Today’s entry in the ongoing business of cataloging the Wood’s House collection is a bit of poetic whimsy and class consciousness, discovered unexpectedly lurking in an aged copy of a 1938 World Syndicate edition of Joseph Devlin’s A Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. Devlin’s useful work has been in print in one form or another for a very long time; it’s still easy to find the mass market paperback edition from 1984 in used bookstores, in libraries, and through online vendors. It appears to have been printed by World Syndicate in a few different forms through the late 1930s and early 1940s, including a leather-bound edition and more than one cloth-covered hardback. Some editions of the book from this time period included “5000 words most commonly mispronounced.”
This particular book — hardback, cloth-covered rather than leather, with a sewn binding — was distributed by The Delehanty Institute of 115 East 15th St. in New York City (or so a stamp on the title page claims). Its subtitle indicates that it is “an indispensable aid to anyone who writes or speaks the English language,” but the 5000 commonly mispronounced words do not appear here. Aside from the Delehanty Institute stamp, there are no other markings in the text, and while the pages have yellowed a bit and the whole thing’s more than a little musty, the book is in reasonably good shape.
There are two things that make this otherwise unremarkable little word-book into a minor curiosity: its distributor and a little paper hitchhiker found inside of the front cover.
The Delehanty Institute (founded by Michael J. Delehanty — he opened his first civil service school around 1915) was for a time one of the premier civil service academies in New York. Its many branches across the city and beyond provided educational opportunities for firefighters, police, and other civil servants as well as supporting a high school in Queens named for the founder. Under Mr. Delehanty’s leadership, the institute “[flourished] to a point where it once was estimated that 90 per cent of all the city’s policemen and 80 per cent of its firemen were graduates of his school.” Delehanty’s approach favored “knowledgable” policing and service (by contrast to the usual approaches, which tended to emphasize brawn over brains), and in that context, the distribution of Devlin’s book by the Institute seems a natural choice, particularly given the ways in which elocution and vocabulary improvement have often been treated as contributors to class mobility. I strongly suspect that it’s not an accident that Delehanty was apparently distributing Devlin’s book around the time Edith Skinner created and promoted the Mid-Atlantic Accent so familiar to viewers of US films from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Inside the front cover, there’s a slip of paper with a little magic in progress on it.
On a sheet from a notepad from the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund (“The Clergy’s Life Insurance Specialist”), some handwritten text reads (roughly):
A moment of life
An instant of life, an instant of non-life
Burst of energy [?]
Then silence of life
On the reverse side of the sheet, there’s more — what looks like the very beginning of a poem draft and a planned outline for more:
Leaving aside any consideration of the aesthetic merits of the poetic offering in progress here, there’s something compelling about the snapshot of a life represented by its presence in the flyleaf of a synonym/antonym collection. It hints at the possibility of a story (imagined out of whole cloth, because there’s no reliable way to know who wrote these words): the tale of a passionate minister (or minister’s spouse) with a love for words, taking time out of an afternoon of pastoral obligation to scribble thoughts as they came on a promotional notepad, carefully collecting words from the book to bring an energetic vision to life. The poetry here (involving rather a lot of “throbbing” and whatnot) doesn’t seem to live in the staid and respectable language of a Presbyterian sermon (although religious language, too, can throb and pulsate and leap and dance). Still, it suggests something lively under plain black covers, as if the book itself wished to assemble its more exciting words into something bright and suggestive.