The Beginnings of the Dwiggins Biography and Legacy of the Stinehour Press
I’ve often cited Rocky Stinehour as the prime encourager for my writing the biography of W. A. Dwiggins. Back in 2003, while Rocky and I were sitting at his picnic table in Lunenburg, Vermont, I complained that Dwiggins’s life and work warranted at least one book. Why was it that there were several books about other artists, and yet none about Dwiggins? He said, “You should write that book. You’re the one who loves him.” Amazingly, that was all it took: once Rocky gave me a nudge, I set off on that long path.
Rocky has been an important friend and mentor for more than forty years, since I first met him in 1975. I have paid attention to what he valued, and to how he always lived his life to the fullest. He’s been a powerful guide for me over all these years, along with others who figure largely in my heart: my own father (architect Frank Kennett, Jr.), W. A. Dwiggins, Friedrich Neugebauer, Samuel Chamberlain (printmaker, photographer, and writer), and my two artist grandmothers (painter Elizabeth Roberts and pianist Etta Kennett).
Photo: Bruce Kennett (left) with Stephen Harvard (center) and Rocky, at the Press, 1986
When the Stinehour Press closed in 2008, the American Printing History Association asked me to write about the Press and what it meant to me. Here is that commentary:
Reflections on the Closing of the Stinehour Press
haec olim meminisse juvabit – Virgil, The Aeneid
(in time to come you will enjoy recalling these things)
I first read this quotation at the Stinehour Press in 1975, when David Godine took me to Lunenburg for a visit that proved to be one of the pivotal moments of my career. On that day, surrounded by the noises and smells and bustle of an active printing plant, I did not imagine a time when I would refer to the Stinehour Press in the past tense.
The closing of the plant is much larger than the release of several dozen highly experienced and sensitive employees into the depressed economy of the North Country. The closing is larger than the loss to the book community of one of its best printers. In my view, this event marks the end of a way of life that had its beginnings at the birth of printing and found its modern renewal over a century ago – an unbroken continuum that has flowed through the proofrooms and pressrooms of Merrymount, Anthoensen, Meriden Gravure, and Stinehour.
Throughout Rocky Stinehour’s distinguished career, he and his co-workers have lived the ideas and standards developed by Bruce Rogers, D. B. Updike, W. A. Dwiggins, Fred Anthoensen, Carl P. Rollins, Ray Nash, and others. In upholding the tradition of New England scholar-printers, they have fulfilled their responsibilities quietly and without fanfare, dedicated to accuracy, beauty, appropriateness, timeliness, and practicality in what they produced. To this tradition, Rocky also added his particular qualities of integrity, gentleness and respect.
The spirit that inhabited this place for the past 55 years was not that of one person alone. Here was a small band of like-minded neighbors who worked together to do common things uncommonly well, functioning in the manner of a well-rehearsed orchestra. Rocky may have held the baton, but it was everyone together who made the music. Rocky cared deeply about the business side of printing and not just the art, understanding that this enabled the employees and their families to eat every week, and without this stability, the Press could not carry out its important work.
The unity of spirit of the Stinehour Press is what I see as our greatest loss: it lived the principle that a closely knit group could create an entire book from design through binding. Co-workers gathered at the picnic table, or up in the library, weighing subtle differences, planning improvements, experimenting to find exactly the right touch, engaged in the crafting of a book whose physical properties would best serve its content.
In addition to making books for its distinguished list of publishers, museums, and other clients, the Press published the journal Printing and Graphic Arts from 1953–1965, edited by Nash, Stinehour, and Rollo Silver. As well, Stinehour served as an incubator for many who went on to do important work elsewhere: Chris Burkett, Stephen Harvard, Lance Hidy, Sinclair Hitchings, Katy Homans, Darrell Hyder, Jerry Kelly, and Mark McCorison, to name only a few.
As I view the closing of Stinehour through the lens of the current moment, with its extreme specialization and the flinging of digital files around the planet, I feel the loss of something essentially human . . . a spirit that acted as thoughtful shepherd of the merely technical.
In 1977, when the Meriden Gravure Company in Connecticut was unable to continue on its own, Rocky undertook extraordinary measures to preserve it by merging the souls and hardware of the two organizations. This was an heroic act of preservation, and a deed that I wish had been repeated by someone else in 2008.
Ownership of the Press went out of the Stinehour family in 1998, to an Irish conglomerate that claimed it would modernize the plant, and then back into the hands of a group of local investors in 2001. For the past few years the new owners have dedicated themselves to extending the life of the Press, but they do not possess resources of the magnitude needed to keep the company’s prices competitive. As head investor Warren Bingham observed recently, “These are not good times for American manufacturers. I hope we know the full cost of what we’re buying as a society. When lowest cost is always the determining factor, it might be higher than we think.”
New England tradition holds that the Abenaki had one tribe member whose job was to preserve fire when the band was traveling. In the morning, as camp broke up, he would select one perfect coal from the fire and bed it in a quahog shell filled with ash. Its edges sealed with mud, that shell – and the tribe member – would keep the ember safe all day on the long walk through the forest. In the evening, the fire keeper would carefully unpack the coal, set it into a pile of tinder and kindling, and blow the fire back to life.
For those of us who feel the impact of this event, who understand the meaning of Stinehour and it antecedents, this is the moment for us to become fire keepers. Not just in our own work, but perhaps even more importantly, as the teachers of newcomers – helping them to appreciate the quiet and sensible traditions of the scholar-printer, the importance of craft, of thoughtfulness and patience. Of not settling for what is expedient, cheap and acceptable.
. . . haec olim meminisse juvabit. In Virgil’s story, Aeneas is giving encouragement to his men as they prepare for the difficult voyage to Italy. To all of you who read this, I would ask that you do more than contemplate pleasant memories of Stinehour. This is the moment for us to invest the spirit of Stinehour within ourselves, and to pass it on with conscious effort, so that it may remain alive in future generations.
Rocky Stinehour in early 2016. (Photo by Stephen Stinehour)