The Magazine

Shakespeare’s Other Home

The making of a Washington monument

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By CHARLES TRUEHEART
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“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.