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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 227-249

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George E. Haggerty


Early in the 1920s, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, "Lefty" to his friends, began collecting material that would later grow to constitute the Lewis Walpole Library. Lewis, in his mid-twenties at the time, had a passion for collecting, and when he looked back on this time, he was honest about the welter of passions that inspires a collector such as himself: "Collectors like to think that nobler motives are involved in their own cases, such as love of learning and salvaging civilization," he wrote in his autobiography, "but when the instinct to collect is as strong as it was in Lefty it is nourished by surges from the unconscious. He loved books for what was in them and for what they could do for him, but he also loved books as books, as objects, and he wanted to own them: a library of his own would lead him, somehow, into a fuller life and even, who knew?" 1

Who knew, indeed, that these first parcels of papers Lewis bought from a London bookseller would grow to become one of the most astonishing collections ever amassed by a single individual? I think Lewis knew. He grew up in a prosperous family in Alameda, California. He was educated at the Thacher School and at Yale, and by his early twenties he had settled in Farmington with the intention of making a name for himself. At first he tried his hand as a novelist, but as he himself recalls, the novels were tepid productions that did little to change the landscape of postwar letters. For a while Lewis worked at Yale University Press and made occasional forays to Europe. Between browsing in London bookshops [End Page 227] and figuring out how to put his secure finances to the service of his tremendous energy, Lewis decided that he would collect books, and collect them seriously.

In a sense, Lewis sees himself as a born collector. Looking back on a life devoted to collecting the work of a single eighteenth-century author, Lewis reminisces about collecting butterflies as a child: "I can still feel my hot anxiety as a 'new' butterfly sailed into view, darted off over the warm summer fields, and finally came to rest, opening and closing its wings. This is what collecting is--the all but unbearable excitement when the longed-for quarry appears, the fierce and crafty pursuit, the cyanide bottle, the black pins, the cabinet, and one additional factor, the admiring and (supreme felicity) envious visitors" (61). 2 These almost fetishized elements of the collector's trade, in this case a lethal and almost diabolical process, suggest that the "hot anxiety" Lewis describes is a deeply physical, almost erotic response to the world around him. It begins to explain how he could do all that he did, and why he did it.

Given money, energy, and the world's booksellers as a lifetime of "summer fields," Lewis's only real challenge was to settle on an individual writer to collect: "'Here is all English literature spread out before me,' he thought with considerable exaggeration [after he had collected his first several dozen titles], 'and the truth is I don't want to collect any of it, but if I really got interested in one man I could go far with him'" (193). Lewis first got interested in Horace Walpole when he bought several Walpole letters at a London sale. One of those letters, addressed to John Pinkerton, the Scottish historian, and written on "July 31, at night, 1789," brought Horace Walpole to life. As he read more of Walpole, he "discovered that Walpole set out early to record as accurately as he could the history and manners of his time for us, posterity. He continued to do it until he died. Lefty was warmed by his desire to improve as well as to inform and amuse and by his sponsorship of underdogs" (201, 203).

This sense of appreciation of Walpole the eighteenth-century figure very quickly (and surprisingly) became transformed into a mode of identification...


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