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Stephen Greenblatt '64 book review

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio, by Andrea E. Mays

A book review by Stephen Greenblatt '64

The New York Times Sunday Book Review

May 22, 2015

Henry Folger, 1910

“The Millionaire and the Bard,” by Andrea Mays, is an American love story. It is the engaging chronicle of a sober, hard-working, respectably married industrialist of the Gilded Age who became obsessed with the object of his desire. Though generally frugal and self-­disciplined, he was willing to pay extraordinary sums in order to put his hands on his mistress, to gaze at her lovingly and longingly, to caress her. To possess her only once was not enough for him; he craved the experience again and again, without limit.

To the lover’s dismay, this mistress was promiscuous; she would give herself to the highest bidder. And though in the course of his career he became fabulously wealthy, he had rivals, some of whom were equally obsessed and a few of whom were even wealthier than he. But that only intensified his desire. He hired confidential agents; he wired money into private bank accounts; he wrote pleading letters; he devised cunning strategies. Perhaps his most cunning strategy was to initiate his wife into his obsession, so that the pursuit became their shared endeavor. Childless, they lived modestly in a rented house in Brooklyn, while they poured out vast riches in order to get their hands on what they had both come to crave. And each time they succeeded, they locked the beloved away in a vault.

I am, as readers have probably surmised, speaking of the peculiar passion of book collecting. The lover in question was Henry Clay Folger, who made his fortune as one of the presidents and, by 1923, the Chairman of the Board of Standard Oil of New York. And the beloved, which he pursued with unflagging ardor, was a single book: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies. Printed in London in 1623, seven years after the author’s death, it is the book known to all lovers of Shakespeare simply as the First Folio.

There are many beautiful books in the world. The contemporary British collector Alfred Henry Huth, who possessed a First Folio that Folger coveted, also owned a ravishing Book of Hours illuminated in the late 15th century by the Flemish master Simon Marmion. Fashioned from the creamiest of vellum — parchment made from the skins of calves, in this case probably stillborn calves, whose skins were the smoothest and whitest of all — the luminous, one-of-a-kind Huth Hours looks like a possession fit for a prince of exquisite taste and limitless wealth.

The First Folio was for its time an expensive book; at the price of £1 for the unbound pages and more for the binding, it would have been a serious purchase, even for someone of means. But, like the house in Stratford that the successful playwright bought for himself, it was substantial and handsome rather than palatial. And it was precisely not one-of-a-kind. The volume opens with a flowery dedicatory letter to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and his brother, Philip, the Earl of Montgomery. But the printer, William Jaggard, was hardly counting on their aristocratic largess to defray his costs. He decided to make 750 copies.

Jaggard was no fool. At more than 900 pages in length, the book was a significant capital venture. Too few copies, and the price would have to be astronomical in order for him to make a profit; too many, and he might well be stuck for years with an unsold inventory. This was no Bible, with a guaranteed market. Shakespeare was a known quantity, but his plays had been hitherto sold in small-format quartos, the equivalent of cheap paperbacks. The printer was gambling that the time was right to market an edition of the collected works, presented not as ephemeral popular entertainment but as serious literature fit, as Ben Jonson wrote in his dedicatory poem, to be compared with the achievements of “thund’ring Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.”

Fully half of the plays in the First Folio had never before been printed. And herein lies its importance and glory, the underlying source of Folger’s obsession and the reason that anyone who cares about literature is in its debt. The volume’s two editors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, were Shakespeare’s friends, fellow actors, and members of his theater company. Hunting down the best copies they could find, they paid for the necessary permissions and brought together the whole of his theatrical achievement. They were not perfect: failing perhaps to obtain the rights, they missed out on the jointly written “Pericles,” “Two Noble Kinsmen,” and “Cardenio,” along with several other plays in which Shakespeare may have had a hand. But if it had not been for their editorial labors, the world might never have known such masterpieces as “Julius Caesar,”  “Twelfth Night,”  “Macbeth,”  “Antony and Cleopatra,”  “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest.”

There was every reason, then, for book collectors to prize the First Folio, particularly after the 18th century, when Shakespeare’s reputation surged far ahead of his rivals and the public began to crave as holy relics any traces of his existence. The First Folio is by far the greatest of these traces, and its fascination is enhanced by the fact that the printing-house practice in Jaggard’s time — a kind of rolling proofreading and corrections process — meant that each copy is in small but significant ways unique.

By the time Henry Folger came on the scene, in the late 19th century, some two-thirds of Jaggard’s original print run had vanished, thoughtlessly discarded, burned up, or otherwise consumed by the teeth of time. Many of the surviving copies were damaged. But that still left a large playing field, and as Folger’s wealth steadily increased, he made himself an ever more significant player.

Andrea Mays is a professor of economics, and the great strength of her book is an unflagging interest in exactly how Folger played the game. We do not in the end know more from her about the origins and meaning of his passion than we learn in the first pages. The Folio was simply the great white whale in pursuit of which he dedicated whatever time he could carve out of running Standard Oil and playing golf with John D. Rockefeller. But we do read how Folger managed to acquire an inferior copy for $220 in 1903 and how, in that same year, he paid an unprecedented $48,732.50 for another, far superior copy. Mays’s riveting chronicle of that purchase — the so-called Vincent/Sibthorp Folio — is the centerpiece of her book, as it was the triumphant centerpiece of Folger’s whole career as a collector.

In the end, Folger managed to acquire more than 80 First Folios, an astonishing number, far more than any other collector and more than remained in the whole of the British Isles. To these he added many other related acquisitions, including rare Shakespeare quartos and a vast collection of playbills and theater memorabilia. During his lifetime this hoard remained shut up in safe storage, a monument to the informed acquisitiveness of a very rich man. But in his last years he began to plan a great research library, centered around his collection. He considered Amherst, where he had gone to college, as well as Nantucket, but rejected both, presumably as too remote. He thought about New York, but the real-estate prices discouraged even him. In the end the Folgers settled on Washington, D.C. He did not live to see the splendid finished building — he died in June 1930, just shy of his 73rd birthday — but the Folger Shakespeare Library, located opposite the Library of Congress and a block from the Capitol, is today the world’s premier research institution for the study of England’s greatest playwright. Rarely has a mad passion brought forth such a splendid and enduring fruit.

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. His book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.