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Publishing Elsa: Will Ransom’s Grey Thread

Will Ransom in his print shop, ca. 1925 (John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, Newberry Library)

Title page, left. Will Ransom in his print shop, ca. 1925 (Courtesy of the Newberry Library)

Sometime in 1922, the Chicago printer Will Ransom bought space in Broom, a recently hatched expatriate literary journal. Ransom’s advertisement publicized “Will Ransom, Maker of Books,” a new publishing venture. The ad, which appeared in the March 1923 issue, announced a “private press issuing hand-made books in limited editions and presenting first appearances of contemporary authors.”1 Ransom named his publishing project a “Series of First Volumes.” According to Ransom, “since my province is not to write, I choose to serve as garment-maker to the literary children of those who do.”2

Poets and printers were changing. Private small-press printing projects such as Ransom’s had sprouted in response to the gray, washed-out pages of nineteenth-century-factory book production. The Englishman William Morris’s Kelmscott Press inspired many. Ransom himself had admired Thomas Mosher and the early Roycroft of Elbert Hubbard. Poets and writers, like printers, also abandoned a nineteenth-century inheritance, a staid genteel tradition, and the result was a spate of little magazines. Broom was a perfect expression of this disaffection. So were Secession, Seven Arts, or S4N—as well, of course, as Poetry, in time the voice of modernism.

Ransom produced seven First Volumes during 1922-1924.3 The series featured hand-set type imprinted on hand-made paper by means of a hand press. It was a way to link art and artisanry, poetry and printing, little magazines and small presses. “Book-printing,” Ransom thought, “may be entirely a matter of craftmanship, but I like to feel that to plan, design, and print a complete book with the joyful and affectionate work of my own hands is as much a matter of art as the writing of a sonnet or the painting of a picture.”4

By the 1920s, everyone with a hand press had offered an exquisite version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Reprinting poetic warhorses admitted a barrenness in content that Ransom rejected. “In the selection of literary material, my interest in our present time takes precedence,” he announced. “Believing that we are even now in the beginning of a renascence of all the arts, my sympathy is primarily with the younger writers who are just coming into expression.” And so Ransom went about finding and printing fresh talent. “I am issuing a Series of First Volumes, each the initial publication of a new author,” he announced. “It is for these fresh voices, even more than for my own work, that I bespeak interest and patronage.”5 Ransom wanted to match rising “modernist” literary excellence with his own fine printing. Ransom wanted to be part of the “renascence,” he wanted to be a player.

The experiment seemed logical—generations of craft printers and little-magazine publishers keep reinventing that wheel—but Ransom’s Series of First Volumes ended abruptly, in 1924. “I discovered,” he lamented, “that a hand-made book was not the proper format for a first volume.”6 Writers wanted artfully crafted books far less than “real” ones that sat in standard fashion on bookstore shelves. Ransom’s project was woefully cost-inefficient. Wallace Stevens, alas, took Harmonium elsewhere. Ransom’s roster proved insufficiently modern and decidedly non-emergent.

With one exception. The poet Elsa Gidlow’s On a Grey Thread was number six of the seven titles among Ransom’s First Volumes, and on today’s rare book market it fetches a higher price than any other Ransom publication. Ransom’s edition of Gidlow’s Grey Thread became in 1923 the first book of openly lesbian love poems published in the United States. Gidlow subsequently emerged a life-long communitarian anarchist and vocal champion of gay rights. By the time she died, in 1986, she was iconic within the lesbian community.

The library of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society contains Elsa Gidlow’s archive, which includes a cache of twelve letters from Will Ransom. The correspondence illumines the way Ransom worked as well as the role literary content played in his manuscript choices.

Ransom launched his printing and publishing project in 1921 using a simple Albion-type hand press and limited resources. From the start, he depended on his authors to support their own books. “I ask for no guarantee,” he told Gidlow, “but expect the author to help the sales as much as possible.”7 He set his texts in 12-point Garamond roman and italic—it was all he had and it was in short supply—and he liked to print on hand-made Whatman paper. That paper was difficult to handle. Whatman required 72 hours of dampening and produced an extremely soft sheet that demanded a slow pull on a hand press.8 Progress on any project was necessarily deliberate and careful. Ransom urged Gidlow to edit her poems carefully before submitting them. As he explained, “My limited supply of type and the necessity of printing the sheets when they are just properly damp precludes the sending of proofs.” He constantly begged Gidlow’s pardon for production delays. “You are entitled to an apology,” he wrote to her, “but I don’t believe in making them.”9

Moreover, throughout 1923 Gidlow’s book kept getting bumped by other jobs. Books with sponsors, Ransom told Gidlow, had to take precedence if Grey Thread was to happen at all. Chicago poets Pearl Andelson and Jessica Nelson North both had substantial local support, and North’s A Prayer Rug was completely subsidized. “You may be cross about this,” Ransom warned, “but Jessica North’s book was ready and local assistance made it possible to put it directly into a shop.”10 On a Grey Thread finally arrived in December.

Despite Ransom’s advertising pitch in Broom, S4N, and elsewhere, his Series of First Volumes tilted toward local Chicagoans, particularly poets who had appeared in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine (Ransom offered a subscription to Poetry with purchase of a book). Elsa Gidlow was an out-of-towner, a New Yorker. Nonetheless, Monroe had published two Gidlow poems in the October 1919 issue of Poetry (as “Elsie A. Gidlow”). But Gidlow and Ransom remained strangers, and Gidlow’s work arrived unsolicited, possibly at the suggestion of the New York City bookseller W. A. Gough.11 Gidlow lived in Manhattan and worked for the libertine Frank Harris at the often-censored Pearson’s Magazine. It was a salaciously radical combination, and Ransom wanted the cutting edge. He quickly offered publication. Gidlow’s manuscript of forthright sexuality offered pathbreaking modernity.

Cutting edge was one thing, scandalous sex was another. It is odd, then, that Ransom and Gidlow discussed neither the poetic treatment nor the ramifications of lesbianism. Ransom, in fact, never mentioned the subject. “I really like most of the poems very much,” he said, “though I do wish you were a little more cheerful in spots.”12 And that, in terms of content analysis, was that. Given Gidlow’s material, Ransom’s comment seems wide of the mark, almost an innocent misreading. In any event, Ransom doesn’t appear to be jumping at the chance to print “the first openly lesbian poetry in the United States.” Gidlow later concluded that the fact “that all the love poetry was obviously addressed to women” never “troubled” Ransom. “He never commented on that fact,” she said, and added, “nor did anyone else at the time.”13

We find Grey Thread pathbreaking; few others did. Far from being acclaimed, reviewers ignored Grey Thread when they weren’t dismissing it (Monroe called Gidlow “sophomoric”).14 And then there is this: Ransom finally didn’t even print the book. In early April 1923, Ransom told Gidlow of a change in plans. People weren’t buying the earlier, carefully produced First Volumes, and so despite having set several pages and pulled proofs, Ransom intended to scrap his progress and outsource the entire job. Grey Thread would be a “trade edition, not hand-made.” Of course, “they will be well-made, good-looking books,” he assured Gidlow, “and will present the author fairly.”15

Ransom’s Grey Thread, then, was machine-made and looked it, aesthetically at odds with the printer’s goal and a significant diminishment of an ambition. Nonetheless, On a Grey Thread is today the most valued item in Will Ransom’s small-press project, a boldly modern credit to his Series of First Volumes, if only in retrospect.


Comments

  1. Will Ransom learned to print on a hand-press working with Frederic Goudy in the earliest days of the Village Press in Park Ridge, Il in 1903. As for his interest in William Morris or Hubbard it doesn’t show in the rather sparse and typographically boring books he printed in the 1920s. The hand-lettered title pages are the only redeemable features typographically.

    The press he printed upon was of Washington, rather than Albion construction, and it looks to me to be a Schneidewind which was manufactured in Chicago, and would have been readily available second-hand in the area. Even in the 1920s it would have been difficult to produce quickly enough on a hand-press to pay the rent, and Ransom was probably more idealistic that practical in his choice of printing machines.

    The Jessica Nelson North book looks to have been printed using linotype produced text (10pt Caslon Old-Style Italic with 12pt Italic titles), which would have increased the speed of production over hand-set Garamond, even though setting poetry goes quite a bit faster than prose. It was sparsely leaded if at all, which gives a cramped and top-heavy look to the pages, but the poems are well positioned on the page with centered titles. His books are far from the kind of productions one would expect from a private press venture, and more resemble the matter-of-fact volumes that were printed at the St. Dominic’s Press.

    One has to give Will Ransom credit for trying though, printing first editions of new authors can be a real gamble for a printer, and it is fairly obvious by looking at his books – text and binding – that he was operating on a shoe-string budget. Ransom’s successes came later in life, and of course he will be best remembered for his documentation of the many private presses that existed in his lifetime.

  2. A Washington press it is, then. Thanks for the informative essay.
    Walker

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