I thought about the book recently while reading a passage from Nicholas Basbanes' Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture; HarperCollins, 2001. The passage is found in the book's chapter titled, A Splendid Anachronism, page 199. Basbanes writes:
The first known usage of the word serendipity--its provenance in antiquarian terms--can be dated precisely to January 28, 1754. On that day, Horace Walpole, a prolific eighteenth-century author remembered mostly for the letters he posted to a wide range of interesting people, characterized an unexpectedly pleasant occurrence to one of his correspondents as typical "of that kind which I call Serendipity." Walpole cited his source for the coinage as The Three Princes of Serendip, an old Persian fairy tale in which the central characters are "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."A few years before the young King published his trip diary, my great-great-grandparents had also taken a trip to Europe, the letters and photos from which were recorded in booklet form by their four daughters, who presented it to their parents as a gift. The book centered on the trip, but also segued into family history and provided historical photos for illustration. It's truly a treasure in my family history archives.
One day, browsing around a bookcase of old books in an antique mall, King's book caught my eye. Why I picked it up, I can't say. The shelves were full of old books with similar spines and covers. But this one had something--maybe the envelopes depicted on the cover--that made me select it to look through. What I discovered right away were photos from the same ship my great-great-grandparents had sailed on--the S.S. Arabic, out of Charlestown, Massachusetts.
I had been immersed in family history research when I found the book, but I had not been looking for, or even remotely thinking about, finding books that had direct references to some aspect of my family's history. That I should stumble upon this book was pure serendipity. And now I had photographic images to apply to the written descriptions of the ship from my great-great-grandmother's letters. I could almost see her and my great-great-grandfather walking around on one of the ship's decks.
Aside from the family history connections, I found the book interesting because of the young man who wrote it and because of a letter laid in the book by, presumably another young man, across the country, who had read the book and been inspired enough to write the young author. King wrote back--the letter I found in the book--and was humbled by how far his little memoir had traveled.
If this book had no reference to an episode in my family history, I would have still purchased this book. I'm a sucker for old letters found in old books--tucked away and preserved for some future book hunter to extract from among the leaves. I also like first-hand accounts of travel or adventure from other times, long-ago enough that I can't relate to them in my world. That creates a new adventure for me.
King wrote from his school, Saint John's in Manilus, New York, as evidenced by the school's letterhead. He writes to a Mr. Pendexter in Austin about his astonishment over someone as far south as Texas reading his book. He then proudly reports that the first printing is sold out, most of the second printing is gone and a third is underway. And he must have really been beaming about the money he earned from it--a bit of financial serendipity for the young traveler/author. He provides the following sales figures in his letter: "I get $750 on the first edition or fifteen cents a copy and $1250 on the other editions." The next sentence belies what I presumed was a privileged status in life because of travel to Europe with his brother and father on vacation: "Every little bit helps and I need the money."
I found this old photo of the School King attended in Manlius, NY on a rootsweb site for Manlius. Looks like a place for the wealthier kids, but maybe he was barely able to get in and needed to earn money to stay.
I suspect Mr. King grew up in a well-to-do home with a certain amount of privilege, but you couldn't tell by the way he wrote. He seemed truly appreciative, if not humbled, by his opportunity to travel abroad, conveyed in his words at the beginning of the book:
"This is my first book. I have worked awfully hard to write it. It is the first time I ever tried to write a book and, of course, I do not know how well I have succeeded. It may be a terrible "frost" and then again it may "catch on." I hope it will "catch on." I lost a lot of fun writing it.King writes further that while he was recording the days' events in his diary, he never dreamed it would be published as a book. he wrote only to keep a promise to his father and because he thought it would be a good keepsake to look back on in later years.
I am proud of the pictures because they are good. That much of my book I feel sure will not be criticised very severely, because I had a good camera and everybody who has seen the pictures says that they are all right.
This book is the result of a promise I made to my father. He told me that if I would be good at school and catch up in my studies, and also if my brother Cabaniss was good and caught up in his studies, and I would agree to write a complete diary about my trip and write it every night, he would take me with him on his vacation to Europe. And so this book is the result."
And at least one other reader in Texas has enjoyed reading it, albeit more than a century later.