Tribute to Updike of the Merrymount Press

> The following article, entitled “D. B. Updike, a Great Printer,” ran in the Notes for Bibliophiles column on January 25, 1942:

Daniel Berkeley Updike, who died in Boston on Dec. 29, 1941, was born in Providence, R. I., in 1860. Though in his eighty-second year, Mr. Updike was still at the time of his death in active management of the printing house which he established upon leaving the employment of the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1893. One of the great printers, he served no regular apprenticeship at case or press; the author of a significant addition to cultural history, he was prevented by family circumstances from going to college. But nothing prevented him in youth or manhood from reading, observing and learning, nor from the exercise of his natural gift for putting into order the knowledge he acquired from books and daily experience.
At the time Mr. Updike established the Merrymount Press the so-called revival of printing was under way and the private press for the production of fine books was beginning to be a feature of life in this and other lands. Some of the early issues of the new press in Boston bore traces of that return to the medieval which was an important motive in the early stages of the revival movement. But that was neither the motive nor the enduring manner of the Merrymount Press. Its proprietor realized that an art or a craft was advanced not so much by returning to a tradition as by carrying on that tradition and developing it under modern conditions, using modern tools and materials.

In the history of the press which he published at the conclusion of his fortieth year Mr. Updike explained the beginnings of his enterprise by saying “a simple idea had got hold of me—to make work better for its purpose than was commonly thought worth while,” or, as he has written elsewhere “to do common work well.” No press has ever been moved by a finer purpose or by a purpose more simply stated. Mr. Updike was never conscious of being the bearer of a “message,” never under the delusion that he was a typographical Messiah. He understood very well that the printing of his time could be improved, but he knew also that the great tradition of typography had never been completely lost even in the periods of its lowest degradation. It was not, therefore, a revival of fine printing that he set himself to bring about but the practice of the vital tradition that underlay fine printing. That was the message to be read in the work of the business-like establishment which he set up in Boston. There are few printers in the country today who have not heard the message, and, if good printers, listened to its terms.

It became the distinction of Mr. Updike’s establishment that it, again in his own words, “practiced a trade in the spirit of an art.” In the forty-nine years of his connection with it some 20,000 pieces have been printed embodying books, broadsides, billheads, invitations, announcements, and all the common run of printing-house business. Throughout that period its proprietor had at his side, first as practical assistant and later as partner, Mr. John Bianchi, and it was the routine of the establishment that every job that came in was studied as a new and different problem by one or the other or both the partners. It was this office rule of personal supervision, this acceptance of each piece of work as a new problem to be studied with its special purpose in view, which has made it possible to say of the work of the Merrymount Press that despite the definite recognizable style which characterizes everything it does, its work has never been cut to a pattern. When in 1940 an exhibition of the work of the Press was put on by the Grolier Club, it was apparent that here was the accomplishment of one of the great printers. The impression upon every one who saw the exhibits was first of the quantity and variety of the work displayed and then of its superb quality, its serenity and balance, its vigor, precision, and the conviction of rightness which appeared in every piece shown on the walls and in the cases. Finally came that feeling of which I have just spoken, that this printer had developed a style but avoided the creation of patterns.
Another element to be commented upon in the work of the Merrymount Press is that it was and continues to be effected with tools and materials available to every one. Its selection of types has never been great in number. Two of them, the Montallegro and the Merrymount, were especially designed and cut for the press, but works composed in these two have probably added less to the reputation of its product than those in which types available to all were employed. A qualification to this statement must be made inasmuch as certain of these faces notably the Janson and the Bell acquired by him in 1903, and the Oxford, acquired in 1906, were, when first used by Mr. Updike, unfamiliar to the general printer through long disuse. But many of the best known issues of the Press, and by far the larger part of its product, were printed in Caslon, Bodoni and Scotch face on power-driven presses of common design. Of recent years most of the work turned out has been of machine composition, for, following and developing the great tradition of typography, Mr. Updike employed always the best mechanical facilities of his time. It was part of the quality of the Merrymount enterprise that its effects were produced by thought and knowledge and through the selection of materials that went into the work rather than by the use of anything like secret weapons of typography.
Mr. Updike’s establishment and conduct of the press, which continues under John Bianchi and his son, Daniel Updike Bianchi, was not the sum of his services to printing. There exist six books and some thirty-five pamphlets and articles which bear his name. The best known of these, “Printing Types, a Study in Survivals,” is not alone a printer’s handbook displaying and discussing the type forms of several centuries but a book that established a philosophy of typographical history. The phrasing of its subtitle, “A Study in Survivals,” provides the golden cord running through and unifying five centuries of printing experience normally studied in isolated geographical groups or in divers technical aspects. It has instigated research here and abroad and has set up a standard of criticism for works of typography which measures the degree of their harmony with the life about them, as well as the intelligence with which available tools and accessories have been employed in their creation. In this book Updike also made clear that the essentials of success in typography were knowledge and taste, thereby setting printers everywhere upon the road to acquiring the one and developing the other.
It is not mere imitation of the work of Updike, Rogers, and other great designers which has brought new life into American printing; it is, I believe, the influence upon printers of this book which has instructed ambitious men in the tradition of their craft and taught them the grammar of its language. In others of his books, particularly “In the Day’s Work,” and “Some Aspects of Printing,” Mr. Updike has written on general and specific aspects of his craft, treating it always as a trade rather than as one of the fine arts, but a trade that might be practiced in the spirit of an art. “Notes on the Merrymount Press & Its Work” is a particularly distinguished bit of writing. Reading it again today I decided that I knew nothing better from the standpoint of straightforward expression than the autobiographical pages with which the book opens. I think of Franklin’s Autobiography as I write this, but even with that in mind I allow this sentence to stand.
Mr. Updike’s personal reticence, his shyness except in association with his friends, the need for restraint in life and action which his physical frailness necessitated, brought it about that not all who knew him were aware of his warmth, his wisdom, and his kindliness. Once, with his permission, I sent to see him a promising college senior who had the printing business in mind as a career. The young man told me afterwards that though Mr. Updike had not given him a job and had told him that he was not fitted for printing, he felt that the half hour interview had been the most important event of his life to that moment. I like to remember that statement when some one remarks upon Mr. Updike’s reserve, just as, when some one characterizes his work as cold, I like to remember the pages holding the Prayer of Consecration in his noble Book of Common Prayer.
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