L'HISTOIRE DE L'IMPORTANTE
The year 2006 saw the rebirth of a venerable publishing cooperative, the imprint of Vitally Important.
Begun in 1692, the press was started by Josiah Smollet, late of London, who had sought refuge from religious persecution by emigrating to the New World. In the bowels of a rickety ship bound for the Cape of Good Hope, Smollet played dice with a Turk named Marduk, being shipped to Boston to perform stable duties for a wealthy landowner. Smollet convinced Marduk to join him in starting a free press after offering a 4 shilling down payment for future services rendered.
conception of Josiah Smollet,
1701 or thereabouts
Arriving in Boston, Smollet thought he would be free to pursue his convictions. Yet this was not the case. Though the Puritans had been victims of intolerance themselves, their narrow-minded Calvinism tolerated no dissent. Rather than bow to religious dogma, Josiah - with Marduk in tow -- traveled underground to Philadelphia, where he used the last of his savings to purchase a second hand wooden press from a man who claimed to be Benjamin Franklin, although this was later proven untrue.
Smollet began by producing a number of spiritual & practical broadsheets aimed at his colonial audience, including almanacs, collected practical wisdoms, and the occasional (and often spurious) news report. Marduk acted as his editorial assistant and proofreader, despite misgivings about the Turk's command of the English language.
Within a year, the imprint gained traction with the burgeoning colonial free thinkers who were hungry for news, ideas, and sensible advice. Smollet championed the unknown writers and artists of his day, those who could not find acceptance from the major publishers. For instance, he was the first to distribute the works of Viastes Moniere, Shad Durnick, Jonathan deGere, and the political cartoonist known simply as "Stidge".
If there was a major criticism of Smollet's enterprise, it was that he vascillated between fact and fiction, blurring the line to the point where it wasn't visible without a strong magnifying glass. Smollet understood his publications weren't for everyone, and so published in limited editions that could number as little as 10 or as many as 1000, depending on whether it was a holiday or not.
During late nights setting hot type on a second-hand Gutenberg press, Smollet would imbibe several cups of the strong coffee Marduk would prepare in traditional Turkish fashion. Late in the evening, as energy lagged and nerves frayed, Smollet and Marduk would reinvigorate themselves by spinning around the press, arms akimbo. This "Dance of the Dervish" --designed to propel the participants between the material and cosmic worlds -- helped Smollet maintain his perspective as deadlines approached.
So indebted was Smollet to his servant Marduk that, starting in the year 1700, he marked his works with a glyph honoring the servant's unusual devotion to the craft of printing and extraordinary sense of proportion.
Marduk: faithful companion, proofreader
and coffee maker
In 1702, the offices and printing press of Vitally Important were destroyed by a fire that ravaged Elbow Lane. It was assumed that the fire was set by arch conservatives who took offense at Smollet's blurring of fact, fiction, religious discourse, and spotty weather predictions, but no investigation was forthcoming. Smollet and Marduk were forced to flee Philadelphia and settled, under assumed names, in the town of Turk's Head -- later called West Chester - 30 odd miles outside of Philadelphia.
Penniless and no longer with a printing press to call their own, Smollett and Marduk were forced to work a succession of jobs, including pig herders at a sausage mill, stone masons for the Diggery Snookes Fence Company, and busboys at the Turk's Head Tavern, where they were given room and board above the public house in exchange for their labor.
The death of Josiah Smollet is assumed to have occurred in 1717, Marduk two years later. Their bodies were laid to rest in Marshall Square, later exhumed to make way for condominiums and public park. Yet the story of this brave pair continued to be passed around the periphery of Chester County until this day.
Some 300-odd years later, in honor of Smollet and his faithful companion Marduk, Joseph Smollet, a ninth generation descendant of Josiah, is proud to bring the Vitally Important imprint back to the center of American cultural and philosophical life, at a time when it could not be more essential to the well-being of our fellow humans.