Monday, December 9, 2013

SMALL PRESSES

The White Rhinoceros Press logo
Time was when the small press was a unique publishing house in the world of giant publishers, the most notable small press being, of course, the British-born Hogarth Press owned by Leonard Wolfe, Virginia Wolfe's husband. During the last twenty-five years or so, the small press, aided and abetted by book producers, has come into its own, and authors who'd otherwise never see the light of day, have emerged from the shadowy corners of the literary world to showcase their talents.

Back in the 80's, I frequently visited Blacksburg, Virginia where my godmother and godfather lived and was privileged to meet several notable professors who taught in the Virginia Polytechnic Institute's English Department, of which my godfather Markham Peacock was the administrator. One of those courtly gentlemen professors, now deceased, and later immortalized by VPI administrators who named the present Student Union building after him, was George Burke Johnston. "Burke," as I was asked to call him, was a beloved professor at this university, but few people in the contemporary publishing world know that he also owned a small press called The White Rhinoceros Press. This press made its debut in 1965 when Burke set type for Reflections by hand in ten-point Monotype Century type.

After sharing several meals at dinner parties where Burke was an honored guest, he and I exchanged poems, and I received copies of Burke's publications, including the original 1965 edition and a later edition of Reflections in which the text of the poems was the same as a 1978 format—it was an edition in which the first two signatures were expanded from a single signature in earlier printings and reset. The 1988 edition carried an ISBN, which was a step forward in the life of the White Rhinoceros Press.

Reflections contains what I believe is Burke's best poetry and features a section entitled "Brevities" with a succinct quote from Ben Jonson: "One alone verse sometimes maketh a [complete] poem." Burke's pithy brevities followed Jonson's quote; e.g., "Passing Generations:" "Resting my knuckles on the pew in front, /Startled, I see my dead grandfather's hand." Another reads, "From Menander:" "Peace feeds the farmer well on rocky height, /But War on fertile plain is fatal blight."

Burke's publications included such scholarly treatises as A Hundred Years After, an essay adapted from a lecture given on several occasions that appeared in the Phi Kappa Phi Journal and The Radford Review in 1966. Excerpts from the lecture also appeared in The Penn Hall Alumnae Pillar, and in these publications Burke critiques and salutes Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

However, I'm partial to Burke's poetry, particularly a compendium of his poems entitled Banked Fire that appeared in 1980. In this handmade, hard-backed edition, Burke reveals the reason for naming his press The White Rhinoceros Press in the last stanza of his poem, "White Rhinoceros:" "What symbol then? The raucous crow or harsh/Macaw or myna bird might do for most;/And for traditional bards not in the swim/Perhaps [what] would serve [is] the heavy horn-nosed beast, /The living fossil of a long-dead age."

The publication that Burke felt would be remembered as the White Rhinoceros Press's crowning achievement was a biography that he wrote about his grandfather entitled Thomas Chalmers McCorvey: Teacher, Poet, Historian, a professor at the University of Alabama for many years. In the introduction to this volume, Burke quotes William James: "Real culture lives by sympathies and admirations, not by likes and disdains," and he emphasizes that his grandfather received from his colleagues, friends, and students abundant "sympathies and admirations." After reading the biography, I discerned that Thomas McCorvey had passed on his gifts as a teacher, poet, and historian to his first and only grandson, George Burke Johnston.


Burke may have thought of himself as a rhinoceros, but his work as a pioneer in the realm of the small presses and his renown as an English professor obviously eclipsed any notions he may have had about being the "heavy horn-nosed beast/the living fossil of a long dead age." I'm delighted to possess his seven books in my library and have enjoyed re-reading them this wintry morning in south Louisiana.
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