Charity-shops are a great way of getting to know weird literature. I am not getting baffled anymore by finding treatises on the phrenology of Jews and Arabs and books about communist folk art. But on one of my visits I did become baffled by the Dutch translation of a book called The Prince of the House of David by a certain Reverend Professor Ingraham. How come?
Well, the book promises to contain the letters that a certain Adina wrote to her father, the wealthy Jewish merchant Manasseh Benjamin. Time and place of action? Jerusalem, approximately 34 A.D. The introduction to the translation promises to give a “complete description of the life of Jesus during the time of his wanderings on earth”.1 Immediately some thoughts started flashing through my mind. Why is this seemingly important document not known to the public? Did I stumble on a scripture that is suppressed by the kind of aggressive Jesuits that star in Dan Brown’s work? It would be a very exciting journey to find out the truth about this book. But this blog is no new Da Vinci Code, it is a journey to the life an eccentric man of the cloth in 19th century Mississippi and a Dutch publisher keen on marketing.
A look at the American edition of Ingraham’s book immediately reveals that it is a work of fiction. In the American introduction it is stated about the letters that “It was the editors hope that in writing them, to tempt the daughters of Israel to read what he wrote, and receive and be convinced about the proofs and arguments of the divinity of Christ”.2 Honest about the text being fiction, but also quite ambitious. To understand the motivations of Ingraham it is worthwhile to take a look at 19th century religion.
In 1835 the German philosopher David Friedrich Strauss published his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet and caused quite an uproar with it. Strauss stated that “it is about time to substitute the antiquated supernatural view of the history of Jesus Christ with a new view”.3 German philosophers are notorious for being unreadable and so is Strauss, but despite its rigid language the book caused a revolution. Strauss stated that the Bible is above all a piece of literature and that it should be read and analysed that way. By scrutinizing the ancient texts Strauss had concluded that the early Christians had retold the story of Jesus of Nazareth whilst borrowing themes from the Old Testament and using symbolism and allegory to make their story more credible. In short: Strauss stated that the Bible was not the word of God for which it was taken. And the train did not stop there, as a stream of critical studies about the Bible followed in the wake of Strauss.
The Protestant world, in which the Bible as the word of God is a fundamental conviction, reacted with an unexpected weapon: scientific rigour. Protestant Christians had never been keen on the Catholic tradition of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but now entire expeditions were sent to the Holy Land leaving no stone unturned to collect physical evidence to prove that every passage in the Bible happened for real.4
In the wake of these expeditions, groups of protestant tourists travelled to the Holy Land to convince themselves of the truth of the Bible. Thanks to a young reporter that accompanied one of these groups in 1869, we can still get an insight into one of these journeys. That the young reporters name was Mark Twain makes the report a bit partial but no less readable:
Every Rivulet that gurgles out of the rocks and sands of this part of the world is dubbed with the tithe of fountain and people familiar with the Hudson, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi fall into ramparts of admiration. If all the poetry and nonsense that has been discharged upon these “fountains” were collected, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.5
Mark Twain keenly observed that the Holy Land was not only big business for the freshly developing tourist industry, but also for writers of what he called “nonsense”. And one of these writers was our reverend professor Joseph Holt Ingraham. Born in 1809 as the son of a shipbuilder, it is uncertain if he even finished grade-school. What is certain, however, is that he never finished his law studies even though he managed to teach for a while at Jefferson College in Washington Mississippi. It was from this position that he derived the title of professor, although it is again uncertain if he truly deserved this title. In 1851 he started a career as a man of the cloth in the American Episcopal Church by which he most certainly earned the title of reverend. In the meantime, Joseph Holt Ingraham developed himself into a fiction factory.6 The Bibliography of American Literature plainly admits that the man wrote so rapidly that it is impossible to keep track of all the works written.7 His oeuvre consists of a wide range of exotic topics like The Burglar Captain and Vert-Vert, the Parrot and three books with a Biblical topic of which The Prince of the House of David is the most prominent.8
Regarding this immense productivity one must respect the inventiveness of Ingraham. His work is abundant with detail. Where in the Bible the cause of death of Lazarus stays unclear, our heroin Adina knows a lot more about it:
You must have already been informed by me about how rapidly Lazarus failed after his sudden attack of haemorrhage (sic.) to the chest, and that he soon died; and in hopes that he might avert death Jesus was sent for at the first to come to him.9
There are about 500 pages that complement the Bible with this kind of abundant detail. In the Dutch translation we also learn that John the Baptist looks like a Caucasian warrior and that Pontius Pilate’s physiognomy is showing clear signs of abundant wine consumption.10 But the Dutch edition appeared twenty years later than the American edition and is significantly shorter. What happened?
Well, in 1861 Joseph Holt for whatever reason took a loaded gun from a chest in his church and accidentally shot himself.11 His son Prentiss Ingraham took over his vast literary heritage and started to market revised editions of his father’s work. This included the titles that Prentiss irreverently called “Biblical Dime Novels”12 In 1869 a certain publisher in Rotterdam named D. Bolle realised that the Holy Land was a possible seller in the predominantly protestant Netherlands. He published a Dutch edition of The Prince of the House of David that was shortened and revised by Prentiss. As a publisher, Bolle was very active in buying up publishing rights of titles that were cheap to get.13 He was a keen salesman and his catalogue provided in hundreds of titles a year. Bolle sent entrepreneurs door to door to sell copies of his books, frustrating keepers of bookstores all over the country.14 In advertisements The Prince of the House of David was promoted by saying that the works of professor Ingraham “always leave a lasting impression in every human heart”. Of course these advertisements did not forget to mention that the titles were also available by mail-order.15
Being a keen marketer, Bolle left out the original introduction where the book is described as a work of fiction. Instead there is a new introduction that introduces Adina as a historical person. Robert Langdon would not have taken very long to solve this riddle, and neither did I. But if Ingraham and Bolle would know that they would manage to shortly baffle someone in 2014, they probably would be very proud of themselves. We can conclude that a trip to the charity-shop or any bookstore can take you to quite wondrous places.
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You may also like:
J.H.Ingraham, Een prins uit het huis van David (Dutch Edition, Rotterdam 1869) frontispiece ↩
J.H.Ingraham, A Prince from the House of David (American Edition, New York 1846) p.1 ↩
D.F Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, (Tübingen 1835), page 1, translation from German by the author. ↩
J.de Hond, Verlangen naar het Oosten. Oriëntalisme in de Nederlandse cultuur (Leiden 2008) 33-35 ↩
M.Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869, New York 1966) 379 ↩
The Cambridge History of American Literature Volume II 1820-1865 (London 1995) 71 ↩
Bibliography of American Literature Volume IV. Nathaniel Hawthorne to Joseph Holt Ingraham (New Haven and London 1963) 459 ↩
http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/ingraham_joseph.html, last seen 6th of may 2014 ↩
J.H.Ingraham, A prince from the house of David (American Edition, New York 1846) 289 ↩
J.H Ingraham, Een prins uit het huis van David (Dutch Edition, Rotterdam 1869) 37 and 21 ↩
http://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/ingraham_joseph.html, last seen 6th of may 2014 ↩
H. van der Laan, Het Groninger Boekbedrijf. Drukkers, uitgevers en boekhandelaren in Groningen tot het einde van de negentiende eeuw (Assen 2005) 249 ↩
I found several examples in a broad variety of regional and national newspapers from 1869 to 1900, this citation is from the “Middelburgsche Courant” of the 9th of May 1898. ↩