He was not of an age, but for all time

September 23, 2015 at 10:52 pm (Asides) (, , , , )

He was not of an age, but for all time.

This famous line is buried deep in Ben Jonson’s effusive eulogy to Shakespeare that appeared in the 1623 First Folio preliminaries (the stuff before the plays). It’s also the inscription that author Andrea Mays wrote in my copy of The Millionaire and the Bard. I was so excited to see Andrea speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival last spring and I really enjoyed her book. It’s the story of Standard Oil executive Henry Folger’s obsessive accumulation of (82!) copies of the First Folio. (233 of the 750 First Folios printed in 1623 are known to survive; over a third of them are at the Folger Shakespeare Library.)

He was not of an age, but for all time.

"Henry Clay Folger (Salisbury, 1927)" by Frank O. Salisbury - Folger Shakespare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/z3x1l1. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Clay_Folger_(Salisbury,_1927).jpg#/media/File:Henry_Clay_Folger_(Salisbury,_1927).jpg

“Henry Clay Folger (Salisbury, 1927)” by Frank O. Salisbury – Folger Shakespare Library Digital Image Collection 

The more I thought about it, the more I thought the inscription applied to Henry Folger himself. Through his philanthropy, he turned his (really quite bizarre) hobby into a wonderful cultural legacy… he created (with the exceptionally anal attention to detail that seemed to be his trademark) and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

So, who was he? Folger was born into an old New England family with Nantucket roots. His uncle founded Folger’s coffee. He was frugal with money from his youth, scrappy at working his way through Amherst and Columbia Law, and then lucky at making friends with Charles Pratt, getting hired in Pratt’s family business which later became part of Standard Oil in the 1880s. Henry was great at his job and caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller. Woot! Pay day!

He was not of an age, but for all time.

So, did he do what most do when they hit it big? Nah. He and his wife Emily continued living their comfortable, but frugal lives. This left plenty o’ cash to indulge their passion for buying Shakespeareana. First Folios were the ultimate obsession, but really, they were (in)discriminate purchasers of all things Shakespeare-ish — playbills, costumes, snuff boxes, tchotchkes made out of the mulberry wood from a Stratfordian tree, I even saw some little Shakepeare-y ducks when I visited a few years ago. They were insatiable accumulators of Bardian stuff. And then Elizabethan/Jacobean stuff. They couldn’t be stopped.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

Why did they collect? Henry was a hoarder, let’s face facts. He had a problem. He never got rid of a book in his life, kept all the theater tickets, had lots of scrapbooks, you know what I’m saying. He started loving Shakespeare in college and developed a taste for buying old books before he could really afford them. They were two great tastes that tasted great together to him: Shakespeare and collecting. This became the lifelong focus for his obsessive hoarding as money flowed into his pockets and out to the numerous international book dealers he became friendly with.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

"Emily Jordan Folger (Salisbury, 1927)" by Frank O. Salisbury - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

“Emily Jordan Folger (Salisbury, 1927)” by Frank O. Salisbury – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

Emily was a willing and worthy partner in crime. She had an MA from Vassar with her thesis entitled, “The True Text of Shakespeare.” She loved Shakespeare as much as Henry, and while he worked long hours at the Manhattan offices of Standard Oil, she pored over book seller catalogs at their rented townhouse in Bed-Stuy, picking out the treasures they should bid on. She didn’t stop there. While Henry was the shrewd negotiator, tight with a penny (at least until The One That Got Away*), Emily was the cataloger — they didn’t work with a librarian. Emily’s thesis gives a hint, perhaps, to one of the reasons they collected so many First Folios. They had an idea that comparing the textual discrepancies between the First Folios might enlighten scholars as to Shakespeare’s true text for the plays… an idea that did not pan out.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

In any event, the Folger Shakespeare Library is not just Henry’s legacy, but a product of the pair — a real labor of love. I like thinking about the two of them sharing this hobby, enjoying it together, searching for these long lost books, many sitting collecting dust for centuries in country houses in England. I picture Emily and Henry relishing the hunt and lovingly unwrapping the trophies as they were shipped over the pond. For decades, they pretty single-handedly (double-handedly?) denuded England of these cultural treasures… in secret! Henry was publicity shy, partly because he was cheap and thought it would drive up prices if anyone knew he was on the hunt and partly because he was just shy. By the time they became known as collectors, they’d already acquired so much.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

Oddly… really oddly, Henry and Emily unpacked the shipments, meticulously recorded them, and then… packed them back up and put them in storage. Their townhouse was too small, so they rented many storage units. Most of their stuff was never seen again until it was unpacked at the Folger Shakespeare Library during the Depression. So odd. They collected, but not really for themselves. They enjoyed the hunt; but they collected all these treasures “for all time” — to create a library for others to use. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington houses their First Folios and other treasures (much of the collection is stored in basement vaults) and makes them available to readers… scholars for whom this collection is an amazing peek into early modern English literature, theater, art, culture, and history. The public rooms at the Folger are beautiful, they offer wonderful educational programming and lovely live performances. The Folger is a real gem in the city of Washington, a city full of cultural gems.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

And the library exists solely because of the Folgers’ lifelong pursuit of these items that perhaps should rightfully have stayed in England. Still, I won’t complain. They achieved something very special with the Folger Shakespeare Library. They planned every detail of the library, and they made sure the endowment to Amherst was large enough to sustain it… no small feat during the Depression, when it opened. Today, it is still a thriving institution. And Henry and Emily are there to watch over it for all time… their ashes are right there in the library’s Old Reading Room. RIP

*I’ll write about The One That Got Away soon.

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