Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The First Official (and Still Best) Publisher's "Blurb"

BURGESS, Gelett. Are You A Bromide? Or, The Sulphitic Theory.
Expounded and Exemplified According to the Most Recent Researches
Into the Psychology of Boredom. Including many well-known
Bromidioms now in use. With decorations by the author.
New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1906.

Say! Ain't this book a 90 H.P., six-cylinder Seller? If WE do say it as shouldn't, WE consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal-bin, telephoning for "Information."

WE expect to sell 350 copies of this great, grand book. It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody on the neck. No hero, no heroine, nothing like that for OURS, but when you READ this masterpiece, you'll know what a BOOK is, and you'll sic it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist, and the pale youth who dips but air into Little Marjorie until 4 Q.M. in the front parlour. This book has 42-carat THRILLS in it. It fairly BURBLES. Ask the man at the counter what HE thinks of it! He's seen Janice Meredith faded to mauve magenta. He's seen BLURBS before, and he's dead wise. He'll say:

This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!


In April 1906, American humorist Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) published a small essay in The Smart Set, a magazine edited by George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. Titled The Sulphitic Theory, in the fall of 1906, he revised and enlarged the essay into a small book, Are You a Bromide?

It was Burgess who coined the word "bromide" to describe a blandly soothing, often inane statement. A Bromidian was a dully soothing type of person; Sulphites were the opposite.

It sold very well, and at the publishing trade association's annual dinner, B.W. Huebsch, the book's publisher, distributed copies to his colleagues with, as was customary for these affairs, a specially made-up dust jacket.

It was also the contemporary practice to  portray a damsel—languishing, heroic, or coquettish - whatever - on the dust jacket of every novel. Words of praise by the publisher were also a part of the dust jacket, a practice that dates back to 14th century Egypt. These words were collectively known in Arabic as taqriz.

By 1906 the practice of taqriz (the word unknown to Western ears) was getting out of hand. Burgess decided to do something about it. He coined the word "blurb."

Thus spake Miss Belinda Blurb, his comic mouthpiece, whose surname stuck and became the perfect word to describe what Burgess later defined in his comic lexicon, Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed (1914), as:

1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher...On the “jacket” of the “latest” fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the “sensation of the year.”

For maximum satiric effect, the Burgess-written blurb for Are You a Bromide? forms the entire front panel of the dust jacket, the title and author appearing as almost an afterthought.

Gelett Burgess.

This book is commonly mis-dated to 1907, probably because the first three printings of 1906 (October, November and December) have become quite rare; by February of 1907 it had already gone through four printings. The first printing, October 1906, is the only one that carried this dust jacket but only on those copies distributed by publisher Huebsch to the trade.

Currently, the book without this dust jacket sells for around $150. If you can find a copy with this DJ - one has just now come into the marketplace after a very long, dry spell - it will cost you ten times that amount.

This is surely the MOST fantastic, amazing, blurb ever written! WE have swallowed them all and this one takes the cake. Never in the history of publishing has one man captured so succinctly in one word this sub-species of BLATHER! This sterling word, BLURB!, marries blather with a soft burp of indigestion. As such a PERFECT tongue massage and palate stimulator it HAS NO PEER. Is it NOT SURPRISING that it immediately entered the popular lexicon? WE think not! It has that magic CERTAIN SOMETHING! It has GUSH and GO!

Image courtesy of Peter Harrington.

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