- Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger by Stephen H. Grant
Anyone who has visited the Folger Shakespeare Library surely knows that Henry Clay Folger and Emily Jordan Folger compiled the world’s foremost collection of works by and about William Shakespeare. It is also widely known that in the early twentieth century the Folgers obtained a prominent location near the U. S. Capitol on which to build their magnificent library—a library that has welcomed [End Page 229] scholars from the United States and abroad since the 1930s and has increasingly encouraged students and the general public to understand and appreciate Shakespeare and his times. Less well-known are why and how a childless couple from Brooklyn, New York, devoted their adult lives to acquiring so many valuable books and chose Washington, DC for the collection’s permanent home. This is the story that Stephen H. Grant tells in his thoroughly researched, comprehensive, lucid, and amply illustrated book.
The marriage of Henry and Emily was made in a Shakespeare collector’s heaven. Each had been introduced to Shakespeare in school and at home; each was further exposed to his writings in college (he at Amherst, she at Vassar); each was an almost compulsive keeper of records (mementos, invitations, ticket stubs); and each was driven to excel, as their college careers and later lives reveal. In some ways, Emily’s credentials for their joint enterprise exceeded Henry’s. Whereas he chose not to join his college’s Shakespeare Club and his formal education ended with graduation from law school, she apparently participated in Vassar’s comparable club, and she returned to Vassar a decade after their marriage to earn a master of arts degree in Shakespeare under the guidance of Philadelphia’s Horace Howard Furness, the indefatigable compiler of the first modern Variorum edition of Shakespeare’s plays. In absentia, Furness prescribed Emily’s course of study and approved her thesis on “The True Text of Shakespeare.” By then (1896), Henry had risen in Standard Oil Company’s hierarchy, and the couple had acquired an impressive collection of Shakespeare books and manuscripts. Their first notable purchase was a Fourth Folio in 1889 for slightly over $100; in 1897 they would purchase the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Collection for £10,000. Their most valuable items were kept in bank vaults and the rest in warehouses in Brooklyn and New York City, all of them inaccessible to researchers. Requests for special access were denied. A relative handful of volumes, not especially valuable, sat on the Folgers’ own bookshelves. Until the Folger Shakespeare Library opened its doors to readers in 1933, Henry and Emily were collectors, not lenders.
They were methodical as well as persistent in their acquisitions. Emily usually took the initial steps by reading bookseller and auction-house catalogs, keeping up on news of Shakespeare events—especially by culling numerous clipping service reports—and maintaining a list of desirable books. “Emily studied the catalogs first,” Grant informs us, “turning down the top corner of the page, then making a wavy line or inserting a penciled question mark by items that caught her eye. At the end of the day, she would greet her husband at the door with her ‘finds’” (109). Henry determined the price they were willing to pay and communicated, usually in cipher, with professional book buyers—some 600 during his buying years—such as the Americans Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach and George D. Smith and numerous agents for Quaritch’s of London. Henry also paid the bills, often borrowing from banks to meet down payments and sending the balances soon after. His credit and reputation were sterling, which partly explains why several of the buyers became personal friends. And often, as Grant explains in an intriguing compare-and-contrast chapter on Folger and Henry E. Huntington (“Hotspur and Hal: The Two Henrys Compete”), the premier American collectors of their day vied for many of the same [End Page 230] volumes at...