, is the first. The Allens’ interest in Youth was simple, as described in their Bibliography:
Conrad’s Youth had long appealed to us as the most eloquent novella of the sea, and a young man’s indoctrination in such a treacherous milieu.
and from the Prospectus:
‘Youth’ is Conrad at his superb best: a masterly narrative, a warmly moving and erudite interpretation of the philosophy of youth — those golden years when we were in our twenties.
Written in 1898, Youth is narrated by the character Charles Marlow, who is familiar to those who have also read Conrad’s Lord Jim or Chance. Marlow tells the story of his first voyage as a second mate on Judea. The voyage had one serious issue after another, from inclement weather, a collision with another ship, and the spontaneous combustion of the load of coal they were carrying. Marlow was lucky to have survived, yet the voyage, which took place in the prime of his youth, holds a special place in his memories. The theme of the wonderment of youth runs throughout the story, and we are constantly reminded that youth is fleeting.
Conrad, through Marlow says, reminds us again and again about the promise of youth:
O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!
…while I lived the life of youth in ignorance and hope.
Here, Conrad first brings up the flip side of youth; that unfortunate law of nature where youth comes to an end as merciless time cares not for our springtime:
Oh, the glamour of youth! Oh, the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic life on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea — and like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night.
As we age, we are left with memories on the promise of youth, replaced with the realities of life and the terminal nature of it:
…I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more — the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort — to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart what with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires — and expires too soon, too soon — before life itself.
Perfectly summarized as:
…and I was young…And this is all that is left of — of youth!…A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and then — good-bye!–Night–Good-bye…!
Conrad closes with another reminder that I wish we all would have been wise enough to grasp when we were twenty. By the time we grasp it, it is gone.
…our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone — has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash — together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was of Polish ancestry and could not speak English fluently until his twenties. Yet, he was to become one of the great prose stylists in English literary history. Many of his novels take place in nautical settings, and depict challenges to human mental and physical capabilities in a manner which deeply explores the human condition. Conrad is considered to be an influence on later modernism (especially the indifferent world that his characters struggle with), though his work can often be labeled at least somewhat romantic and certainly tragic. His most influential work is Heart of Darkness, though Lord Jim, The Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, The Secret Sharer and Nostromo are also still widely read and well thought of critically. His influence on later writers was far and wide, including on D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Back to this truly fantastic edition of Youth from Allen Press. Like most Allen Press works, this is a completely hand-done affair. The type, handset Goudy Modern; the paper, hand-made and watermarked by the medieval Richard de Bas mill; printed damp, by hand; and for binding, hand-sewn on tapes with full Chatham parchment, handmade in England, with decorations in three colors. There are eight deeply colorful illustrations engraved by Blair Hughes-Stanton that jump off the page. In totality, this work is awesome, it is one beautiful hand-made book that nicely sums up what the fine press ethic is all about.
The Allens’ tell an interesting story about the difficulties encountered in getting this work printed.
To complete a nine-color process within a printing span of one week, a program was developed to do three colors with one impression; this involved intricate inking of smaller areas with tiny brayers. So, there were three days for an illustration, two days for the text types (both sides) which included a color in the running headings. Therefore, the all-rag handmade Richard de Bas paper had to be kept damp for six days. It was a hot summer. At the end of the first week we were shocked to see black spots of fungi on the paper. Our delemna was placed in the hands of a chemical company; they sent us a sack of insecticide powder to mix with the water for damping. And the next week’s run was clean, but the cure proved to be worse than the disease. I developed severe intestinal disorders. A little later, when a doctor friend (Robert Aird) was a dinner guest, he saw that mercury was an ingredient of the insecticide; he suggested using a mask and rubber gloves when damping the paper. That was the answer. Since then we learned that a few drops of formaldehyde in the damping water will prevent mildew (foxing) without a health risk.
Perhaps a health warning, in today’s regulatory world, would need to come attached to the book! Mercury! Formaldehyde!
Unfortunately, the slip cases were covered with blue Japanese paper (the same you can see below for the end sheets), which proved to be too delicate. Easily rectified with a new cloth slipcase that looks better and is more sturdy to boot. Readers of Books and Vines have heard Books and Vines contributor dlphcoracl and myself say time and time again that the Allen Press produced some of the greatest hand-done books in America in the twentieth century, and yet are largely overlooked. Just look at this edition below!
About the Edition
- Eight illustrations engraved by Blair Hughes-Stanton, each required nine inkings
- Type face is Goudy Modern, which was hand-set
- The paper was hand-made to order and watermarked by the medieval Richard de Bas mill (established in 1326) in France
- Printed damp, by hand, in two colors on an 1833 Acorn-Smith press by Lewis and Dorothy Allen
- Binding was hand-sewn on tapes, consists of full Chatham parchment, handmade in England, with decorations in three colors; comes in a blue slipcase (though the one you see below is a custom slipcase, not the original)
- Folio in size, 16″ x 11″
- Limited to 140 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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