- - Tuesday, April 29, 2014


By Stephen H. Grant
Johns Hopkins University Press, 244 pages, $26.95

Most people think of Washington, D.C., as devoted only to government and politics. However, perhaps more than many other cities in America, it also is a city of museums — government-financed and privately endowed — devoted to history, art, culture, technology and, notably, to pure scholarship.

One of the undisputed stars in that firmament is the Folger Shakespeare Library, located on East Capitol Street, sited on purpose near to that other mega-repository, the U.S. Library of Congress. This thoroughly researched and accessibly written book is first of all a fascinating biography of how a man and his wife devoted their lives to gathering the world’s largest collection of the original folios of William Shakespeare, plus a range of literature from as early as 1500.

It is also a meditation on why some museums endure and thrive, while others lapse into confusion and decay.

Henry Clay Folger began life in 1857 as an heir to one of the great names of New England’s earliest settlers. One of his ancestors was Benjamin Franklin’s mother. Another relative left the clan’s Nantucket home to found the Folger coffee fortune in San Francisco. However, aside from the name, there was not much else since Henry’s father was not much of a success as a salesman.

Emily Jordan Folger, who was Henry’s wife, soulmate and full partner in his quest for Shakespeare documents and memorabilia, also had begun life on the margins of financial respectability. Like Henry, Emily benefited from having an impressive intellect that drew the kindness of patrons who helped her, and like Henry, Emily made good use of the chance offered by the best college educations of the day, hers at Vassar, and his at Amherst.

The last third of the 19th century saw a tandem explosion of wealth and of cultural aspirations in America. Gone was the parochialism and coarseness in manners and literacy that were so derided by earlier visitors, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens.

Again, the patronage of friends brought Henry and Emily together at a tony literary club in New York, where both had come to seek their fortunes, he in business and she as a teacher at an elite school for girls. While both were sociable enough, they shared an interior reserve that led them to live a life apart from the normal social obligations of friends and family, a solitude they made good use of in their dogged quest for traces of Shakespeare wherever they could be found.

Again, fortune favored the friendly. Henry’s roommate at Amherst was Charlie Pratt, namesake son of one of the great oil barons of the day. Charles Pratt’s Astral Oil Co. ran more than 50 petroleum refineries on the East Coast, turning out an astonishing array of lubricants, wax and kerosene for lamps. Whatever they had thought they might like to do with their lives, both Charlie and Henry went to work for Astral, which in the meantime had been secretly taken over by the 800-pound gorilla of America’s energy industry — John D. Rockefeller.

Henry proved to have an eye for detail and a grasp of the changing landscape of petroleum’s role in fueling this revolution in American industry and life. Soon he came under the eye of Rockefeller himself and increasingly became a kind of roving inspector general that the tycoon needed to keep his iron grip over his empire in the face of the politicized attempts of the trust busters to break the monopoly. As Rockefeller preached, he took as much compensation as he could in Standard Oil shares.

As wealthy as they would become, Henry and Emily lived astonishingly frugal lives. Until his retirement two years before they died, their home was a modest rental in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York; indeed they rented everything, including furniture and motor cars. The couple had little social life, eschewing even family gatherings. Instead, what they spent their time and money on was the one passion that united them, one that began just two weeks after their marriage in 1885, when they purchased their first Shakespeare autograph.

While some of the new-rich Americans of that gilded age became notoriously gullible spendthrifts in the antique bazaars of Europe, the Folgers took great pleasure in making their purchases below the radar of canny sellers of Shakespeariana. They used go-betweens to make buys, and Emily especially became a keen spotter of dubious offerings, especially the widely varying signatures of Shakespeare on play scripts. At the time of Henry’s death in 1930, the Folgers had accumulated more than 2,000 large packing cases of books and documents, cases originally made airtight to transport kerosene cans safely.

As early as 1918, Henry and Emily had begun to search for a permanent home for their collection, one that would preserve their hoard and make it freely accessible to scholars. Coincidentally, Library of Congress officials had also concluded an expanded facility was needed for their collection. Author Stephen Grant tells a taut suspense tale of how the Folgers, using their customary stealth, go-betweens, and blunt-force politics managed to secure all the properties that already existed on the East Capitol Street lot that would come to house both the Shakespeare Library and the Adams wing of the congressional repository.

In addition to this all-too-human tale, this book also offers an argument as to why some museums — one thinks of the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian — wander astray, while others such as the Folger survive and prosper. Obvious common traits of the successful museum is that there is a clear focus of what it offers and, second, that its offerings are highly accessible.

The Folger, with its offerings to scholars, to theater patrons and to the general public, is both those things. It’s all a tribute to a reclusive couple who found joy in a lifelong quest.

James Srodes is the author of “On Dupont Circle,” published last year (Counterpoint).

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