Today’s post actually concerns an important acquisition made nearly two years ago. At that time the item was too fragile for reader use. But after extensive conservation treatment, it is now ready and available. Please join us in welcoming to our shelves Michael Wigglesworth’s celebrated didactic poem, The day of doom!
The day of doom, a quintessentially Puritan poem of over 200 eight-line stanzas vividly describing Judgment Day and the torments awaiting sinners in Hell, was the first book of poetry printed in the American Colonies and the first American bestseller. Its author, Michael Wigglesworth, graduated from Harvard in 1651 and served the town of Malden, Mass., as minister and physician. The day of doom is the foundation of any collection of early American literature, yet it is also one of the legendary rarities of early American printing. Only one fragmentary copy survives of the first edition, printed in Cambridge, Mass., ca. 1662, and only four fragmentary copies of the second edition of 1666. For the past century the Boston, 1715 edition (there is a copy at U.Va. in the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History) has been what booksellers term the “earliest obtainable edition,” that is, the earliest one could still hope to find a copy of.
Two years ago a previously unrecorded copy of the Boston, 1701 edition—the third printed in America—unexpectedly surfaced. It is the eighth known copy, and one of only three that are complete. Passed down from generation to generation in one New England family for three centuries, it was acquired by a bookseller who immediately gave U.Va. first refusal. The offer could not be refused, for U.Va.’s otherwise superlative American literature collection has notable gaps in its Colonial-era holdings. This acquisition, purchased on the McGregor Endowment, Library Associates, and Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Funds, significantly remedies that weakness.
The volume actually contains two works bound together: the 1701 Day of doom (Boston: Printed by B. Green, and J. Allen, for Benjamin Eliot), and the second edition (Boston: Printed by R. P[ierce] for John Usher, 1689) of Wigglesworth’s only other book of poetry, Meat out of the eater or meditations concerning the necessity, end, and usefulness of afflictions unto Gods children, of which this is only the sixth known copy. This newly discovered copy is especially important because it proves what bibliographers have long suspected: that the 1689 work was reissued in 1701 with a new printing of the Day of doom to form a volume containing Wigglesworth’s collected works.
When received, the volume lacked two leaves and portions of others and was in very fragile state, with marginal tears to virtually every leaf. The blind-tooled calf binding, probably done in Boston shortly after publication, was quite worn, and a previous owner had crudely repaired the original sewing. Several generations of owners had added their signatures to the book. Clearly the volume had been read so frequently as to nearly wear it out. All in all, a very evocative object, but one that was too fragile to use. But because this unexpected opportunity would almost certainly be the only chance we would ever have to obtain a copy of either of these exceptionally rare works in any condition, we decided to acquire it.
In order to preserve the volume and make it available for research, teaching, and exhibition, the U.Va. Library’s conservator, Eliza Gilligan, undertook a thorough conservation treatment, now successfully completed. First, the original binding and sewing were thoroughly documented. Then the binding was carefully removed (it will be retained permanently for research purposes); the text leaves carefully washed, deacidified, and mended with Japanese tissue; the textblock reassembled and resewn; and a new calf binding, tooled like the original, added. Now nearly as good as new, the book can be handled safely and will inform many future generations of readers about the Day of Doom!