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  • Monday, March 11, 2019 - 5:15pm to 7:00pm

Class of 1978 Pavilion, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

We will be welcoming David McKnight for a talk entitled: “‘Headquarters of the Avant-Garde’: The Gotham Book Mart and the Making and Marketing of Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century.” David writes:

What do we mean when we talk about a “modernist bookstore”?  Its characteristics included, most importantly, a role as a distribution point for avant-garde books, art, and literary periodicals; as a venue for the sale of modernist works once deemed obscene, like James Joyce’s Ulyssesand Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, to be sold at the shop owner's own risk; as a salon where writers and artists could meet and exchange ideas; and as a site for independent and trade publishers to promote and launch new books and magazines. 

From its humble origins in Manhattan’s Theatre District, the Gotham Book Mart, under the direction of its founder, Frances Steloff (1887-1988), evolved into what was arguably the most important and recognizable modernist bookstore in the world. As a method of cultivating and creating a loyal customer base, Steloff invested heavily in advertising, in the regular publication of book sales lists, GBM Currents, and in the production of occasional special subject catalogs, like We Moderns (1940)--all now crucial documents of cultural-bibliographic memory.  And the Gotham Book Mart was a curated physical space notable for its eye-catching and sometimes disturbing window displays, its walls hung with the photographs of iconic modernist writers, its tables groaning with stacked copies of the latest issues of recent and current literary / little magazines and its dedicated modernist literature section.  

In this presentation, I will examine one of the Gotham Book Market’s central claims, that during the mid-twentieth century it was the very “Headquarters of the Avant-Garde.”

David McKnight is the Director of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and curator of the current Kislak Center exhibit, "Wise Men Fished Here: A Centennial Exhibition in Honor of the Gotham Book Mart, 1920-2020."  Prior to coming to Penn in 2006, McKnight was the Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and head of the Digital Collections Program in McGill University Libraries.  In April 2018, he curated the exhibition “Experiment: Printing the Canadian Imagination,” based on his comprehensive collection and archive of Canadian little magazine and small press imprints, which resides at the University of Alberta.

All are welcome! Those who do not hold University of Pennsylvania ID cards should bring another form of photo identification in order to enter the library building.