Monday, April 23, 2007

Memoirs Extraordinary

In London, on April 23, 1841, the poet, author, journalist and editor, Charles Mackay (1814-1889), penned the preface to a book which, unbeknownst to him, would become the one publication of his fairly prolific output which would keep his name alive into the present age. Had he not written this book, he would have been but another forgotten author (though perhaps remembered as the father of Marie Corelli) who would be known only to book collectors and scholars, his titles listed in antiquarian booksellers' catalogues, and his volumes gathering dust in closed stacks of older library collections.

The book in question was first issued by Richard Bentley in 1841, with the title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (3 volumes). A new edition was issued in 1852 in 2 volumes by the National Illustrated Library with the ammended title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (though the spine titles could read Mackay's Popular Delusions which seems rather humourous today.) The American edition was issued in 1856 by G. Routledge in 2 volumes, and later issued in one volume in 1869 in their Routledge's Standard Library series and reprinted subsequently.

The book gained new life when in 1932, during the lowest period of the economic crash, L. C. Page issued a new edition through the influence of Bernard M. Baruch. It was just what people needed. To read of follies and delusions in past ages, and to see that recovery was possible. It is to Bernard M. Baruch that we owe its continuing success. In the foreword to the 1932 edition, Baruch concludes: "It is bound to produce a confirmed and vital conviction of the value and the invariability of the simpler axioms of human conduct and that, I take it, is, just now, a consummation devoutly to be wished." It was reprinted many times throughout the twentieth century and most recently by Harriman House.

It seems we are in constant need of being reminded of our human folly.

Mackay chose as the epigraph to the first edition the following words:
Il est bon de connaitre le delires de l'esprit humain. Chaque peuple a ses folies plus ou moins grossieres.

For the 1852 edition, Charles Mackay chose for the epigraph four lines from Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux (a favourite of Dryden) . The last two lines read:
Tous les hommes sont fous, et malgre tous leurs soins
Ne different entre eux que du plus ou du moins.

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