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The Fortunes of Mitchell Kennerley, Bookman by Matthew J. Bruccoli (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $25.95; 432 pp.) : F.P.A.: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FRANKLIN PIERCE ADAMS by Sally Ashley (Beaufort: $17.95; 272 pp.)

November 09, 1986|Hugh O'Neill | O'Neill is a senior editor at Times Books.

Franklin Pierce Adams once wrote that "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." Indeed, nowhere is the temptation to gild the past more inviting than in the world of letters. Ours is a vulgar age, goes the lament. Gone are the giants of writing and publishing, who labored in the vineyard of ideas and opinion simply because, like Martin Luther, they could do no other.

The subjects of two new biographies--Mitchell Kennerley, controversial publisher and dealer in literary antiquities, and Franklin Pierce Adams, a.k.a. FPA, the most celebrated and influential newspaper columnist in our history--embody the struggle to lead the literary life. They converged on New York City from opposite directions--Kennerley in 1896, the precocious young head of the American office of a distinguished British publisher; Adams at 22, in 1904 from the middle-American yawp of Chicago. Their careers and characters, played out with brio in the ebullience of the first decades of the century, describe two powerful humors--the fancy and the funny--that shaped the then-callow American literary culture, as well as the affections, both dark and light, that to this day motivate people to whom words and ideas appeal.

Kennerley, an 18-year-old British publishing prodigy with a Bohemian manner and an appetite for first editions, made a name for himself over the next 20 years as a publisher--producing the works of many of the most distinguished writers of his day, including Frank Harris, D. H. Lawrence, Walter Lippman, Van Wyck Brooks, Oscar Wilde and H. G. Wells--and as a bookmaker who insisted on the highest standards of production and design. Later when he shifted his attention from publishing to the world of book collecting, as the head of the Anderson Art Galleries, he used his contacts in the publishing world and his singular ability to stand in the spotlight to create the American market for literary things.

He presided over headline-making auctions ("Auctions speak louder than words," quoth he), including the famous sale of the John Quinn collection, featuring manuscripts and first editions of Joyce, Synge, Yeats, James, Kipling, Stevenson, and the greatest assemblage of Conrad manuscripts ever sold. Matthew J. Bruccoli suggests that the sale of the Jerome Kern collection still stands as the most glamorous literary sale in our history. Under Kennerley's stylish guidance, the book auction became a big money carnival at which Americans of fortune competed for artifacts of culture with the same breathless swagger that ruled the day on Wall Street.

Kennerley was passionate about books--not just their contents, but their pages, their covers, their spines. "You do not know how friendly a second-hand copy of a book can be until you have carried it home and wiped off the dust from the cover, from the top edge, from the endpapers and maybe also from the inside pages and have fondled it back to renewed life and service," he wrote five years before his death and long after his star had faded. He was passionate about talent as well, maintaining throughout his susceptibility to the real thing. But it was his third passion--for money--that brought him, over and over again, to grief.

Indeed, many of the same writers who praised his taste, and, more important, his devotion, ended up threatening to take legal action in pursuit of their royalties. Kennerley was eternally spending great sums, refinancing loans, always on shaky financial ground, floating his various enterprises by the force of his personality, which Bruccoli describes as a combination of "cool egotism, arrogance, audacity, ruthlessness, relentlessness and charm." Indeed, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was rumored to be one of Kennerley's many lovers, may have had the last word on his chimerical aspect in a letter that Bruccoli suggests was an invitation to an affair, "I have not infrequently thought that you are one of the best men in the world. . . . I have a hurt in my heart to do something to please you. . . . I wonder whether more people love you or hate you. You could probably be quite perfectly hateable."

By the time of his suicide in 1950, Kennerley had arrived at a place with which he had no experience, broke and obscure, reduced to selling his furniture to pay his debts.

The bookish urge that animated Kennerley--revealed in his reverence for the rarefied, the literary object , the manuscript as well as the meaning--helped shape the fledgling American publishing industry. And the industry, as though in return, was a convenient empty stage for his private drama of artfulness and high style. His was the transit of the English aesthete. Indeed, snobbery of the elite remains--in contrary tandem with the American democratic urge to which Adams imagined he aspired--a powerful force at work in publishing today.

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