Poetry, Slice of life

Book Impressions: What Happens Off Stage

Shakespeare was a rascal among playwrights. The master of wit, romance, and innuendo was a hero of public entertainment and is now the dread of high school poetry students everywhere. In days past, Shakespearean plays weren’t fit for respectable society. Seriously, his plays would be rated PG-13 today if the lingo were updated. Imagine the horror of Elizabethan paragons of virtue if they could see Shakespeare’s collections enshrined in bookstores, libraries and schools everywhere!

Found at a summer garage sale, An Art Edition of the Most Popular Dramas of Shakespeare is a hefty tome. The cover is pretty, even though the surface of the spine fell off, and there is a round mark where a $1 sticker was pressed onto the embossed surface. The crumbled spine now serves as a bookmark.

Before you can turn to the title page, you notice a yellowed sheet of paper just beyond the coversheet. The impression of the square paper on the page tells you it has been there for a while. It is a certificate, printed in brown ink with scrolling signatures, that certifies Mr. Herbert Parker of Kalamazoo, Michigan as a member of the Gaskell Literary Club of Chicago, Illinois. It’s all very official. Unfortunately, nothing seems to remain of this literary club. . . at least not on the internet. But you’re sure there is a city record somewhere that has more information about this club Herbert joined.

Herbert must have been quite the reader. Who else would pick up a book like this and register for a fancy literary club on December 18, 1889? You carefully turn the pages, and stop at the inscription, written three days later.

Herbert W. Parker,

                        Kalamazoo, Mich.

Dec, 25, 1889.

            A Merry Christmas,

                        From Your Wife.

A Christmas present! This illustrated book of Shakespearean dramas with its broken spine and gilded pages was a gift to Herbert from his wife. The club membership allowed him to get “any moral book to be obtained through the trade,” at an economical price. At this point, you wonder how literary the literary club was, given that Shakespeare probably can’t be considered moral.

As you flip through the pages of illustrations and columned text, you wonder who Herbert was, and who was his wife? We know nothing about her except she enjoyed fine books and had neat writing. With a bit of research (and some help from Ancestry, the 1910 Census, and MI marriage records) you discover that Herbert was born in Michigan and lived there his whole life. Wedding bells rang for Herbert in 1888, when he married Helen M. Parker (Cowlbeck), age 21 from Missouri. Together, they lived in Kalamazoo where he worked as the vice president at a bank.

On a snowy winter morning in Michigan, Herbert and Helen celebrated their 2nd Christmas together. Maybe they read this book aloud in front of the Christmas tree and giggled at Shakespeare’s witticisms. Maybe their children, Alice and James (who arrived on the scene just a couple years later) read the text for school and studied the lines for a school play. Maybe the Gaskell Literary Club kicked off a new story in the life of the Parkers in 1889.