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Coumans, Jos

Facsimile of the title page of the Columbus edition

It is a well-known fact that the Omar Khayyám craze or Omar Khayyám cult had its origins in the United States and from there it spread to the UK and the continent of Europe. The large number of editions and the countless reprints speak for themselves. In some cases there is evidence of the early days of this cult and how the readers became infested. A clear example of this process is the history of the Columbus edition (1870) of the Rubáiyát. Its story is captured in a number of letters, articles and introductory notes in other editions of the Rubáiyát, and though the edition itself is extremely rare, the documents that tell its story are still accessible today.

The name

In Potter’s bibliography of the Rubáiyát (1) the English and American editions have names which refer to either the publisher, the illustrator or the editor, or to other characteristics of the specific edition. FitzGerald’s first edition of 1859 is simply called First edition, the second of 1868 is named Second edition and so on. The Brangwyn edition refers to its illustrator, Frank Brangwyn, and in the same way we have Sullivan-, Pogány- and Dulac-editions.
However, the first bibliographical list of editions is found in the editions of the Rubáiyát by Thomas Mosher, in the 'Bibelot Series' edition which appeared in 1894. In this list we find that some editions already bear names, so it seems that this name giving tradition was started by Mosher. Bibliographical lists were also published in the later editions by Jessie Rittenhouse (1900), in which the tradition was continued.
Mosher published more than twenty editions of the Rubáiyát but it was not until the seventh printing of the 'Old World Series'- Rubáiyát in 1900 that we first encounter the Columbus edition. Here Mosher says in a footnote: "… dr. William August Brown of Boston has in his possession a privately printed pamphlet (said to have been limited to 100 copies) issued at Columbus, Ohio, in 1870!"
In the next reprint of this 'Old World Series'-edition, 1903, the Columbus Rubáiyát is listed as "The First (Printed) American Edition", with a minimum of bibliographic details. So it seems that it was A.G. Potter who rebaptized the edition to Columbus edition. In his bibliography it is item 198 and the name refers without doubt to the city where the edition was conceived: Columbus, Ohio (U.S.A.)

The beginning

In 1869 Charles Eliot Norton published his article (later to become famous) in the 'North American Review' (2), in which he reviewed the French translation of J.B. Nicolas (1867) and Edward FitzGerald’s (second) edition (1868). Norton compared the mystical interpretation of Mr. Nicolas with the hedonistic vision of "the English translator", (FitzGerald’s translations were published anonimously) and he quotes thirty-nine quatrains from Nicolas and seventy-six from FitzGerald. Apart from Norton's views it is fair to say that his article sowed the seeds of interest in Omar in the US, because he actually introduced Omar (3). The fact that he presented almost three quarters of the text must have played a decisive role.
Colonel James Watson, of Columbus, Ohio, was one of the readers whose interest was raised, and he discussed the matter with his literary friends. "The exquisite beauty of the lines as well as the depth of philosophy contained in the sentiments expressed captured the readers at once" (4). In a letter afterwards Watson described what happened to him when he had read Omar's verses: "… if I had been clambering over a field of boulders and had stumbled upon a diamond I could not have been more delighted than I was with the luminous wealth that blazed upon me" (5) and he continued: "Of course the thing to do was to get the entire poem if I could".

Watson commissioned his book seller in New York to get copies of the book and after a while a little booklet arrived, with a letter from Quaritch, the publisher, saying that this was the last copy in stock and that he has no idea whether or when a reprint will follow. The little book, which appeared to be the second edition of 1868, circulated among Watson's friends and in no time they learned the quatrains by heart. It now became obvious to the group of friends that there must be a copy of their own. Dick Nevins of the printing firm Nevins and Myers was prepared to do the job. He had the tools to approach the original as near as possible, including accent types. One hundred copies were printed and the type distributed and each of the group took as many copies of the book as he desired. Later on, Watson remembered to have lent his copy to a friend but it was never returned. Fortunately the foreman of the printing firm was able to recover the leaves of the Quaritch print from the waste basket. They were begrimed and blackened by the printer's fingers but once cleaned they were bound up together again.

By now news was spreading about this 'pirated' edition and it became an object itself for collectors. As we know there were familiar private undertakings such as the Quilter-edition, as the demand for copies could not be met by the production of regular presses. The Columbus edition however had become subject of the most impossible stories about its conception and as book collectors gathered on its trail its fame rose to almost mythical dimensions. Nevertheless it was clear that in producing a copy of one's own, no commercial intentions were involved nor any anticipation to a possible raise in value. Watson and his friends just followed the young American's way of getting what he wanted: if you can't buy it, make it yourself, as Alberry (6) puts it.

The book

At a meeting of the Omar Khayyám Club of America, probably in 1900, the Columbus edition was presented in a little exhibition among other curiosa. It was the first meeting of the Club, which was founded in the same year. Among the curiosa were the four original FitzGerald editions, the Quilter edition of 1883, the Grolier Club edition of 1885, and the Meigs miniature edition, by then the smallest printed book in the world. The Columbus edition however proved to be the "pièce de resistance" (7) of the occasion, since it was the first printed Omar in the USA.
In the Notes to his edition of the Rubaiyat (8), William August Brown relates how the Columbus edition was accomplished but the story raised even more interest among collectors who wanted more information about the book. In the May-June issue of The Book-Lover (1902) Mr. F.F.D. Alberry gave a more complete account and in his turn he asked his readers to provide information to trace the owners of a copy. As a result of his own inquiries, Alberry provided a list of fifteen names of owners. Among them illustrious names as Edward Heron-Allen, Nathan Haskell Dole and Alberry himself.
A picture of the editions that were exhibited at the meeting of the Club, can be found in "Twenty years of the Omar Khayyám Club of America" (1921). A facsimile of the title page is found in "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám", published by Mosher in 1892 (9).
As mentioned before, the intention was to reproduce the original Quaritch edition as near as possible. Nevertheless there are some differences, for example the size of the booklet. The Quaritch copy measures 16,2 x 20,9 cm., whereas the Columbus edition is 14,9 x 20,6 cm. A more important feature is that in the Columbus edition the publisher's name and date and place of publication were omitted, as well on the front cover as in the title page. Furthermore, there is a difference in size in the words ‘Omar Khayyám’ in the title.

Extremely rare

Despite its growing fame there is no mention of the Columbus edition in the 'Omar encyclopedia' of those days, i.e. the Multivariorum edition (10), edited by Nathan Haskell Dole and published for the first time in 1896. In this edition Dole documented nearly everything that has been written, published or said about the Rubáiyát until the present day. Dole, "perhaps the most ardent popularizer of Omar" (11) became the first president of the American Omar Khayyám Club, which was founded in 1900. As we have seen the Club organized a meeting that year and exhibited on the occasion a number of Rubáiyát editions, among which we may assume was the Columbus edition, although the account of the first meeting did not mention it in so many words. It just stated that he (Dole) displayed a copy of the first American edition (12).

It is obvious that a distinction must be made between the first printed and the first published American edition. The first printed edition is the Columbus edition whereas the first published edition was the so called Red Line edition. This edition was published in 1877 by the firm of James R. Osgood in Boston and it was taken from the third FitzGerald version. (Potter 200). We must keep in mind that the Columbus edition was not intended to be published, it was merely meant to serve the literary desires of a group of young Omar enthusiasts.
From Alberry’s list of owners of the Columbus edition we have learned that Dole was one of them. He must have purchased it, or to be more specific, he must have learned about it after completing his Multivariorum edition. Otherwise it is very difficult to explain why it is missing in the plentitude of titles that he presented.

The history of the Columbus edition was brought to attention again in 1959, when Carl J. Weber published his Centennial edition (12). According to Weber very few copies of the Columbus edition have survived. The copy owned by Alberry came into the possession of judge Willis Vickery and later in H. Bacon Collamore’s. Now it is in the Colby College Library, Waterville, Maine. It appears to be the only copy registered in an American library. The database record has the following note: "This is an excessively rare copy of the first American printing, privately issued at Columbus, Ohio, in 1870. Of the 100 copies printed, only four are known to have survived". A second copy was sold at auction in New York, probably in 1956 or 1957. An indication of its rarity may be the fact that it did not appear in the collection of Mr. Yarshater, a well-known orientalist, that was put on auction at Christie’s in 1999. Nevertheless, there will probably remain a number of copies in private hands, but all the same it is even more rare than FitzGerald’s first edition of 1859.


Because the Columbus edition, as we have seen, did not serve any commercial purpose and was only meant for private use, it can not be considered as an edition in the traditional meaning of the word. Therefore it is known as the first American printed edition. In one way however, we are dealing with a piracy: nor James Watson nor any of his friends had asked or received permission to reproduce the Quaritch book. Of course, the name of the translator was still unknown and when the book was commissioned from Quaritch there was no intention yet to reprint it. That plan occurred at a later stage. Still Watson must have felt a bit unsecure about the legitimacy of their undertaking as he sent a copy to the unknown translator in the care of Mr. Quaritch, with a letter of explanation and apology. Quaritch never acknowledged the receipt. Quaritch was well aware of piracies on the other side of the ocean, for when he discussed the issue of a new edition with FitzGerald, in 1878, he wrote in a letter that "insatiable American pirates reprint and misprint it 'ad libitum'" (14). FitzGerald was also aware of piracies and probably he was a little proud of it as well. One of his most famous quotations was: "I have not lived in vain if I have lived to be pirated!" as he told Quaritch with reference to an earlier piracy, i.e. the Madras edition of 1862.

In the next decades quite a few private Omars saw the light, in the USA as well as in the UK. Often it is hard to decide whether a 'privately printed edition' is a piracy or not. The story of the Columbus edition does not stand on its own and there were similar undertakings where enthusiastic readers had a small number of copies printed for private circulation only. We also should distinguish these editions from the 'private press' editions such as the Ashendene Press, Vale Press or Essex House Press, or other less important presses. In these productions the main feature is an artistic, aesthetic or idealistic point of view, where as the main purpose of the amateur prints was to provide a printed text to be read and enjoyed. These amateur editions were produced to feed the hungry hearts and minds of a growing number of admirers of Omar's poetry. As some of these editions themselves reached a certain status, as did the Columbus edition, they helped to spread Omar’s name and fame all over the land.

Jos Coumans


1. A bibliography of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám … by A.G. Potter. London, Ingpen and Grant, 1929
2. Les quatrains de Kheyám, traduits du Persan. North American Review. Vol. 59, nr. 225, October 1869. p. 565-584
3. The wine of wisdom. M. Aminrazavi. Oxford, Oneworld, 2005. p. 253. – The romance of the Rubaiyat. A.J. Arberry. London, Allen & Unwin, 1959, p. 26.
4. Communication in 'Ohio State Journal', January 21, 1900.
5. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám the Astronomer-poet of Persia. Edited by William August Brown. Riverside Press, 1900.
6. The famous Columbus edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. F.F.D. Alberry, In: The Book-Lover, nr. 12, May-June 1902, p. 97-99.
7. See note # 6.
8. See note # 5.
9. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám the astronomer-poet of Persia translated into English verse by Edward FitzGerald first printed by Bernard Quaritch London 1859 and now reproduced by photo-lithographic process in exact facsimile. Portland, Mosher, 1892
10. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. English, French and German translations comparatively arranged in accordance with the text of FitzGerald’s version … Edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. Boston, Joseph Knight Company, 1896
11. Mukhtar Ali Isani. The vogue of Omar Khayyám in America. In: Comparative literary studies, vol. 14, No. 3, 1977, p. 256-273
12. Twenty years of the Omar Khayyám Club of America. Rosemary Press, 1921
13. FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát. Centennial edition. Edited with an introduction and notes by Carl J. Weber … Waterville, Colby College Press, 1959
14. Bernard Quaritch and ‘My Omar’: the struggle for FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát. Arthur Freeman. In: The Book Collector, 1997. Special number for the 150th anniversary of Bernard Quaritch.