Edward W Batchelder

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The Word Made Fresh:
Letterpresses Cast Books against Type

cover of book

There is a story about the early days of the Industrial Revolution that traces the origins of the word “saboteur” to a group of disgruntled French craftsmen. Threatened by the introduction of new technology, they responded by lobbing their heavy wooden shoes (in French—sabots) into the works of the machines. The story seems to be apocryphal, but like most modern folk tales its value lies in an emotional rather than a factual truth. Technology has always had a double edge to it, and is seldom welcomed by the workers it displaces.

Letterpress printers, the custodians of the art of handset metal type and the individually printed page, find themselves in an analogous position to the French workers. Advances in technology over the past fifty years have radically changed the way most printing takes place, and a skill which once took a lifetime to perfect is now available, in a simplified form, for the price of a computer program. While there have been no recorded instances of Reeboks being jammed into PC disk drives, Boston letterpress printers have acknowledged that the changes have had an effect.

“Letterpress is indeed on what I call the trailing edge of technology,” confirmed John Kristensen, a partner in Firefly Press of Somerville, “but in an age of more-faster-cheaper, I think there is still a place for the quality, individual job.” He displays by way of example a limited edition of poems by Ray Carver, Early for the Dance. The cover is faced with handmade paper, and the text is printed in a stylized, modern typeface called Optima. The overall effect—restrained and elegant—is a perfect forum for Carver’s work. Kristensen points to the edges of the letters. “There’s a greater purity to the letter form with cast metal type, and the page has a texture and life which just isn’t available with offset printing.”

Kristensen shows a number of other recently printed books as well. There’s a small collection of May Sarton’s poems, and a commemorative printing of the John L’Heureux story The Comedian, which won the 1986 O’Henry Award. “All these are produced on commission,” explains Kristensen, “and in all cases the work had been previously published and distributed. What we are talking about here is not publishing texts but rather enshrining them.”

Page from hand-set letterpress bookThis illuminates one of the current dilemmas of letterpress work. While many letterpress printers set out to publish original works of literature, practical considerations have forced a reworking of the dream. Kristensen points out that “ten years ago, the cheapest and easiest method for anyone who wanted to produce decent editions of literature was to get hold of an old letterpress and a few fonts and to go at it. There’s no doubt that, with the advent of desktop publishing, that began to change. People whose primary interest is in publishing literature either learn to enjoy letterpress for its own sake, or they change jobs.” Gino Lee, who works with Kristensen, agrees. “For the most part, there has been a separation into two groups—one concerned with the craft of printing, the other with getting work out there at a reasonable rate.”

This distinction between fine printing and publishing is a crucial one. Printing books on a hand-operated letterpress is a labor-intensive business, and not one which lends itself easily to the retail trade. Most small shops work with an assortment of typefaces, bought from a foundry or scavenged from the basements of old printing establishments, and each letter has to be set by hand. A day can be spent setting two pages of text.

Firefly, being a somewhat larger shop, has the benefit of a monotype machine, a rattling behemoth from the early part of the century that casts type, at the rate of two letters a second, from a bucket of molten lead. Because the type is cast in the order in which it appears in the text, the work of selecting the pieces one by one out of type boxes is eliminated. Even with this advantage, though, the slim volumes Firefly produces sell for between $50 and $100 apiece, putting them out of the reach of the average book buyer. Books of this sort are produced for sale directly to collectors, who for the most part are members of a subscription book club.

There is a certain historical irony to all this. The current revival in letterpress printing—in Boston, there are six companies actively producing literature and one hundred Letterpress Guild members—began in the late ’60s, when most publishing houses and newspapers were making the transition to offset printing from letterpress impact printing. Old letterpresses and cabinets of type became available for little more than the cost of carrying them away. “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,” said the journalist A. J. Liebling, and the dissemination of presses seemed to promise a sort of democratization of the printed word.

Twenty years later, the advances in technology that had usurped letterpress’s position in the commercial sphere are now usurping it again in the private one. The spirit of the independent publisher seems to be more alive in desktop publishing than it ever was in letterpress, while letterpress itself has been marginalized as a craft or fine art, subsidized by wealthy collectors and libraries.

Dan Carr, who operated Four Zoas Press in Charlestown for several years before moving it to New Hampshire, confirmed this. “The small letterpress publishers I speak with are finding it harder and harder to market their books. The difference of only a few dollars in the retail price makes a tremendous difference. Letterpress is becoming more and more the tool of the book artist. Desktop publishing is just too attractive for small publishers.”

Carr remains in letterpress printing because of his love for it as a craft. He started Four Zoas fifteen years ago to publish the work of local writers, and took on jobs setting type and printing for other publishers to support the press. He now works mostly on commission for companies like the Limited Editions Club in New York. It’s similar to the work that Firefly does, but on a much larger scale. Carr and his partner Julia Ferrari do everything from designing type to laboriously handsetting entire volumes of modern classics. Recent books have included John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a collection of Samuel Beckett pieces titled Nohow On, and a selection of the poems of Frank O’Hara illustrated by William DeKooning. These editions sell to collectors for between $400 and $500.

In addition to this work, though, Carr and Ferrari practice a high form of what the Boston publisher David Godine terms “privashing.” As distinguished from publishing, privashing is the production of a text for the love of the literature itself, usually for a limited audience. The rewards of privashing are emotional rather than economic; generally, any income barely covers the cost of the materials, and the labor involved is donated. The appeal of privashing is that the printer has total control over the production process. Privashed works are frequently virtuosic examples of typesetting.

A recent example is Song of the Sky: Versions of American Indian Myths, which Carr describes as an attempt to reproduce the spirit as well as the letter of the texts. Kristensen calls it “enormously inventive typography.” Some of the pages, for example, have the type set in concentric circles—an extremely complicated task. To help subsidize the project, and to achieve a wider distribution, Carr sold a set of pages to a larger publishing company for an offset edition.

Other examples of privashing include Four Zoas’ upcoming editions of the work of area writers Claudia Buckholtz and Robert Givens, and the volumes of poetry produced by Dan Carr’s former partner, Mark Olson, of the Innerer Klang Press in Charlestown. All of these are the sorts of books which involve more aesthetic than financial rewards for the printer. Letterpress continues as a craft tradition, though, precisely because its practitioners have such a strong concern for aesthetics.

Johanna Drucker, a visiting Mellon scholar at Harvard, shares this concern for the letterpress page, insisting “there is a surface vitality, a zing and a crispness which is irreplaceable.” A student of the history of typography, she began writing, designing, and printing her books as an undergraduate at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Her work is constructed around the specific possibilities of letterpress, and is difficult to imagine in any other medium. Pages go through multiple printings to accommodate different colors; radically different type sizes are utilized; and the print is laid out in unexpected ways. While she has experimented with computer typography, she objects to the “homogenization of typefaces that has gone along with desktop publishing.”

Drucker’s comment points up the most frequently voiced complaint against desktop publishing, which is not that it poses an economic threat but that it tends to be a visually unappealing medium. For all of their commitment to the physical craft of printing, none of the printers seemed opposed on principle to desktop publishing—none are, as Drucker ironically phrased it, “the sort of people who cling on to their fountain pens long after everyone else is using ballpoints.” Rather, they are concerned with a quality of production that, so far at least, is seldom achieved with computer technology.

Yet the concern with quality does not break down neatly along technological lines. David Godine, who began with letterpress, now produces books of a consistently high quality as commercial trade publisher. Printing in the third world, where letterpress is the workhorse of the trade, is of a generally poor quality, and Drucker acknowledges that it took at least a century for designers to catch up with the invention of the printing press in the first place. “They needed time to adapt the calligraphy which preceded them to the new medium of foundry type. And now again we’re moving into a similar, beginning period for desktop publishing.”

In fact, there’s a widespread recognition among letterpress operators that each technology has its own uses. The quarterly newsletter of the Letterpress Guild of New England, is printed with a Macintosh. Fine Print, the elegant and expensive trade magazine, which is published entirely with handset type, incorporated computer graphics on a recent cover.

Even literary publishers are using the new technology. Michael Franco, of dromenon press, hauled two enormous printing presses to Boston with him from California, yet he incorporates offset printing and photostatting in his books as well. Bruce Chandler, of the Heron Press, acknowledges that computers are making inroads into the way he thinks about design.

As Rae Grant, current president of the Letterpress Guild of New England, put it, the question is not one of letterpress vs. desktop, but rather “how to transfer the tradition of quality in letterpress work to desktop publishing.” Fine printing manifests itself in a myriad of small details, which taken together produce an aesthetically more rewarding product. Kristensen talks about the unity of design that is available to the letterpress printer. Large presses have separated the tasks of cover design, page design, and printing, and the small printer has the freedom to reunite them. Kristensen admits that, at times, this can result in a book which is overproduced, but when the spirit of the text is kept in mind the book expresses a harmony of form and content which is lacking in most commercial firms.

Dan Carr seconds this. “Setting type is comparable to studying a text on a letter-by-letter basis,” affirms Dan Carr, “it begins to work on a subconscious level.” The task for Carr as a printer is to find a design which best expresses the text.

It’s a level of concern that has its rewards for the author as well as the printer. Claudia Buckholtz, whose first book of poetry was published by Four Zoas and whose book of fiction is upcoming from them, appreciates the level of concern they put into their books. “I like working with printers who come from the tradition of fine craftsmen. Large presses have their place, and some work is more suited for the mass market, but the small, letterpress printers have a level of personal concern for a manuscript that you don’t find elsewhere.”

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Boston Phoenix)

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