‘Frontier’s’ Rough Journey

Library of Congress Book Published Despite Many Setbacks

Posted November 3, 2003 at 3:04pm

Richard Clements hadn’t received a copy of his book when he took an interview for the latest Library of Congress publication, “Books on the Frontier: Print Culture in the American West, 1763-1875.” But after a difficult journey from manuscript to published work, the author is glad that the work is now available to the public.

“Books on the Frontier” was originally part of the Library of Congress Classics series, a collection of eight coffee table-type books — large, hard-cover and laden with glossy, four-color photos. It was meant to complement another work in the series, “The Book of America,” also by Clements, who is a special collections librarian at the University of Kansas.

The original manuscript of “Books on the Frontier” was completed in 1997 when it was on the verge of being a casualty of a contract gone sour. Before editing and illustration selection was completed, Fulcrum Publishing, which partnered with the Library of Congress to publish the Classics series, dropped the contract in 1998 to focus on books exclusively on the West, “largely western gardening,” said Ralph Eubanks, director of publishing at the Library.

“When the contract was released, [the publishing department] decided to reconceptualize [the book] from a big, glossy, four-color book to one that was two-color,” Eubanks said. “The look and feel is different from what we started off with, but I think the content is much stronger.”

The Classics is one of many series published by the Library of Congress. The Library publishes an average of five to 10 books each year, as well as 26 to 30 products such as calendars and knowledge cards.

“Our whole idea is to make the collections of the Library accessible to the public through what we publish,” Eubanks said.

“Books on the Frontier” bridges many collections but mainly draws from the rare books, prints and photography, and geography and maps collections.

The series chronicles America’s development and supplements the text with images from the Library’s collections. Other books in the series include “Celebration of American Food,” “Mapping the Civil War” and “Americans on the Move.”

After an eight-year process, “Books on the Frontier” was released to the public on Nov. 1. The 140-page hardcover book includes 72 duotone illustrations — all from collections at the Library of Congress — including the cover illustration that depicts an unusual Buffalo Bill.

“The image on the cover is one of the earliest depictions of Buffalo Bill,” said Clements, who discovered the photograph while searching the Library of Congress. “I like it because it’s wrong — it’s the fictional Buffalo Bill rather than the photographic one that everyone knows.”

Other images include one of the first tune books printed in the West, captivity narratives (tales of capture by American Indians), guidebooks and other rare items. Clements handpicked each image.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “Working with the Library of Congress is just stunning … you go in and they put all of their resources at your beck and call.”

The first four chapters focus on the progress of publishing on the American frontier and the people who made it happen, including Thomas Hart Benton, who became editor of the St. Louis Enquirer in 1818 and later went on to be a U.S. Senator.

“What I tried to do was find various people and various walks of life in the book trade that were emblematic or typical,” Clements said. “But it’s the fifth chapter that I find most intriguing.”

Titled “The Frontier in Books,” the fifth chapter describes reading about the frontier while experiencing it firsthand. In other words, “You’ve got a book written about Daniel Boone while Daniel Boone was alive … where he could react to it,” Clements said.

Besides Boone, Buffalo Bill and Davy Crockett were among the living legends of the time. Buffalo Bill alone inspired more than 1,700 publications in the United States and several hundred more in countries such as England, Italy, France and Sweden.

“The dime novels about Buffalo Bill were the TV of the day … they were good, wholesome books with the frontier values of self-sufficiency and resilience,” said Clements.

This topic has fascinated Clements to the point that he hopes to write another book expanding on the fifth chapter of “Books on the Frontier.”

“Once you start going and a project is working it has an organic quality to it. It has a life of its own and can go in directions you never thought it would. Writing history can be that way.”