Our regular Friday Find feature was delayed by a day due to technical issues.
On receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Award, Robert Frost told the crowd:
You may be interested to know that I have right here in my pocket a little first edition of Emerson’s poetry. His very first was published in England, just as was mine. His book was given me on account of that connection by Fred Melcher, who takes so much pleasure in bringing books and things together like that.
Among the most precious gifts I ever got is a first edition of North of Boston by Robert Frost. It is precious to me because a good friend of mine, and of my parents, gave it to me for my 13th birthday, when I began editing my high school’s poetry magazine. The friend was himself an editor. He had gotten the book from his grandfather, also an editor and a publisher. It is inscribed by Robert Frost himself, to his close friend and publisher, that same Frederic Melcher.
My friend, named after his grandfather, died far too young in a cold Chicago winter. Before then, he and his stepmother had sorted through the collected papers of his father and grandfather, and donated many of those papers to the University of Virginia, a school that the Melchers had a long association with. After the librarians there had a chance to do a quick sort through the papers, they commandeered a rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson, and displayed some of the Melcher ouvre. The University President told us “we don’t know yet how scholars will use these papers.” (A picture of me, my afro, and Fred at the event is below the fold.)
And now, a dozen years later, a student at U. Va. has discovered among those papers a new poem by the master – inscribed in a copy of North of Boston not unlike my own. Quite a Friday Find by any measure. I’d print it here, but the Virginia Quarterly Review the Frost family is being stingy with it, only allowing excerpts online, and I wouldn’t butcher a 35 line poem.
Besides, I’d like this Friday Find to be about Melcher. After all, Robert Frost is hardly a new discovery.
In addition to a lifelong friendship with Frost and other great American writers, Frederic Melcher was the creator of the Newbery and Caldecott medals for excellence in children’s books. He edited Publisher’s Weekly for many years, his son created Books in Print, and his grandson edited various ABA journals and helped make me the person I am today.
My friend Fred Melcher got me my first subscription to Ranger Rick. He gave me stuffed piranhas and pinned butterflies. My microscope came from him. He taught me that passionate political activism doesn’t have to fade with age and prominence.
“Uncle Fred” was the best man at my parents’ wedding. He and my father worked together in the Chicago anti-war movement, and changed national policy through articles they wrote about attempts by the Pentagon to use cloud seeding in North Vietnam to destroy the food supply. Sy Hersh picked the story up, and the Pentagon immediately canceled the project (see “Weather Warfare: Pentagon Concedes 7‑Year Vietnam Effort,” by Deborah Shapley, Science, 184:4141, pp. 1059–1061). Fred was thrilled when I decided to go to the University of Chicago, his alma mater. He spent more than his allotted time at the U. of C. because, he explained, he’d majored in the anti-war movement. Knowing I’d be able to experience the University without that distraction cheered him up.
My father and Fred bought identical suits at the same store in Hyde Park, and they worked together at the American Bar Association. My dad moved on into other journalistic pursuits, but Fred moved through the ranks, working at the ABA for the rest of his life, ultimately editing Judges’ Journal.
Editing and publishing was something of a family business. His father, Daniel Melcher, created the ISBN – the funny set of numbers on the back of all those books on your shelves, as well as Books-in-Print and its various foreign language editions. It started out on index cards, moved to punch cards, and remains a vital research tool, though searches on Amazon.com have become quicker for many purposes. The Spanish language edition was still owned and published by Daniel Melcher’s widow until a few years ago. He retired to a farm, where I remember feeding cats in the barn, fishing in the pond and riding along with the hired hands as they went to check on a new-born calf.
The most influential Melcher for the world at large remains the elder Frederic Melcher. He took an interest in the children’s book industry, at the time a small and neglected part of publishing. After whipping up support among his colleagues, in 1921 he sponsored the creation of the Newbery award, to be given to the best written children’s book, and still a reliable mark of excellence for children and parents. In 1937, he helped create the Caldecott medal, to honor distinguished children’s book illustrations. His son and grandson both remained active with both awards.
His son, Daniel, remembered “suggest[ing] that my father spend a bit more on clothes. He thought about it, and then said: ‘I am sorry, but I can’t get interested in it. There are so many things that interest me more.’ ” Getting Congress to buy the Library of Congress a Gutenberg Bible, for instance, and fighting against censorship here and abroad. Upon his death, the Library Journal wrote: “Much of Mr. Melcher’s accomplishment stemmed from a capacity to crystalize the essentials of an issue or an idea, and then, with infectious vigor, to impel groups of people to take action.”
An African American librarian remembers that he helped increase the number of children’s books written for minorities: “One of my first allies in the fight for better children’s books about black life was Frederick Melcher of the R. R. Bowker Company…. It was he who literally took me before a gathering of children’s editors and told me to ‘say my piece.’ ”
Throughout his career, he published and promoted great writers, including Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg. His papers showed him to be on familiar terms with many of the most powerful men of his day. His works live on today in the poetry that he nurtured in children’s hearts and in the minds of great writers.