Harry A. Duncan, “considered the father of the post-World War II private-press movement”
(Newsweek, August 16, 1982), was born in 1916 in Keokuk, Iowa, to a fine furniture craftsman and a champion bridge player. He graduated from high school in Keokuk, and in 1938 he earned a degree
in English from Grinnell College in Iowa and was awarded a graduate assistantship to study English
at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Duncan spent the summer of 1938 writing poetry at The Cummington School for the Arts in Cummington, Massachusetts, where he returned the following two summers. During this time
the school’s president acquired an iron hand press and chose Duncan to begin a literary press.
The challenges and successes with printing and publishing at The Cummington School of the Arts led Duncan to abandon his studies at Duke before completing requirements for the master’s degree,
and he continued to print and publish for the rest of his life.
In 1944, along with artist and friend Paul Wightman Williams, Duncan printed The Land of Unlikeness, the first book of poetry by Robert Lowell. Books by William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens,
Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Marianne Moore, and others, followed. After World War II,
Duncan and Williams moved the press to Rowe, Massachusetts, where they operated
The Cummington Press as a nonprofit business independent from the art school. Dedicated to
literary publishing and fine printing, Duncan drove a school bus and taught while Williams mowed
the cemetery to meet basic financial needs.
Following the death of Williams in a car accident in 1956, Duncan accepted the position of director of the typographic laboratory at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism. For the next fifteen years, he taught typography, book design, and production, rising to the rank of professor. He also continued to print books under the Cummington imprint from his home in West Branch, Iowa, and in 1960 he married Nancy Kimmel, a teacher at the Scattergood Friends School there.
In 1972, Duncan was offered a position at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) that would reduce his teaching schedule and increase his publishing time. Because of his love of publishing, he accepted with enthusiasm, and he and his wife, actress and storyteller Nancy Duncan, and their three children, Barnaby, Lucy, and Guy, moved to Omaha. Duncan established Abattoir Editions at UNO, publishing mostly poetry while teaching printing and the history of the book until his retirement in 1985.
After retiring, Duncan continued printing and publishing at UNO under The Cummington Press imprint until his death. He died of pneumonia at his home in 1997 the day before his 81st birthday. News of his death was featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and memorial pieces appeared in specialty publications across the country.
In addition to the rich trove of books that he left us, Harry Duncan also imparted a passion for fine printing and literary publishing that many have worked to advance and preserve. Among his prolific and acclaimed protégés who have created remarkable bibliographies of their own are Juan Pascoe, who apprenticed to Harry in West Branch, Iowa, and continues to produce beautiful literary editions
by hand at his Taller Martín Pescador in Michoacán, Mexico; and Kim Merker (1932-2013), who studied with Harry in Iowa City, and created “some of the most beautiful books made in America in the late 20th century” (New York Times) under the imprints Stone Wall Press and Windhover Press in Iowa City.
According to Duncan's wife Nancy (as quoted in his New York Times obituary), Duncan's roots as a poet and writer informed his work and the philosophy behind it. “He believed that the book shouldn’t get in the way of the poetry; and it should act as a window to the word,” Nancy Duncan said. In 1999, two of Duncan’s books and two of Merker’s were among the 100 included in The Grolier Club’s exhibition
A Century for the Century: Fine Printed Books 1900-1999.
UNO’s Criss Library holds books, galley proofs, prints, drawings, engraved copper plates, carved wood blocks, cards, playbills, and other materials created by diverse authors and artists and printed by Harry Duncan.
Visit the UNO Archives and Special Collections for more information.
Image used with permission: UNO Photograph Collection, Archives & Special Collections, Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library, University of Nebraska at Omaha.