Wednesday 5 October 2011

From the Tabard Inn to the long looked for 'American Novel'

So there I was (again) browsing the bookshelves of the Oxfam shop when my eye was caught by a rather handsome binding and the enigmatic title D'Ri and I, 1812. This was clearly not the date of the book, so I opened it to find out more, and was immediately arrested by the delightful bookplate - the Tabard Inn Library - and the owner's name written on the flyleaf with an address in Bedford Park (the west London garden suburb). Aha, I thought - so the Tabard Inn in Bedford Park (which I visited recently) had a lending library. How very Bedford Park... I was of course quite wrong, for this Tabard Inn Library ('With all the Red Tape on the Box') was 'under the business management of The Booklovers' Library', whose office address was given as 1030 Chestnut St, Philadelphia (in this - and in not having an accession number - my bookplate differs from the one pictured).
Intrigued, I looked up the Tabard Inn Library online and found this account of the enterprise. What's more, Tabard Inn revolving bookcases are, it seems, very collectible antiques. And no connection whatsoever with Bedford Park. Besides, the Tabard on the bookplate is clearly the Southwark inn from which Chaucer's pilgrims set off...
As for the book, it's subtitled 'A Tale of Daring Deeds in the Second War with the British, being the Memoirs of Colonel Ramon Bell, U.S.A', by Irving Bacheller, published by Lothrop of Boston in 1901, with sepia illustrations all too characteristic of the period and genre by F.C. Yohn. I must confess I had not heard of Irving Bacheller, but - as his Wikipedia entry makes clear - he was a considerable figure in newspaper publishing and journalism (particularly instrumental in the success of Stephen Crane), as well as a very popular novelist. D'Ri and I is 'a tale of adventurous and rugged pioneers', a stirring heady mix of riproaring action, straightforward jollity and easygoing romance. Bacheller even finds space for this saucy roundelay - a kissing game - which he prints complete with melody:
'Oh, happy is th' miller who lives by himself!
As th' wheel goes round, he gathers in 'is wealth,
One hand on the hopper and the other on the bag;
As the wheel goes round, he cries out "Grab!"
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this -
To stay all night for one sweet kiss?
Oh,' etc.
D'Ri, by the way, is the nickname of Darius, a rugged pioneer if ever there was one. He is companion, friend and mentor to the young Ramon, and speaks in a picturesque accent, which (in the manner of the time) is laboriously transliterated, to tiresome effect. D'Ri and I is the follow-up to Bacheller's biggest success, Eben Holden. This one is advertised in the endpapers of D'Ri and I: 'The most American of recent novels, it has indeed been hailed as the long looked for "American Novel".' Eat your heart out, Jonathan Frantzen, Don DeLillo - Bacheller got there first.

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