Thanks For The First Book Press-Printed In The New World

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty.

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty.

If you are familiar with the history of the place now called the United States of America, you may be familiar with the role religious pilgrims played in the early settlement of the northeastern region of what is now that country (and what before that was the home of people who lived a very different life from the pilgrims before those pilgrims arrived, and a radically changed life after). Now, if you are a more ambitious follower of that history, you may know when the first printing press was brought to the New World, and by whom. And in that case, you likely also know what book was first published. Fitting that today, when Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in the USA, news of that first book is in front of us thanks to Casey Cep and the New Yorker‘s ever resourceful and innovative website:

Today, Sotheby’s will auction a copy of the first English-language book printed in America. “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” or the Bay Psalm Book, as it is now known, is expected to sell for between fifteen and thirty million dollars, which would make it the most expensive book in the world.

The current record for the highest-priced printed book is not a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio of Shakespeare but a copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which sold for $11.5 million in 2010. The Bay Psalm Book is older and now rarer than Audubon’s catalogue of fowl; only eleven of the original seventeen hundred copies survive.

Translated directly from Hebrew into English, the Bay Psalm Book was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, less than twenty years after the Mayflower left Plymouth, England. It was the first book printed on the Puritan minister Joseph Glover’s press, the first such device to make the journey across the Atlantic. Although Glover died during the 1638 crossing, his widow, Elizabeth, inherited the press and saw to its installation. She established America’s first print shop in a little house on what is now Holyoke Street in Cambridge.

While Stephen Day is generally credited with printing America’s first book, he was only the operator and overseer of Elizabeth Glover’s press. The press was nothing remarkable, and the crude materials and nascent talents of its operators are reflected in the blurred type and typographical inconsistencies in its surviving books, of which the Bay Psalm Book is no exception. Take, for instance, that most essential of words: “PSALM,” which appears that way on the left-hand pages but is spelled “PSALME” on the right-hand pages.

The colonists brought many Psalters with them to the New World, but they quickly found those printings lacking. The hundred and fifty Psalms were divided among “thirty pious and learned Ministers” who labored to produce a verse translation that would be more faithful to the original Hebrew. Their efforts yielded the 1640 version that would become the Bay Psalm Book, which was then revised and reprinted nine times in the seventeenth century alone. The preface to the first edition, the one to be auctioned, states apologetically,

If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre.There already one sees the peculiar poetry of erratic spellings and capitalizations that makes the Bay Psalm Book so charming, so authentically early Americana.

Not surprisingly, as it prepared for today’s auction, Sotheby’s has displayed the book with its pages opened to the Twenty-third Psalm. Look to those familiar verses and you can see just how strange the translation is, even relative to the King James Version, which had been completed just thirty years earlier, in 1611:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads

To my ear, the shepherd is still caring and careful, but those “folds of tender-grasse”? Just down the street from where the Bay Psalm Book was printed is Harvard Yard, itself once a pasture for sheep and cattle. “Green pastures” might well have been most familiar, but the Bay Psalm Book translator’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by the contemporary translation by Robert Alter, himself fiercely dedicated to rescuing the original Hebrew: he chose “grass meadows.”…

Read the whole post here.

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