Bibliographical Spotlight: Henry R. Wagner

>The following review by Lawrence Wroth was published in his “Notes for Bibliophiles” column in the New York Herald-Tribune (November 7, 1937). I transcribe it in its entirety here, since Wagner’s bibliography is still a standard of both scholarship and printing (it was printed by the Grabhorn Press):

The appearance of a second edition of “The Plains and the Rockies” by Henry R. Wagner causes one to reflect once more upon its author’s unerring sense in the choice of subjects for investigation. So many elaborate bibliographies are compiled upon topics that have only the remotest application to anything of significance in the past or the present that the ability to ally himself to the important seems in itself a quality of high value in the equipment a bibliographer brings to his task. Looking through the record of Mr. Wagner’s literary output, published privately in 1934, we find bibliographical monographs and books upon subjects of such definite interest as the product of the press in Mexico and California, the historical source materials of the Spanish Southwest, the sixteenth century atlases of the Venetian cartographer Battista Agnese, the literature of Irish economics, and the literature of the westward expansion in the form of the first edition of the book now before us. Perhaps the mysterious powers which dole out subjects to investigators kept these concealed until the right man to do them came along.
This is not to be a general article about the California historian and bibliographer, but a review of the second edition of a book which a New England bookseller declared a few months ago was the most satisfying bibliography in his working library. The “Plains and the Rockies,” he said, always told him just what he wanted to know, and that, of course, is the goal attained for any work of reference. Published first in 1920, and suppressed because of its author’s dissatisfaction with it, The “Plains and the Rockies” really dates from the edition of 1921. It records the materials upon which is based the story of one of the great migrations of history, that westward thrust in the period 1800-1865, which relieved the economic pressure put upon western Europe and the Eastern United States by the sudden oncoming of the industrial age. It covers the territory west of the Missouri, east of the Sierra Nevada, north of Texas and Mexico, and south of the Arctic Circle.
Through its chronological method of presentation, the truly great story of that bludgeon attack upon the rivers, plains and mountains of a continent unfolds itself in leisurely sequence, running from Alexander Mackenzie’s “Voyages,” published in 1801, to “Chivington’s Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” No. 428 on the list, published in 1865. In between are the names and doings of Lewis and Clark (1806), Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1810), Sir John Franklin (1823), the Jesuit Father De Smet (1841), John Charles Fremont (1843), Sir William Drummond Stewart (1843), George Wilkins Kendall (1844), Brigham Young (1848), and many others who, in their times, were national heroes throughout the United States. In the entries is made clear the influence of particular men and events in the westward expansion; of the statesmen, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Hart Benton; of the fur traders, John Jacob Astor and William Sublette; of the men of letters, Horace Greeley, Washington Irving and Sir Richard Francis Burton; of the Catholic and Protestant missionary organizations, and, towards the end, of the discovery of gold and the coming of the railroads. Not the least important of the records which tell the story are the emigrants’ guide books, the miners’ handbooks and the Indian Captivities.
The new edition of the book, “edited and extended” by Charles L. Camp adds seventy-nine items to Mr. Wagner’s list of sixteen years ago. Not many of these are of the first importance, but most of them are interesting and the inclusion of the new material unquestionably adds to the usefulness of the bibliography. In addition to the sources of information which Mr. Wagner had at hand when he broke the ground — scattered writings of Thwaites, Paltsits, H. H. Bancroft, Elliott Coues and Bolton—Mr. Camp has had the advantage of Wagner’s own full notes and of aid from a number of booksellers specializing in “‘Westerns,” as well as from the owners of several private collections not in existence when the book was first compiled. He has made relatively few changes in the original notes, but he has added to them new sentences where new information has become available. There is frequently no typographical or other indication which distinguishes between the note of Mr. Wagner in 1921 and the note added by Mr. Camp in 1937, a circumstance which, a little reflection will show, might lead the investigator into trails widely divergent from the truth unless he had at hand a copy of the edition of 1921 for continuous comparison. The scholar uncertain of the date of his gloss is uncertain of many things. The typography of the book is excellent, though some may feel that the title-pages shown should have been reproduced in line instead of by a process in which all of them appear uniformly gray and ineffective. And while the repetition of the publication years at the top of the outer margin of each page is a decided improvement upon the absence of such sign posts in the earlier edition, the placing just beneath them of the names of authors whose works begin somewhere on that page frequently results in an incorrect juxtaposition, fixing a new author’s name alongside a title run over from the preceding page with which he had nothing to do.
It seems to be calling a spade something stronger than a spade to say that John Russell Bartlett’s “‘Personal Narrative” of 1854 is the record of a “regular junket,” but it may be that by this term Mr. Wagner, who is responsible for the phrase, meant simply that United States Commissioner Bartlett had thoroughly enjoyed his travels in the West while running the Mexican boundary. It does not seem that Mr. Wagner read clearly Bartlett’s statement that the sketches made by Henry C. Bratt, the official artist of the expedition, were, in general, too large in scale to reproduce acceptably in book size and therefore had not been used despite their merit. Bartlett did not, as Mr. Wagner seems to think, make use of his own sketches and then proceed inconsistently to say in his preface that Pratt made the sketches for the book. Furthermore two of the lithographs in the book and not one, as Mr. Wagner says, are signed by Pratt. And more than that, the statement that the frontispiece of Volume I belongs in Volume II needs correction if that frontispiece is Pratt’s lithograph, Fort Yuma, as it is in the copy before the reviewer. That lithograph is listed in Volume II, it is true, but it is listed there with a note which says that it is to serve as the frontispiece of Volume I.
Such defects as these weigh so little in the balance against the rich store of facts Mr. Wagner and Mr. Camp present that they really would be unworthy of mention if the reviewer did not believe that in bringing out this new edition of the book the statements of the old edition should have been critically tested by the editor. The assertion that Alexander Mackenzie, “according to our best knowledge, was the first white man to cross the continent,” seems, for example, to ignore the claim of Alva Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca from whom Mr. Wagner did not withhold that distinction in his “Spanish Southwest” of 1924. Perhaps the facts that Mackenzie’s journey were purposive while Cabeça de Vaca’s were forced upon him, and that at every moment of his nine years’ wandering the Spaniard earnestly wished himself elsewhere, must be taken into account in awarding this particular palm. And, finally, one fails to understand under which of the rules of the two compilers George Catlin’s “Portfolio” of 1844 was denied admission to the list.
Such real or imaginary faults as are here spoken of do not lessen the admiration one feels for this new edition of “The Plains and the Rockies.”
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