Edith Wharton’s French Idyll

November 1, 2018

The American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937) didn’t fully blossom as an artist until she was in her 40s. Raised in a stodgy “Old New York” family, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, all her life she longed for personal and literary freedom. She was a dedicated bookworm from childhood, and through her avid reading she glimpsed vistas of art and knowledge that her family and husband, wealthy and cultured though they were, could not appreciate as deeply as she did.

She had been well traveled, as most of her class and era had been, and so was quite familiar with Europe from childhood. But she wasn’t at home in her own home. As Janet Flanner put it in a 1929 New Yorker profile, “For if Boston, the city of her marriage, never forgave her for having been born in New York, her New York never forgave her for having been born in New York and writing about it.”

For a time, she found a refuge in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, at The Mount, an airy villa she designed herself, inspired by the European homes she had written about in The Decoration of Houses (1899) — so different from the dark, overstuffed brownstones of her New York youth. There she wrote her first great New York novel, The House of Mirth (1905); there she relaxed, in the cozy library with its tall windows overlooking the terrace and her beloved gardens, with kindred spirits like Henry James, reading aloud and talking of books and art.

Wharton’s appreciation for France began to grow during this time. In 1906 and 1907, she and her husband embarked on the auto trips that formed the basis for A Motor-Flight through France (1908). A long-time devotee of motoring, she declares at the opening of the book, “The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.” Now, instead of the ugliness of train travel, one has “the delight of taking a town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and surprising in it some intimate aspect of past time, some silhouette hidden for half a century or more by the ugly mask of railway embankments and the iron bulk of a huge station.” The trips covered thousands of miles across the French landscape, alighting at tiny medieval towns and big cities, chateaux and cathedrals, ruins and gardens.

Back in America, the Lenox idyll began to sour. As her literary star ascended, her marriage deteriorated. Her husband philandered. She fell passionately and fruitlessly in love with the caddish journalist Morton Fullerton (“My life was better before I knew you,” she heartbreakingly wrote him after his ardor had cooled). Her husband plundered her trust fund. She was nearly 50 in 1911 when she finally left him, The Mount, and America to begin a new idyll in France.

Le Pavillon Colombe

Edith Wharton’s garden at the Pavillon Colombe outside Paris

Wharton spent the rest of her life there, finally free to live the literary life she had long yearned for. She initially established herself in Paris, where she wrote Ethan Frome (1911) and several other novels. As she put it in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), “In Paris no one could live without literature, and the fact that I was a professional writer, instead of frightening my fashionable friends, interested them.”

During the First World War, Wharton worked tirelessly to provide shelter, employment, schools, and hospitals for refugees. To raise money for Belgian refugees, she organized and edited The Book of the Homeless (1915), a compilation of donated works by noted writers, artists, and composers of the day. She visited the front, chronicling the devastation she saw in Fighting France (1915). The lovely pastoral landscape she had toured by car less than a decade earlier was now a wasteland:

The country between Marne and Meuse is one of the regions on which German fury spent itself most bestially during the abominable September days. Half way between Chalons and Sainte Menehould we came on the first evidence of the invasion: the lamentable ruins of the village of Auve. These pleasant villages of the Aisne, with their one long street, their half-timbered houses and high-roofed granaries with espaliered gable-ends, are all much of one pattern, and one can easily picture what Auve must have been as it looked out, in the blue September weather, above the ripening pears of its gardens to the crops in the valley and the large landscape beyond. Now it is a mere waste of rubble and cinders, not one threshold distinguishable from another.

Though extremely busy with her war-work, which later earned her medals from both France and Belgium, she still managed to write several novels during the war, including Summer (1916) and, directly inspired by the war, The Marne (1918).

In 1919, Wharton left the bustle of post-war Paris for a quiet home on its outskirts, the Pavillon Colombe, and later took a winter home at Hyères in the south of France. In her loving tribute to the French, French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), she observed:

The French are the most human of the human race, the most completely detached from the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy world in which trees and animals talked to each other, and began the education of the fumbling beast that was to deviate into Man. They have used their longer experience and their keener senses for the joy and enlightenment of the races still agrope for self-expression. The faults of France are the faults inherent in an old and excessively self-contained civilisation; her qualities are its qualities; and the most profitable way of trying to interpret French ways and their meaning is to see how this long inheritance may benefit a people which is still, intellectually and artistically, in search of itself.

Wharton went on to write many more books, including The Age of Innocence (1920), a novel about the New York society of her youth, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She returned to the United States only a couple of times, once to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923 — another first for a woman. There was otherwise no need to return: She had found her true idyll. She died peacefully at the Pavillon Colombe in 1937.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer and a member of The Mount and the Edith Wharton Society. Wharton’s time in France is chronicled in a newly published book, Edith Wharton in France (Lenox: The Mount Press/Prospecta Press, 2018), by the late Claudine Lesage, which was the source of some of the information in this post.


Celebrating 36,000 Titles

September 7, 2018

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Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 36,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, The American Missionary, May 1882. Congratulations and thanks to all the DP volunteers who worked on it.

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The American Missionary was published by the American Missionary Association (A.M.A.) from 1846 to 1908, and continued publication under the guidance of other Congregational missionary societies until 1934. The American Missionary Association itself continued under that name until 1999, when it was incorporated into another department in the Congregational Church. The periodical was published monthly for much of its lifetime, but occasionally less frequently. Throughout the era of Reconstruction, it served as the marketing arm of the A.M.A., educating the readers of its 20,000 monthly copies about the work of the A.M.A., and openly soliciting support for the continuance of that work. The aim and work of the A.M.A., stated in each issue of the magazine, was

To preach the Gospel to the poor. It originated in a sympathy with the almost friendless slaves. Since Emancipation it has devoted its main efforts to preparing the FREEDMEN for their duties as citizens and Christians in America, and as missionaries in Africa. As closely related to this, it seeks to benefit the caste-persecuted CHINESE in America, and to co-operate with the Government in its humane and Christian policy toward the INDIANS. It has also a mission in AFRICA.

Although written primarily from a single point of view — that of white, northern Congregational Christians — The American Missionary provides an interesting real-time view of how social opinion and public policy developed through the era of Reconstruction and beyond. During the 1870’s and 1880’s, it chronicled history seldom taught in schools — the impact of yellow fever on commerce and education in the South, the fear of Northern states that Southern illiteracy was a danger to U.S. democratic institutions, and national concern that California’s response to Chinese immigration would cause another secession from the Union, to name just a few. The periodical chronicled society’s gradually increasing awareness of the essential humanity of all races, decrying the missteps along the way, and sometimes inadvertently revealing the prejudices of the A.M.A. itself. These developments were reported and commented upon as they occurred, without hindsight to distort their contemporaneous meaning and impact.

The May 1882 American Missionary issue is Distributed Proofreaders’ 36,000th unique title prepared for Project Gutenberg. It is a typical issue for the 1880’s. It contains an announcement of President Chester A. Arthur’s veto of Congress’s first attempt to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and a daily journal of a trip up the Nile by steamer and across the desert by camel, through Thebes and Cairo. It also contains a description of the Chinese New Year as celebrated by the Chinese-American community, and a biology lesson by a teacher in Atlanta. As do all American Missionary issues, it contains a list of donations, by city, church, and name, for a single month, useful for historical and genealogical research.

DP provided the first American Missionary project to Project Gutenberg in April 2004. It was the issue for January 1888. Since that time, we have finished over 125 issues. Over 120 others have finished the rounds, and are awaiting completion—most due to missing pages and covers still to be collected by volunteers. The projects still in process cover the period of June 1882 to the fourth quarter of 1901.

Although most of the American Missionary issues are partially available from online sites other than Project Gutenberg, such as the Hathi Trust, the scans at those sites are generally missing the front and back covers, which were either not included in the bound collections of issues, or which were bound separately from the issues at the backs of the volumes. These cover pages often list the officers and meeting notices of the A.M.A., as well as some of the advertisements.

Many online copies, other than those at Project Gutenberg, are also missing all of the advertisement pages. The advertisements cover church organs and corsets, guns and fencing, architectural services and theological books, stove polish and life insurance—a cross-section of the goods and services available for purchase in the latter part of the 19th Century. Many advertisements include pricing and street addresses useful for historical research. These missing pages are included in most of the American Missionary issues prepared for Project Gutenberg by Distributed Proofreaders. Dedicated volunteers search out original copies from university libraries and other sources, obtaining high-resolution copies of the missing pages and matching them to the appropriate magazine issues. Some of the engravings in the advertisements are particularly fine, although time has taken a toll on their clarity. The rotary printing press, Singer factory and Remington guns in the May 1878 issue are excellent examples.

This post was contributed by ArleneJoyce, a DP volunteer who is the Project Manager and Post-Processor for many of the American Missionary projects.


How Time-Travel Led Me to Distributed Proofreaders

August 31, 2018

Samuel Pepys

Over the years I’ve travelled in time again and again.

Through the letters of Abigail and John Adams, I’ve lived through the start of the American Revolutionary War, 18th-century smallpox vaccinations, travel abroad, and the early days of a new republic. The originally unpublished diaries of Mary Boykin Chesnut took me to the start of the U.S. Civil War. I sat with her and her friends waiting breathlessly for news from the Battle of Fort Sumter where their husbands and brothers fought. The diary of John Evelyn took me to the Sun King’s court and to England in the time of Charles II. I cried with him over the early death of his two young sons. And my mother’s diary from the year she turned 17 took me to the early days of World War II in Western Canada — full of accounts of boy-friends, dances, factory work, and friends going off to war (I can still remember my mother’s “You read my diary?! — Give it back!!”).

The time travel that has enthralled me most was nine years in 17th-century England with a young man so full of life and so involved in the events of his time.

I had wanted to read the diaries of Samuel Pepys for many years, when I found an abridged version in a local bookstore. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was little of interest there — no more than a collection of “he was really there” names and events. Then I found the Project Gutenberg version of the full nine years of the diary (although, the edition on which it was based having been published in 1893, it had a few ellipses to hide the most racy bits, which I soon found out how to track down elsewhere).

Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1660 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1661 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1662 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1663 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1664 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1665 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1666 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1667 N.S.
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1668 N.S
Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1669 N.S.

The Project Gutenberg version opened up a whole new world to me — the world of a young man in his 20s celebrating Christmas openly after the puritanism of the Cromwell years, travelling with the court to return the rightful king to England, and obtaining a new and interesting job through the influence of highly-placed friends. It took me years to live through the diaries, reading slowly night by night and heading off to bed myself with his “And so to bed” which ended so many of his daily entries.

I lived through a young man’s excesses in his nightly drinking with his friends and his delight in learning about the “hair of the dog,” until his reluctant decision to lead a more sober life. I experienced his joy at playing musical instruments, and all the details of his many house-decorating forays. With him, I casually passed by the bonfires of Guy Fawkes Day celebrations and experienced the terror and excitement of “shooting the bridge” by riding out the torrent of Thames tidewater under London Bridge with the ferrymen. I lived through the plague as it decimated London, leaving the streets silent and empty as more and more deaths were recorded each day, and was terrified anew by the great fire of London and the drama of the king and his brother working tirelessly with the citizens to save the city. And there was the time when everybody feared imminent invasion by the Dutch and I went with Pepys to hide his valuables. He was upset that one bag of buried coins could not be found. And of course, there were his constant infidelities, described in detail despite the ever-present ellipses.

How did the adventures and infidelities of this young man lead me to Distributed Proofreaders? After a few years of downloading and reading the Pepys diaries that had been prepared for Project Gutenberg by David Widger, I felt guilty. I’d had such a lovely time in 17th-century England that it seemed wrong for me not to repay in some way. By joining Distributed Proofreaders, I discovered a way to help create e-books that other people could download and enjoy.

I hope that some of the books I have helped prepare have given readers as much joy as the Pepys diaries have given me, and that you’ll consider joining the time-travellers at Distributed Proofreaders on our journeys into the past.

This post was contributed by Linda Hamilton, General Manager of Distributed Proofreaders.


Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino

July 31, 2018
Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his wife Battista Sforza, by Piero della Francesca

So much praise has been heaped on Florence as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance that it is sometimes easy to forget that there were other glorious centers of art and literature outside of Tuscany. Urbino, a city in the Marche region of Italy, about 115 miles east of Florence, was one such example.

Urbino flourished most under the House of Montefeltro, which wrested control of the town from the Papacy in the 13th Century and eventually turned it into a dukedom. It reached its apex under the rule of Duke Federico III da Montefeltro (1422-1482), a true Renaissance man whose interest in the arts, and whose fortune, made Urbino into a mecca for culture.

One of the best accounts of Urbino’s legacy was written by a Scotsman, James Dennistoun of Dennistoun. His three-volume history, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, originally published in 1851, covers “the arms, arts and literature of Italy” during Urbino’s golden years, from 1440 to 1630. As the subtitle suggests, however, Dennistoun’s work is also a wide-ranging review of “arms, arts and literature” that extends beyond the borders of the duchy to great Renaissance works throughout Italy.

Dennistoun rightly lavishes a great deal of attention on Federico III, a devoted humanist whose court was well known for its atmosphere of learning. Federico formed one of the greatest manuscript libraries in Italy, employing the finest scribes and illuminators to hand-produce, on the highest-quality parchment, nearly a thousand bound manuscripts for his collection. (Movable-type printing was still an innovation in Europe at that time, but there were also some printed books in Federico’s original collection.) The Florentine librarian and bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who provided Federico with many of the original works for copying, and who supervised the binding of the final products, estimated that Federico spent more than 30,000 ducats on the library — over $5 million (USD) in today’s money. Later Dukes added many items to the collection over the next two centuries.

The Project Gutenberg e-book of the Memoirs is based on an enhanced edition published in 1909 and edited by Edward Hutton. In his Introduction, Hutton notes:

The book, which has long been almost unprocurable, is full, as it were, of a great leisure, crammed with all sorts of out-of-the-way learning and curious tales and adventures. Sometimes failing in art, and often we may think in judgment, Dennistoun never fails in this, that he is always interested in the people he writes of, interested in their quarrels and love affairs, their hair-breadth escapes and good fortunes…. Full of digressions, a little long-drawn-out, sometimes short-sighted, sometimes pedantic, it is written with a whole-hearted devotion to the truth and to the country which he loved.

Among the enhancements in the second edition of the Memoirs are numerous black-and-white photographs of Renaissance portraits, medals, paintings, sculptures, artifacts, and buildings, many taken by the famed Florentine photography house of Alinari. Hutton added his own footnotes expanding on, and occasionally correcting, Dennistoun’s text. And the first volume contains an interesting catalogue of the sale of Dennistoun’s own collection of Italian and other artworks after his death in 1855.

After over four centuries of rule by the Montefeltro and della Rovere families (with a brief stint under Cesare Borgia), the Duchy of Urbino fell back into papal hands in 1626. The great library Federico had founded was sold to the Vatican for a pittance in 1657, and it remains there today. But Urbino’s contributions to the “arms, arts and literature” of Italy, and to the Renaissance, are indelible. Through Dennistoun’s scholarly labor of love, we have a rich portrait of its former greatness.


The Great Fire in St. John

May 31, 2018

“James Turnbull … was about to rush into the cellar and tell him [his father] how near the fire was when he turned and beheld a dark shadow in the doorway. It was coming towards him, and for a moment struck terror into his soul. The tall figure of a woman, deeply robed in black, holding up a long train in her hand, and with head-dress all aflame, stood before him in the hall.”

This is one of the scenes in George Stewart’s The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877, a detailed description of the massive fire that for nine hours tore through the city destroying 1,612 buildings, killing 18 people, and leaving more than 13,000 people homeless. At the time, St. John was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in North America, with shipyards that were famous around the world.

Prince William Street

Prince William Street, St. John, before and after the fire.

Stewart lived through the fire. Indeed, he lost his home and his pharmacy business to the flames. His book about the fire and its aftermath was so popular that its sales allowed him to recoup all his losses.

After weeks of dry warm weather, St. John citizens welcomed the strong wind that arose on “Black Wednesday.” They soon had reason to fear it, however, when a small fire that started at McLaughlin’s boiler shop swept into neighbouring buildings. The author witnessed as “in a few minutes the fire spread with alarming rapidity, and houses went down as if a mine of powder had exploded and razed them…. The huge blazing brands were carried along in the air for miles around, and where-ever they dropped a house went down.” The fire roared through the city and into the harbour where the flames mounted the masts of the schooners, passing from ship to ship until it “formed a complete bridge of fire from the north wharf to the south. It was like a gala-day celebration of fire-works on a large scale.” Passengers on the Empress steamship that was entering the harbour were stunned by the sight of a city in flames and tortured by fears for their homes and children.

The book describes how people frantically carted their belongings to places they believed would be safe from the flames, only to discover that safety was only temporary — “Men had their stores burned at four and five o’clock, and their goods burned at seven and eight o’clock.” One woman hired a team to carry all her valuables to her mother-in-law’s house, only to have all her goods destroyed when her mother-in-law’s home burned to the ground two hours later, while her own home was spared from the fire.

People who strove to save what they could often found that they’d left the most valuable things behind. A woman, who asked her husband to cart away the bag that contained the family silver, discovered that he had rescued the rag bag instead. One man saved an old tub and dipper, and watched his valuable library and private papers succumb to the flames. Another man tried vainly to protect his house by standing on his roof with a pitcher and splashing water onto the flying sparks. He escaped, but the next day all that was left of his house was a pile of ash and his pitcher, still standing on the ledge of the tall chimney where he had left it.

There are many images of horror. I can still picture the flock of pigeons whirling into the flames and the cat who, “maddened and wild, cut off from all escape, dashed along, when the fire pursued her, and she stood still.” The author continues, “On Thursday morning she was still standing in the same place. Her frame only could be seen, with head up and tail erect.” He describes a little boy who could not be comforted: “O, pa, pa, come and see! God is burning up the world, and He won’t make another, and He won’t make another!” But the book also recounts many moments of heroism as the people of St. John worked together to save themselves and their city.

As well as describing the struggles and frequent heroism of the citizens and the terrible losses suffered, this account covers the aftermath of the fire, including detailed lists of donations received. There are also many beautiful woodcuts of the city and its buildings before and after the destruction.

The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877 is a masterpiece of its kind, giving us a first-hand account of how ordinary people endured, survived and recovered from a disaster that destroyed more than half of their city.

This post was contributed by Linda Hamilton, General Manager of Distributed Proofreaders.


April Fools

April 1, 2018

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Looking for a way to celebrate April Fool’s Day? Project Gutenberg has a few amusing works on pranks and hoaxes, thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders.

Bram Stoker, best known for Dracula, penned an entertaining volume on Famous Impostors. Here we find pretenders to various thrones, dabblers in magic and alchemy, witches and wizards, false claimants to great fortunes, and a number of celebrated hoaxes of bygone times.

One such hoax was the brainchild of professional practical joker Theodore Hook, who bragged of his exploits in The Choice Humorous Works, Ludicrous Adventures, Bons Mots, Puns, and Hoaxes of Theodore Hook. His most famous prank was the Berners Street Hoax. On a bet that he could make any house the most talked about in London, he ordered numerous goods and services to be delivered to an address in Berners Street, all in one day. Hook’s shenanigans are also cited in an essay by Irish writer Robert Lynd on “The Humour of Hoaxes” in The Book of This and That.

The American West in the 19th Century presented opportunities for get-rich-quick schemes that were often founded on swindles. Pioneer and adventurer Asbury Harpending tries to clear his “family name and reputation” in his account of The Great Diamond Hoax, a purported diamond field in California that had in fact been “salted” with cheap gems.

For those who like their pranks dramatized, there’s the one-act farce April Fools, part of an 1889 collection of plays “for Church, School and Parlor Exhibitions.” The plot is a bit reminiscent of Hook’s Berners Street Hoax:

Mr. Peter Dunnbrowne, a gentleman with several unmarried daughters on his hands, receives a note from Mr. John Smith proposing for his daughter Fanny. Presently Mr. James Smith calls, he having received a letter announcing that Mr. D’s mare Fanny is for sale, and an amusing dialogue at cross purposes ensues. This disposed of, Mr. Joseph Smith, an undertaker, calls, he having been notified that Miss Fanny had suddenly died, and another puzzle follows.

We won’t give away the “surprise” ending…

Of course, children love April Fool’s Day pranks, and there are several children’s books at PG with stories about them, including Fun and Frolic, The Last Penny, and A Flock of Girls and Boys.

It just goes to show that Project Gutenberg has something for every occasion — with over 56,000,000* e-books in its library, that’s no surprise.

*56,000. April Fool!


Songs of the West

March 1, 2018
Cornwall

Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall, by William Trost Richards (1902)

Collecting folk songs became almost a craze among 19th-Century musical scholars who were concerned that the old traditional country songs and dances were dying out. Some blamed it on the Industrial Revolution: As young people from rural areas flocked to the cities, and the cities ate up surrounding rural areas, folk traditions began to disappear. So the folklorists went out among the people to hear and write down the old songs.

They had to write them down. Sound recording was not yet possible, so the folklorists took down the melodies in musical notation. Some then took it upon themselves to enhance the melodies with piano accompaniment. And then, faced with what one might call the earthiness of some of the lyrics they heard, some folklorists took it upon themselves to rewrite the lyrics.

In Songs of the West, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould did just that. In the 1880s, he traveled throughout Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England to collect songs “from the mouths of the people,” as the subtitle proclaims. But Baring-Gould apparently felt that those mouths needed to be washed out with soap, so he provided his own words.

The Introduction makes no apology for this bowdlerizing:

In giving these songs to the public, we have been scrupulous to publish the airs precisely as noted down, choosing among the variants those which commended themselves to us as the soundest. But we have not been so careful with regard to the words. These are sometimes in a fragmentary condition, or are coarse, contain double entendres, or else are mere doggerel. Accordingly, we have re-written the songs wherever it was not possible to present them in their original form.

Given the tenor of the times, Baring-Gould had no choice. The original lyrics to song No. 45, “The Mole Catcher,” for example, which Baring-Gould described as “very gross,” are admittedly on the bawdy side. But despite the censorship, Songs of the West is a valuable and entertaining collection of music that, thanks to Baring-Gould’s devotion, preserves folk traditions that might otherwise have been completely lost. He enlisted the help of three other music scholars — the Rev. H. Fleetwood Sheppard, F.W. Bussell, and the eminent folklorist Cecil J. Sharp (aptly referred to in the book as “C. Sharp”) — to help him take down the tunes and to render the very fine piano accompaniments. The work contains 121 songs with detailed notes about their origins and the adjustments Baring-Gould and his co-authors made to them.

Baring-Gould was himself a Devon native, born in Exeter. His church career took him to Yorkshire for a time, where he wrote the well-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In 1881, he was able to return to Devon, where he found the time to produce numerous books and articles on various subjects, but Songs of the West was his masterwork. The Songs of the West website, run by Martin Graebe, author of As I Walked Out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the Search for the Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall, provides an excellent review of Baring-Gould’s work on the songs.

Project Gutenberg’s version of Songs of the West is based on the fifth edition of the book, as reprinted in 1913. The HTML version features MP3 audio files of all the songs, transcribed by a DP volunteer, so you can enjoy listening to them while viewing the music.


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