September 9, 2012

Letterpress in Literature III

“She takes her cup, with its cold dregs, and walks out of the room and down the stairs to the printing room, where Ralph is reading the page proofs as Leonard finishes with them.

Type being set at Philoxenia Press, Berkeley, CA

“Good morning,” Ralph says brightly and nervously to Virginia. His broad, placid, handsome face is red, his forehead practically aglow, and she can immediately see that, for him, it is not a good morning at all. Leonard must have growled at some inefficiency, either of recent vintage or left over from yesterday, and now Ralph sits reading proofs and saying “Good morning” with the flushed ardency of a scolded child.

“Good morning,” she answers, in a voice that is cordial but carefully unsympathetic. These young men and women, these assistants, will come and go; already Marjorie has been hired (with her terrible drawl, and where is she just now?) to do the jobs Ralph considers beneath him. It won’t be long, surely, before Ralph and then Marjorie have gone on and she, Virginia, emerges from her study to find someone new wishing her a red-faced, chastened good morning. She knows Leonard can be gruff, stingy, and all but impossibly demanding. She knows these young people are often criticized unfairly but she will not side with them against him. She will not be the mother who intervenes, much as they beg her to with their eager smiles and wounded eyes. Ralph, after all, is Lytton’s worry, and Lytton is welcome to him. He, like his brothers or sisters to come, will go on and do whatever they do in the greater world—no one expects them to make a career out of assisting at the press. Leonard may be autocratic, he may be unfair, but he is her companion and caretaker, and she will not betray him, certainly not for handsome, callow Ralph, or Marjorie, with her parakeet’s voice.

“There are ten errors in eight pages,” Leonard says. The brackets around his mouth are so deep you could slip a penny in.

“Lucky to have found them,” Virginia says.

“They seem to congregate around the middle section. Do you think bad writing actually attracts a higher incidence of misfortune?”

“How I'd love to live in a world in which that were true. I'm going for a walk to clear my head, then I'll come and pitch in.”

“We're making good progress,” Ralph says. “We should be through by the end of the day.”

“We shall be lucky,” Leonard says, “to be through by this time next week.”

—from The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham

Leonard and Virginia Woolf actually did found the Hogarth Press in 1917. It began as a hobby, for hand-printing books, but grew into a business when they began using commercial printers.

In this passage, Ralph has set lead type by hand, letter by letter, for printing several pages of a book. They have printed preliminary copies ("proofs") and are now checking for errors, of which they seem to have found several. 

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