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Iron Mountain Press

Titles in the Rare Book Room Printed at the Iron Mountain Press by Dr. Robert Denham between 1975-1986.

The Iron Mountain Press - in the words of its founder, Dr. Robert Denham

"The Iron Mountain Press was born in 1975, in my ninth year of teaching at Emory & Henry College, when I purchased a late nineteenth-century Chandler & Price (8 x 12) letterpress, originally the property of the Roanoke, Virginia, public school system. This somewhat impulsive act seems to have come from a desire I had had for some years-a desire that I can trace back as least as far as my fondling the folio edition of the Works of Alexander Pope in the Rare Book Room of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The C&P came with a composing stick and a typecase, and in the latter I discovered an old U.S. Navy letterpress printing manual. That manual, with its very clear instructions on how to use a composing stick to set type, move it to the chase, tighten the quoins, ink and feed the press, became my teacher. The C&P also came with one font of 10-point Century Schoolbook type, and the first little chapbook I printed, Kathy Bingham's Nineteen Poems, was done with that single font. [In setting the first poem I ran out of a's and so had to go back and substitute ampersands for all of the "ands."] I eventually acquired a larger C&P press (10 x 15) and several hundred drawers of type, discovered in local print shops that had graduated to linotype or offset printing. I also bought the type that had been used by the Unicorn Press in Greensboro, N.C. (originally in Santa Barbara, Calif.), when Unicorn decided to move to  offset printing. This came toward the end of the ten years I devoted to my hobby, and so the desire to print on dampened paper using a Vandercook proof press, also acquired from Unicorn, was never fully realized. The Press was located in the basement of Byars Fine Arts Building at Emory & Henry, where it kept expanding from its original cramped quarters until  it had finally taken over three rooms. Printing certificates, flyers, and the like for the college was, I suppose, a kind of quid pro quo.

The Iron Mountain Press had no clear mission outside of the pleasure of trying to make something handsome, but in retrospect I see that it was devoted mostly to printing chapbooks and broadsides of poems written by friends, many of whom visited Emory & Henry. I was also eager to teach students how to print their own work and their literary magazine. A number of students did learn how to set type and feed the presses, and I eventually taught a course in "The History and Design of the Book." Few students, however, were able to sustain much interest in the process, mainly because letterpress printing is quite labor-intensive. The notable exception was Pam Shore, who loved to get her fingers inky and who, after graduation, stayed around for some months  to print several chapbooks  that I myself had promised to do for friends but had not gotten around to. Pam was a devoted worker: she eventually completed an M.A. in book arts from the University of Alabama, at which point, of course, she was able to teach her old teacher a great deal about how properly to print.

When the press was doing its best work, it did receive some recognition. One of the first reviews was by William Starr, who wrote in his column in The State (Columbia, SC): "The best designed and most attractive books seem to come from the small presses around the country .... We're fortunate in the South to have such presses as Palaemon Press in Winston­ Salem and Unicorn Press in Greensboro. And be sure to add Iron Mountain Press in Emory, Va., to the list. Several of the new books from Iron Mountain have reached my desk, and they fulfill every requirement for a  title to  be satisfying intellectually and aesthetically."  Starr's column continued with a review of Fred Chappell's Driftlake, Robert Morgan's Bronze Age, and Jeff Daniel Marion's Tight Lines. A few years later, one of the books that two of my students helped to typeset, Jonathan's Greene's  Idylls, did win a first prize award for softcover books in  the Windflower Press's Annual Book Design Award for Small Presses, and this chapbook was featured in the September/October 1984 issue of the magazine Small Press.

Letterpress printing for me was almost always a physical experience, combining the unconscious development of physical dexterity and the sensuous pleasure resulting from what Vico calls the verum factum. There was also perhaps an element of therapy in it: when I was printing I was released, at least momentarily, from having to think about grading papers and campus politics. Thumbing through the pages of Fine Print, the magazine (printed by letterpress) that featured the really excellent small presses around the country, I often had dreams of spending a summer as an apprentice of someone like Harry Duncan or Claire Van Vliet to learn how the real professionals did it. But that might have consumed me and moved the Iron Mountain Press away from what it always was, strictly an amateur venture. One engages in an amateur pursuit, by definition, for the love of it. As my mentor Wayne Booth writes, "The lives of all but the literally starving can be at least partly redeemed by the song of the amateur . The song sung by the hungry peasant, like the song lived by every genuine amateur, by every amateur gardener or painter or dancer or astronomer who is dwelling in the practice itself-that song should not be thought of as a mere argument that life is worthwhile: the loving act sings the very gift of life itself." I like to  think that as an amateur printer I sang a few verses of that song from the basement of Byars Hall for almost half of the years I spent in Emory.

I wish now that I had kept a record of all the things that were issued from the Iron Mountain Press from 1975 through 1986, when I left Emory Henry College  for  two years at  the Modern Language Association in New York. I was probably too  busy with other  things to keep a log-raising a family, teaching, writing my own books on Northrop Frye, chairing a department, building a house. But the lists that follow-of chapbooks and broadsides (what nice eighteenth-century spondees those are)-contain much of what came off the old  "clam-shell" presses during that decade of my life, so long ago now, when I tried to be a printer."

 
   
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