There is an image at the end of the glossy photo section in The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea E. Mays. It shows 82 copies of the First Folio — the first full collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623 — resting horizontally on thirteen shelves at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
This group, worth perhaps $100 million, represents more than a third of all the surviving First Folios known to exist, and each was purchased by Henry Folger during his intense four-decade-long career as a collector of all things Shakespeare.
But Folger never saw his collection of First Folios together in this way — or together in any way.
From 1889 until his death in 1930, Folger and Emily, his wife and collecting partner, never had their treasures on display. Their rented home in Brooklyn was filled with “books, books, books,” but not for show. The massive number of Shakespeare documents and other relics, purchased through lavish though prudent spending, ended up in crates in warehouses where no one — including the Folgers — ever saw them.
Thus, Henry Folger had never enjoyed the collector’s privilege of seeing all his books shelved together in one place [writes Mays]. His eyes had never danced from spine to spine, shelf to shelf, and case to case, beholding in one sweeping, exquisite moment the sum of what he had achieved.
During a six-month period in 1931-32, when the couple’s collection was being moved to the soon-to-open Folger Library, trucks gathered 2,109 crates from warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In those crates were 256,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts, 200 oil paintings, 50,000 watercolors, prints and photographs, dozens of sculptures and half a million playbills.
Mays makes the point that Folger was a very active collector working without a staff or librarian, personally deciding what to buy and not buy and examining even inexpensive items. Yet, could he have physically examined half a million playbills? Even opened the covers of 256,000 books?
Why hide the books?
So why did Folger and his wife hide away their books and other Shakespeareana? That’s the question at the heart of The Millionaire and the Bard, and Mays can’t quite answer it although, for the most part, it’s not her fault.
In wrestling with the nature of collecting, Mays offers a fascinating comment from philosopher and psychologist William James that most scholarship is rooted in the instinct to collect: “A man wishes a complete collection of information, wishes to know more about a subject than anyone else, much as another may wish to own more dollars or more early editions…than anybody else.”
Henry Folger, who, in his business career rose to be chairman of Standard Oil Company of New York, collected copies of the First Folio because it was Shakespeare’s “True Text,” the closest anyone could get to him. But what if he had learned of a script of one of the plays in the great man’s handwriting? He would have moved heaven and earth to get it.
An unsolved mystery
In a sense, that’s the position that Mays is in. Her book does a fine job of discussing how Folger went about acquiring his treasures and what those treasures were and why they are important in literary history. But that’s as close as she can get. What’s missing are all the “whys” relating to Folger, the equivalent of a Shakespeare diary offering a glimpse into his head and heart.
Why Shakespeare and not, say, Lincoln? Mays notes that Folger liked to keep copies of the plays with him to read in his spare time. But what was it he got from Shakespeare? And why gather all this treasure only to bury it away?
It seems clear that Folger never answered those questions either because of his deep need for privacy or because he just never considered them.
The result is that The Millionaire and the Bard is a really interesting book in what it tells the general reader about Shakespeare, the saving of his plays from oblivion, the market in rare books and the mechanics of collecting.
But at its heart is Folger, and, alas, he is an unsolved mystery.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review was originally published on 5.17.2015 in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune.