The Eccentric Lost Art of Chapbooks


During the past 30 years I have kept my eyes peeled for University of Washington chapbooks. Most of these small, delicate volumes were published in the 1920s-1930s. These gems are bound tracts containing an author’s passionate and usually offbeat views of a particular subject.  And they occasionally include poems and short fictional pieces and ballads. Occasionally, you can find these gems in local bookstores.

In long-ago times chapbooks were sold by chapmen, an old English term for a trader or peddler. The compact publications – usually 5″ X 7″ in size – allowed an author to focus on a specific corner of his universe, and take a good swing at it. The chapmen handled marketing and distribution.

I strayed into this strange realm while collecting first editions of H.L. Mencken, the critic and author, known in the 1930-1950s as the “Bard of Baltimore.”  I was excited to learn that the first University of Washington chapbook, edited by Glenn Hughes and published by the UW Bookstore in 1927, was titled “A Short View of Menckenism in Menckenese.”  Joseph B. Harrison wrote this little treatise on Mencken beginning his piece as follows: “He who sets out to lam in his own lingo so sprightly American as Mr. H.L. Mencken must have all his grape and cannister aboard, his dictionary of the American Language, his trusty spoofer loose in the scabbard, and his white flag.”

Harrison’s use of the archaic word “lam” must mean strike or thrash. The word “spoofer” must relate to a hoax or deception.  In any case, Harrison tries to out-gun Mencken with hot terminology.  This splenetic burst seems typical of the chapbook approach.

Other samples of University of Washington chapbook themes are E.T. Bell’s 1930 piece entitled “Debunking Science,” which asked the question: “What dangers  are there in the tendency to make science a religion?”

In 1927, the University’s soon-to-be-Pulitzer Prize winner Vernon L. Parrington wrote a chapbook called “Sinclair Lewis, Our Own Diogenes.”  Parrington took the position that Lewis “sets up” his fictional victims by making them appear warm and wooly, and then suddenly strips them naked.

In 1929, literary critic and writer Benjamin DeCasseres wrote a chapbook about “The Superman in America.”  Acknowledging the cult of supermen as defined by Nietzsche, DeCasseres leaps backward to say that American preachers of supermen were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Expanding his theme, he describes the dancer Isadora Duncan as an American superwoman because she “underwent all agonies . . .triumphed over all tragedies . . . (and was) pagan, Greek, and amoral.”

Other chapbook examples are Wilmot E. Ellis discussing what he calls “Bovaryism,” the art-philosophy of Frenchman Jules De Gaultier; another example places Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare and others together holding conversations about their respective roles in history; and Barrett H. Clark writes in “Speak the Speech,” about high school diction, American brogues and dialects, and an American standard of speech.

Each of the chapbooks takes flight. The whimsy of the author is at the controls.  However, the authors are – or were – distinguished literary personalities.  Collecting and re-reading the old University of Washington chapbooks are challenging, surprising, and delightful.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. I read this piece again and enjoyed it even more, the second time around. Fascinating, rare, and very enjoyable. Keep up the good work! Thanks. Your friend, Bill Dunn

  2. Ah, but who will publish these little books? One faces the sad fact that local publishers are not very oriented to local topics. I hope History Link and Chin Music Press will take up the challenge.


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