Back to Methuselah, by George Bernard Shaw, Limited Editions Club (1939)

Sometimes I have to force myself to proceed with a book on my ‘should read’ list, usually based on a preconceived bias against the author or topic. Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch) certainly is an example. I have pushed off reading it for years, mostly due to a dislike of George Bernard Shaw‘s social/political views which seemingly would take center stage in this book based on my, at the time, not very deep ‘cliff-notes’ level knowledge of what the book is about. These fears were further compounded when reading the Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) that came with the 1939 edition being reviewed here. While mentioning Shaw’s fervent socialism, it says:

….his plays are dramas of propaganda.

Yuck!  That’s about the least desirable thing I can think of reading….the propaganda of a Fabian Socialist who eventually warmed to dictatorships, believed in euthanasia but not in vaccination! However, classics are replete with writers and artists that I am sure have much different views on things than I, and as long as they do not use a sledgehammer in forcing their views upon the reader, my enjoyment of their works rarely suffer. The ML gave me some hope when saying:

But his propaganda is made palatable by the fine wit of the dialogue he writes.

Wit is good, but would it be enough to overcome my aversion? George Macy says in that same ML:

…all think of George Bernard Shaw as the intellectual imp of mankind, a single person who knows everything and can write or talk about everything so that everything is amusing.

Amusingly enough, for me, Macy was 100% correct. Back to Methuselah is written with a plethora of wit, and, despite the heaviness and inclinations to which Shaw leads the reader, it is quite amusing to read. Reading Back to Methuselah is akin to sitting across the table from a friend that holds diametrically opposite viewpoints of your own while thoughtfully provoking each other into amicable exploration of evolution and human progress (preferably all done while sharing a fine bottle of aged Bordeaux!).

Back to Methuselah, written from 1918–20 and published in 1921, consists of a lengthy preface and five plays highlighting Shaw’s thinking as to the stages of humanity over time. In the preface (An Infidel Half Century) Shaw argues that twentieth century civilization is ungovernable since the limited human lifespan does not allow enough experience to be gained from which to effectively govern the complexity of modern life. Shaw states that we must learn to live longer, and believes we will through Creative Evolution (see here: defined as “evolutionary change that occurs because it is needed or wanted—the Lamarckian view— and not as a result of natural selection—Darwinism“).

In the Beginning: B.C. 4004 (In the Garden of Eden) is an allegory in which Adam and Eve dread the prospect of living forever more than a fear of death. The serpent tells Eve about reproduction, and how such can solve their problems. There is much discussion dealing with “loneliness and love, uncertainty and fear, fidelity and marriage…” The Serpent tells them things such as: You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will.

The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: Present Day is essentially a play version of the message in the preface.  Two brothers theorize that man must greatly expand the lifespan of humans in order for humanity to have a chance at effectively governing itself. The brothers lay out their case to a couple politicians of opposing parties, both of which look at a pitch for longevity mostly as a way of attracting votes. As said by one of the characters, Lubin, “Is there anything the electorate will not swallow if it is judiciously put to them?”

The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170 is when the first ‘long-lived’ humans begin to emerge, followed by Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman: A.D. 3000 in which a ‘short-lived’ old man from England, travels to a colony of ‘long-lived’, seeking refuge from the disgust he feels at the stupidity and capriciousness of the short-lived. Both are engaging stories. The final play in the progression is As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920 which takes place well into the future where all are ‘long-lived’ and the ‘short-lived’ are merely an almost forgotten ‘footnote’ from the long ago past. Within a quite interesting story, the ‘Ancients’ (which are those that have been alive for a long, long time) explain to the young people that, as summed up here, “One’s own body is the last of many dolls and it will be shed, as well. A man’s eventual destiny is to be bodiless, a vortex of energy, immortal, and free to roam among the stars.

The She-Ancient: The day will come when there will be no people, only thought.

The He-Ancient: And that will be life eternal.

There is quite a bit of science fiction in these stories, which adds to their interest and sense of believability, and reminds me somewhat of various short stories by H.G. Wells, or even works from Aldous Huxley (though, of course, coming at things from a different viewpoint, and with different age limits!). However, make no mistake, Methuselah is a political play, just as Brave New World is a political novel. Shaw (1856-1950) believed it was his ‘supreme’ work of the more than sixty plays he wrote, an oeuvre that includes famous works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). Shaw’s influence on Western culture was enormous during his lifetime and has continued, though perhaps somewhat abated, since his death. He was the leading dramatist of his age (some say one of the greatest since Shakespeare) and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wiki mentions that “The word “Shavian” has entered the language as encapsulating Shaw’s ideas and his means of expressing them.

My quick initial impression of the 1939 edition of Back to Methuselah from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) did not help my aversion to reading the work. At first look, it comes across a bit drab in its oozing use of pea-green for binding (sorry George Macy, ‘delighting‘ green is not the descriptor I would use, though I suppose ‘lime’ green comes close). Think of a 1970’s era American station wagon, the kind colored pea-green with wood paneling. You get the picture!  In any case, just as reading the play greatly increased my opinion of the play, reading this edition did the same for the book design.

Most of my appreciation for this edition results from the wood-engravings provided by English artist John Farleigh (1900-1965). Farleigh was trained in wood-engravings by Bernard Meninsky and Noel Rooke at the London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts (later the Central School of Art and Design). He eventually taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. He illustrated a handful of books for the Shakespeare Head Press, though his most famous illustrative works were those done for Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God and for D. H. Lawrence‘s The Man Who Died.

The ML tells us that Fairleigh:

…began his illustrations for ‘Back to Methuselah’ by preparing a series of drawings to send to Bernard Shaw for his observations, preliminary to their being engraved. In these drawings, no effort was made to suggest the quality of the technique of the final wood-engravings. The drawings were independent of the printed book both in size and medium. the final wood-engravings were redesigned, either as a result of the translation from pen and wash to wood, or owing to the suggestions made by G.B.S.

The suggestions from Shaw are of interest, and luckily the LEC decided to include, with the Monthly Letter (ML), a reproduction of Fairleigh’s initial drawings with Shaw’s comments written on them. His comments reinforce how active Shaw was in every detail of any publication of his works (he famously micro-managed his works). George Macy tells the following story in the ML about what happened when they approached Shaw about doing this edition:

He told us that he saw no reason for the preparation of a fine edition of any of his plays, since he thought all of his plays were beautifully presented in their original editions! We were hurt and bewildered, until we were given some information we should already have had; we were told that Mr. Shaw always acts as his own typographer, always plans the printing of his own books and even pays the printer’s bills himself. G.B.S. has therefore been the designer of his own plays in their ordinary editions.

Luckily, for a fee (‘of course’!), they ultimately got Shaw’s blessing, after which re-uniting Farleigh for another Shaw edition. As for the illustrations, the ML says:

In making his engravings, Farleigh tried deliberately to capture the Shavian spirit. Those possessors of ‘Back to Methuselah’ who take the trouble will discover how abstract, how embryonic, Farleigh keeps his drawings for the first play, and how much more realistic the engravings become as the author carries us to modern times….surely no set of illustrations for one of our books has been so full of stimulation for the mind as well as pleasure for the eye, of the wit of the artist closely supplementing the wit of the author.

The progression is quite interesting, and the work certainly apropos and thought-provoking. I am not sure it is worthy of Macy’s typical over-praising, but the work is certainly nicely supplemental to Shaw’s work. The reproduction looks great on the all rag paper (Macy called it “soft and limp“) which was dyed a soft green. Yep, there is green again. How did they end up with green-tinged paper?

During our first conference, G.B.S. took a piece of paper out of his desk, put it into our hands, and profoundly stated that all books should be printed upon such a paper. We inspected the paper carefully for minutes before we discovered that he was referring to the color, that he felt that a paper with a greenish tinge made the type printed on it easier to read than any other paper could.

As it turned out, Edward Alonzo Miller, who designed and printed this edition at the Marchbanks Press (the LEC meant to have the book printed by William Maxwell of Clark’s in Edinburgh, but copyright laws prevented such; they also tried to have English typographer J.H. Mason design the edition, but difficulties prevented this also), was give various papers to test for proper printing quality. We are told that:

He made pulls of the engravings on half a dozen papers, and told us with quaint surprise that the engravings seems to look best on a a paper with a greenish tinge.

This “happy accident”, the convergence of Shaw’s belief in greenish tinged paper and Miller’s demonstrative proof for this edition, leaves us with a very green edition (even the top of each book is stained in a dark green). The text is set in Linotype Scotch Roman, “bold and well-leaded.

It was originally designed by a man named Dickinson, who ran a type foundry in Boston; its name probably comes from that Mr. Dickinson’s sent his designs to Alexander Wilson and Son in Scotland, where the punches for the type were cut. This type is considered to have a modern flavor, for it succeeded the thinned and weakened “old style” types which were generally prevalent in the time it was introduced. When the letters were drawn, the stems were given excessive weight, particularly in the design of the capital letters. As a result, a page of Scotch type has a rugged and pleasantly homely look…We think it looks altogether pleasant upon the green paper and altogether happy in association with Farleigh’s wood-engravings.

All in all, the 1939 LEC edition of George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah is well worth getting and reading. The not very attractive green aside, it ends up a handsome book, despite itself. It certainly is an interesting, even amusing, read, especially given the themes and oddity of some of Shaw’s thinking. It is pretty much impossible to find this edition without sunning to the spine. With such, expect to pay only $35-100, depending on condition.

About the Edition

  • Designed and printed by Edward Alonzo Miller at the Marchbanks Press
  • New introduction by George Bernard Shaw
  • Wood engravings by John Farleigh, with advice from George Bernard Shaw
  • Set in Linotype Scotch Roman
  • All rag paper, dyed a soft green, made by Worthy Paper Company
  • Bound by Russell-Rutter Company in a course natural linen with lime greenish color and flecks of red-brown, over heavy boards; upon the front cover and spine are dark green leather labels stamped in gold
  • Top of each book stained in a dark green
  • 7 1/2″ by 11 1/4″, 320 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by John Farleigh

Pictures of the Edition

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Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Front Cover
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Front Cover
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Contents)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Contents)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Preface)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Preface)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2 (Preface)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2 (Preface)
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #7 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #10 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Back to Methuselah, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

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