Henry and Emily Folger had a magnificent obsession. They spent a life of virtually indiscriminate acquisitiveness compiling the largest collection of Shakespeare manuscripts and associated arcana in the world—and then gave all that they had acquired to the American nation, wrapped in the handsome library, museum, and theater that bear their name on Capitol Hill in Washington.

When one looks at the ways in which latter-day tycoons direct their disposable income and extracurricular hours, the lives of Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) and Emily Jordan Folger (1858-1936) offer a sweetly bizarre contrast. Though Henry rose to become president and then chairman of Socony, a division of Standard Oil, and was a self-taught expert in the booming oil business of his time, not a day passed that he and Emily weren’t buying Shakespeareana.

For four decades, the Folgers worked from office and home, without secretarial help, corresponding (by hand, for many years) with hundreds of booksellers, agents, brokers, and fellow collectors; scouring newspaper articles from clipping services; reading catalogs; and marking titles for further inspection. Henry carried an umbrella with a pencil in the handle to jot down acquisition ideas. To him, an auction catalog was “as fascinating as a novel.”

Though they could have afforded much more, the childless Folgers lived in unpretentious rented quarters for most of their lives, and then built a relatively modest house in Glen Cove, Long Island. (Neither was born to wealth, but Henry made a connection in college that made all the difference.) Apart from shopping sprees in Great Britain and regular retreats to Hot Springs, Virginia, the Folgers didn’t pamper themselves much. But they were monomaniacal about Shakespeare and anything he may have written, read, or touched, as well as anything that might have been written about him or his work, even plagiarism. I was imagining this as a kind of secular idolatry when, thanks to Stephen H. Grant, I learned there is a word for it: bardolatry.

“Collectors have difficulty observing limits,” writes Grant, with characteristic understatement. The original collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, when it opened its doors to the public in 1932, was

a dazzling array of objects: books, manuscripts, essays, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, playbills, prompt books, autograph letters, autographs, letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, commonplace books, scrapbooks, sheet music, phonograph records, maps, charts, public documents, prints, drawings, engravings, woodcuts, oil paintings, watercolors, mezzotints; furniture, building models, coins, weapons, armor, heraldic documents, tapestries, musical instruments, globes, costumes, scenic designs, stage properties, statues, busts, carvings, miniatures, medallions, figurines, relics, curios, works in stained glass, bronze, ivory, wood, china, ceramic, and marble.

The literary works were, of course, at the heart of the Folger enterprise. “Folger’s achievement is unique in the history of book collecting, in terms of both the rate and quantity of acquisition,” writes Grant. They amassed—really a better word than collected—nearly 10,000 volumes of the Bard’s works, including the largest collection of Shakespeare quartos and First Folios in the world. Before they started collecting, 18 First Folios were in American hands. “A half-century later, Folger had singlehandedly quadrupled that number,” Grant tells us.

Why such rapaciousness? At a point when he was admitting to owning only 47 First Folios, Henry Folger said that every copy “seems to have an excuse for its presence.” As Grant explains, “Seeing each of his copies as having a unique history and story, Folger did not consider them simply duplicates.”

What Henry and Emily bought they may have admired; but the joy must have been in the buying itself, for everything went straightaway into storage in New York, in used wooden airtight 10-gallon oil cases adapted for the purpose by Henry’s staff. “The inaccessibility of the collection in storage enraged scholars,” Grant admits, as the Folgers routinely rebuffed academic inquiries for most of their collecting lives. “All this fed the mostly inaccurate perception of Folger as a cantankerous hoarder.” By way of exculpation, we learn that Henry was always most courteous in his refusals. Grant observes, faute de mieux, that “by keeping the treasured items together in storage, catalogued but not curated, Folger protected the growing value of his collection. He also saved money that would have been required for security and scholarly access, spending it on more acquisitions and, eventually, on a safe building.”

“Cantankerous hoarder” actually sounds like a pretty good description, though. Folger was certainly secretive, never admitting to what he had purchased or what he had paid. He was highly competitive, too. Grant devotes a chapter, “Hotspur and Hal,” to a lively account of the friendly rivalry between two modern Henrys, Folger and Huntington, who were assembling their stupendous eponymous libraries at the same time and who often used the services of the same dealer, A. S. W. Rosenbach, a colorful supporting character in this extraordinary tale.

In the last years of his life, Henry Folger decided against giving the collection to a university because it was (as he said) “so narrow in scope, and at the same time so large in size, that it could not be very well fitted into a general library”—which is putting it mildly. Even so, in his will, he left the whole thing to his (and Grant’s and my) alma mater, Amherst College, whose trustees were “flabbergasted by the sudden news that they were invited to administer a library in the nation’s capital.” Amherst has run the facility, most recently under a separate board, ever since.

For the Folger Shakespeare Library itself, sites other than Washington were considered, including Henry’s ancestral Nantucket, Manhattan, Prince-ton, and Strat-ford--upon--Avon. “I finally concluded I would give it to Washington; for I am an American,” Henry declared. Indeed, the Folgers did not see their hobby as a private matter but rather as a contribution to American patrimony and a statement about the emerging place of the United States of America as the natural steward of English literature—as Henry put it, they wanted “to help make the United States a centre for literary study and progress.” If there is an Elgin Marbles dimension to this, Grant doesn’t touch on it.

In choosing the Washington site, the Folgers were attracted, too, by the adjacency to the Library of Congress and by real estate prices in Washington. True to their patient ways, they took nine years to secretly buy, one by one, a block of 14 row houses on East Capitol Street. The houses were razed to build the neoclassical building we know today.

Henry died soon after the cornerstone was laid, and Emily carried on for six more years. Her nephew and adviser, Judge Edward Dimock, observed that, for the Folgers, “building the collection and planning the monument to house it was totally absorbing, a real substitute for children.” James Waldo Fawcett, a Washington journalist who knew the Folgers and planned and abandoned a biography of Henry, said theirs “was an authentic romance without recorded parallel in the history of American philanthropic idealism.” Stephen Grant has done a superb job of telling their peculiar story.

Charles Trueheart is director of the American Library in Paris.

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