On William Safire, Mark Twain and Herman Melville

06/02/2021     Latest News, Books & Autographs

NEW YORK, NY -- William Safire was a true wordsmith, etymologist and curious investigator of American idioms and phrases who entertained and educated millions with his weekly “On Language” column for The New York Times from 1979-2009. Endlessly clever and seemingly never out of fresh topics, it comes as no surprise that William Safire also amassed a large library devoted to the study of words and equally clever writers. The library includes dozens of volumes by Mark Twain and Herman Melville, two of the most studied 19th century American authors who remain household names. Long appreciated not only for their powerful command of the English language, both writers but particularly Twain was expert with the playful elasticity of American words and phrases. Safire himself often wrote in a homespun American style like Twain but was able to switch on a dime to the educated elegance of the seafaring Melville. Frequently, Safire’s “On Language” column referenced and reflected his interest in these authors. Let’s recall two examples:

On February 28th, 1988, Safire’s devoted a column titled “You Pays Yer Money” to the phrase “you pays your money, and you takes your choice” as employed by Mark Twain at the conclusion of Chapter 28 of his 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Fittingly, the phrase appears at the conclusion of the auction scene. Tracing its origins to England, specifically the Cockney dialect, Safire connects the saying to an 1846 political cartoon in Punch titled “The Ministerial Crisis” in which a barker asks an onlooker to choose between two candidates for Prime Minister. Safire generally accepts the spirit of the phrase to mean that ''Power belongs to those who have paid their dues” but recognizes that most usages indicate some sort of complaint, and the tone of the saying is likened to “You made your bed, now lie in it.” Safire offers various meanings of the phrase but settles on “beats the hell out of me” and moves on, as only Safire could, to an in-depth discussion of the cliché butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. The writings of both Mark Twain and William Safire are chockablock with wonderful idioms, words and colloquial phrases and it is highly gratifying to revisit the works of both these American masters.

William Safire was also deeply interested in the writings of Herman Melville, an American author from the more serious generation just before Twain. In mining the “On Language” archives for the many references to Melville made by Safire (including the comment that the famously simple “Call me Ishmael” opening to Moby Dick is “the most memorable American literary sentence of the 19th century”), a more gastronomic instance catches the eye. In Safire’s column of June 12th, 1994, titled Keep your Eye on the Bagel, he discussed the origin of the word “doughnut,” often spelled donut, a food so commonplace in America at the time that it’s growth had stagnated and it was at risk of being described by marketers as a “mature product” while “the notion of dunking a doughnut into a cup of coffee is so mature as to be decrepit.” Safire tastefully describes the origin of the name, and the long description is worth quoting in full:

“The earliest reference to a doughnut was Washington Irving's 1809 description of ‘an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.’ In 1851, Herman Melville was evenhanded in Moby-Dick in referring to ‘old Amsterdam housewives' dough-nuts or oly-cooks’; in the nomenclature competition, though, the Dutch ‘oil-cake’ lost out to the American ‘dough-nut,’ because the little brownish bomb of cholesterol was originally shaped like a large nut -- spherical, but without a hole in the middle. In the early 19th century, the Pennsylvania Dutch (from Germany, Deutschland, not from Holland) got fed up with the soggy centers in their fastnacht cakes (a Shrove Tuesday treat) and created the hole in the doughnut.”

The origin of the name settled, the column concludes with a vivacious discussion of how bagels are surpassing donuts in American eating and the impossibility of dunking a bagel in coffee. Safire of course manages to tie the donut debate to creative word usage, going as far to proclaim that “People who are unwilling to try new words are the type who refrain from dunking doughnuts.”

William Safire’s knack for skillfully weaving historical references and literary predecessors into his column kept readers returning for thirty years. In the Fine Literature auction taking place on June 22, 2021, one can locate the sources for much of this research. Safire’s first edition of Huckleberry Finn is offered with much more from the author including his 1894 Tom Sawyer Abroad, a book supposedly written by Huck himself and merely edited by Twain. Along with Safire’s booklabel this rather fine copy bears the label of American automotive industry executive Walter Chrysler, rendering this a copy with distinguished provenance. Numerous first editions of Melville are present including The Piazza Tales, 1856, containing the first printing of Bartleby, the Scrivener. That story is famous for the phrase “I would prefer not to,” although it appears William Safire preferred not to investigate this second most famous sentence in Melville’s oeuvre.

Safire owned several editions of Moby Dick which, much to the chagrin of many a high school student but likely much to Safire’s delight, includes a long section at the front titled Etymology & Extracts. Other notable writers in Safire’s collection include Virginia Woolf, Antoine Saint-Exupery, Eugene O’Neill, W. Somerset Maugham, Maxim Gorki and finely inscribed volumes from colleagues and friends such as Philip Roth, Paul Theroux and John Le Carre. Finally, several larger lots offer groups of 17th-20th century works on elocution, language, idioms, quotations, maxims, caricature, politics, lexicography, Shakespeare, and a very rare copy of Thomas Jefferson’s An essay towards facilitating instruction in the Anglo-Saxon for or the use of the University of Virginia.

The public is welcome to make an appointment to view this interesting library and just like the auction in Huckleberry Finn “you pay your money, and you takes your choice.” This auction should pique the interest of any word sleuthing collector and the next time the root of a word boggles the mind a book from the library of the William Safire just might solve the problem.

Fine Literature
Timed Auction closes Tuesday, June 22, 2021 beginning at 10am
Viewings by Appointment: Books@Doyle.com