We have just bought the first collected American edition (AB.1.215.40-43) of Robert Burns’ poems. The four-volume set was published in Philadelphia in 1801. Philadelphia has lots of early associations with the poet: it’s the place where some of Burns’ poems first appeared in print in the USA, namely in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper between 1787 and 1788. And two editions of his famous Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect were also printed in the city in 1788 and 1798. All this is evidence of the interest in Burns among the American public, and of the influence of ex-pat Scots in what was then the USA’s printing and cultural centre.
The American edition contains an engraved frontispiece portrait of Burns in the first volume. It was done by the Philadelphia engraver Alexander Lawson based on the famous portrait of Burns by Alexander Nasmyth of 1787.The engraving also shows the typical Burns attributes: farm implements – a scythe and a rake along with a flourishing plant – on the left, and a set of pipes with a scroll, presumably with music, on the right.
The Philadelphia 1801 edition is almost a page for page reprint of the Liverpool edition of 1800. A native of Kirkpatrick Fleming in Dumfriesshire, Dr James Currie, had edited what was the first collected edition of Burns’ works while working as a physician in Liverpool. He had met Burns once in person. Currie’s work as an editor has long been criticised for its omissions and inaccuracies and also for his lengthy biography of Burns, in which his heavy drinking is mentioned. The idea of publishing Burns’ collected works was conceived by the friends of the dead poet as a ‘memorial to his genius’, and to raise funds for his widow and children.