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from NY Times -- Duncan
- To: BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU
- Subject: from NY Times -- Duncan
- From: Charles Alexander <chax@THERIVER.COM>
- Date: Wed, 23 Apr 1997 07:50:25 -0700
- In-Reply-To: <199704161636.JAA15162@pantano.theriver.com>
- Message-Id: <199704231500.IAA15896@SUL-Server-2.Stanford.EDU>
- Sender: "The Book Arts: binding, typography, collecting" <BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU>
This is in today's NY Times. I apologize if someone has already posted
this. I am currently set for the nomail on the list, as I am leaving town
in a few hours.
April 23, 1997
Harry Duncan, 80, Hand Printer of Literary Works
By ERIC PACE
Harry Duncan, a skilled hand printer of books who was
responsible for Robert Lowell's first volume of poetry and works by
other well-known writers, died on Friday at his home in Omaha. He
The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Nancy.
Duncan started operating a hand press in Cummington, Mass., in
1939, winning praise for setting high standards under the
Cummington Press imprint. He continued to publish books under that
imprint for decades, for a time also using the imprint Abattoir.
His authors included William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens,
R.P. Blackmuir, Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams and Yvor
The hand press Duncan used for most of his books was operated
manually by two people and resembled the press that Gutenberg
invented. It was for lack of an assistant that in 1985 he switched
to an electric model.
Newsweek magazine said in 1982 that Duncan had come to be
"considered the father of the post-World War II private-press
movement." Fine Print magazine said in 1978: "Harry Duncan's
virtuosity, taste and experience have enabled him to reconcile the
esthetic and practical demands of printing and typography and weld
them together with literary excellence."
Duncan also had some of his own poetry published, his wife, a
former student, said Tuesday. "Because he was a poet and a writer,
he believed the book shouldn't get in the way of the poetry; the
book should act as a window to the word," she said. "And so he
didn't overly decorate his books."
Harry Alvin Duncan was born in Keokuk, Iowa. His father owned a
furniture store and his mother was a champion bridge player. He
graduated from high school there and received a bachelor's degree
in English in 1938 from Grinnell College in Iowa. Intending to
become a poet, he went on to study at the independent Cummington
School of the Arts.
He learned about printing there, and when the head of the
school, Katherine Frazier, decided that she wanted to start a hand
press, he got it going. Later, a friend, Paul Wightman Williams,
did illustrations for the books, and helped him design and print
books for some years. They also published pamphlets with poems in
It was in 1944 that the two printed Lowell's first poetry book,
"The Land of Unlikeness," illustrated by Gustav Wolf. Mrs. Duncan
said that it was her understanding that her husband published that
work after he came to know Lowell through a mutual friend, the poet
and critic Allen Tate. All three men were converts to Roman
Catholicism, and Tate was Duncan's godfather.
It was through the Cummington School of the Arts that Duncan met
numerous other poets whose books he later hand-printed, Mrs. Duncan
said. Over the years he also carried out many other publishing
functions, including editing and distributing his books. His wife
estimated that he printed about 135 books of poetry or fiction
during his career.
Not long after World War II, Mrs. Duncan said, Duncan moved the
Cummington Press, whose equipment he owned, to Rowe, Mass., where
he operated it independently of the art school. In Rowe he
contineud to operate the press on a nonprofit basis, as he had at
Cummington. He drove a school bus and did some teaching to help
make ends meet.
Then Williams died in a traffic accident, and in 1956 Duncan
took the post of director of the typographic laboratory at the
School of Journalism of the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
He held that job for 15 years, teaching typography, book design
and production full time in the journalism school and rising to the
rank of professor. In 1960, he married his wife, who had taken his
typography course. During his years in Iowa he continued
hand-printing books and publishing them under the Cummington Press
imprint in his vacations.
But he wanted to print and publish books full-time, his wife
recalled, and in 1972 accepted an offer from the University of
Nebraska in Omaha to found a fine-arts press. He operated that
press virtually full time, using the imprint Abattoir Editions,
until he retired from that post in 1985. In those years he also
occasionally printed pamphlets and similar materials under the
Cummington Press imprint.
Poetry by Duncan was published in a 1954 anthology, "Poets of
Today." His translations of poetry by Dante were published in a
book, "The Stone Beloved," in 1986 by Kairos Press. His book
about typography, "The Doors of Perception," came out in 1983. He
also wrote librettos for at least two operas.
In addition to his wife he is survived by two sons, Guy, of
Omaha, and Barnaby, of Idaho Falls, Idaho; a daughter, Lucy
Elizabeth Duncan of Omaha; four grandchildren, and a sister, Betty
Margaret Oliver of Keokuk.
charles alexander / chax press / firstname.lastname@example.org