Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America 
by Denise Gigante.
Yale, 378 pp., £25, January, 978 0 300 24848 7
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New York​ was a great book town in the 1960s. You could buy new books in English at the elegant Scribner shop on Fifth Avenue, new books in French at the Librairie de France or Rizzoli, and old books in German at Mary S. Rosenberg’s austere, packed shop on Broadway, where neither I nor another obsessive friend could afford $100 for a first edition of Winckelmann’s history of ancient art. You could pick up New Directions poets in the Village, Hebrew seforim in Brooklyn and German magazines in Yorkville. If you wanted rarities, you could browse the dusty, chaotic secondhand bookshops on Fourth Avenue and Broadway. At the dustiest and wildest of them all, Dauber and Pine on Fifth, one of the owners sold me a 17th-century Latin book on Druids that I couldn’t afford at half-price (‘rainy day special’, he explained). Higher-end bookshops offered incunabula and Aldines, first editions of Gibbon and Austen to discriminating buyers who had real money.

If you didn’t, you could explore the riches available in public collections. New York Public Library branches were stuffed with new fiction and old treasures, which anyone could borrow or read. Anyone over eighteen could explore the marble labyrinths of what is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building: a palace of the people on 42nd Street, traditionally known as the Main or Central Branch, with its encyclopedic holdings. In the reading room, battered but still grand, readers waited for their number to appear on the indicator – the library ran on steampunk systems, which supposedly included ‘pages’ on roller skates traversing the stacks at high speed. There I inched, pen in hand, through the huge folio volumes, bound in buckram, of the 18th-century edition of Erasmus’s complete works. An untidy man who studied the racing form with equal care sat at the same varnished table, warmed by the same fading beams of the pale city sun. When my father felt depressed, he would visit the print room and look at a Dürer. The Morgan Library, the New York Academy of Medicine and Columbia’s rare book collections served those with more specialised needs.

New York couldn’t compete with London or Paris: it had no bouquinistes, no Farringdon Road, no British Library or Bibliothèque nationale de France. It lacked the quaint bookshops of Boston, where the staff seemed to know not only the books they sold but their 18th and 19th-century authors, not to mention Harvard’s Widener Library. But it was still a city of books, collectors and readers. Every good secondhand bookshop offered guidance for neophytes: A. Edward Newton’s chatty books about his bookish adventures; Holbrook Jackson’s erudite Anatomy of Bibliomania, a comprehensive treatment of obsessive book-buying in the manner of Robert Burton; and sometimes even a copy of Carter and Pollard’s Inquiry into the Nature of Certain 19th-Century Pamphlets, the exposé that dished Thomas J. Wise, forger of rare editions. It all seemed to contradict the rants of intellectuals about the barrenness of American culture. Many of the angelheaded hipsters whom I met busied themselves in learning Old Church Slavonic or translating Rimbaud. Meanwhile, pioneering scholars like Barbara Tuchman, Frank Manuel and George Whalley mined gold year after year from the lodes of ore in the libraries.

The roots of this bookish postwar New York, as Denise Gigante shows in Book Madness, stretched back deep into the 19th century. Some of them also nourished Boston’s book culture – the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Public Library as well as its private collections. To identify the origins of American bibliomania she mounts ‘a narrative experiment in associational literary history’: a detailed study of the ways in which tattered texts that had belonged to one writer, Charles Lamb, won the passionate attention of American collectors and taught them new lessons about the hunt for old books.

Broadway in the 1840s was already a hive of urban entertainments, from Niblo’s Garden theatre to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which offered everything from a flea circus to a waxworks display under one roof. Books had their place along with vaudeville, Abolitionist songs and the Fiji mermaid. In February 1848, Bartlett and Welford, ‘Booksellers and Importers’, based in the Astor House Hotel on Broadway, offered for sale a long list of books from Lamb’s library. For bibliophiles, these volumes seemingly had little to offer – especially from the point of view that had dominated collecting in the heroic age of book sales that accompanied and followed the Napoleonic Wars. The great English collectors who filled their country houses and London rooms with masses of folios, and their loyal chronicler Thomas Frognall Dibdin, hunted for books that could furnish a magnificent room: incunabula and rare folios, immaculately printed on large paper, bound by Jean Grolier and other masters of the book arts. They preferred unique items, though they often had to settle for the very rare.

Lamb had loved his books, and the hunt for them, as much as any of those grandees. In his informal, allusive, often nostalgic Essays and Last Essays of Elia, much admired by American as well as British readers, he had described the excitement that Elia, the pseudonym he used in his essays, felt as he bought a ‘folio Beaumont and Fletcher’ – an acquisition that he had saved up for by wearing his brown suit until it was threadbare. Both scared and enraptured, Elia had dithered until 10 p.m. on a Saturday before finally setting out to walk from Islington to the bookseller’s premises in Covent Garden. When he returned home, he insisted on collating and repairing the book immediately instead of waiting until daybreak. Though Lamb treasured his books, he also made clear that most of his ‘midnight darlings’ were ‘ragged veterans’, often incomplete or imperfectly bound (he had some of them repaired by a cobbler). His collection suffered not only from his reading but from the attacks of borrowers, ‘those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes’. Further damage had befallen his library, as Bartlett and Welford explained, after his death in 1834. Yet they had deliberately left the books as they were: ‘no attempt,’ they declared, ‘has been made to re-clothe his “shivering folios”; they are precisely in the state in which he possessed and left them.’

The presence of a one-volume collection of Henry More’s Philosophical Poems, Platonic Song of the Soul (‘fine copy, gilt edges’) and a ‘good sound copy’ of Speght’s 1598 Chaucer added to the collection’s value. But so, paradoxically, did the battered condition of the other books. Lamb’s Elia loved to write about the scenes and forms of reading, even when they had embarrassed him – as happened when ‘a familiar damsel’ caught him sitting on the grass at Primrose Hill reading Pamela. He believed that books should be read, and that close reading could and should leave material traces. In an ironic piece on book-borrowers, he praised his friend ‘S.T.C.’ (Coleridge), who had returned Elia’s books ‘with usury; enriched with annotations, tripling their value’, though written ‘in no very clerkly hand’. Bartlett and Welford ran with Elia’s hints. They included in their catalogue a separate list of ‘Books with Notes by S.T. Coleridge’, describing those in Lamb’s copy of Donne’s Poems as ‘curious and valuable critical and illustrative notes’. The presence of similar matter added value even to more obscure items such as the Irish writer Thomas Amory’s picaresque Life of John Buncle and The Triumphs of God’s Revenge against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murder, a popular collection of tales of murder and revenge by the 17th-century Exeter merchant whom Coleridge called ‘honest Murthereo-Maniacal John Reynolds’. Pursuing the theme of annotation, the booksellers also called attention to Lamb’s own notes, which, in contrast to Coleridge, he had entered in a ‘most clerkly’ hand. Instead of guaranteeing the condition of the books, they observed that the ‘notes, remarks, &c’ mentioned in their descriptions were ‘warranted to be all in the autograph of Lamb’. Marginal notes, broken hinges and battered spines were the tangible traces of Lamb’s reading habits – the signs of true value, for an informed reader.

It was a daring, and successful, sales strategy. Evert Duyckinck, a collector who saw the books displayed in the Astor House, recalled that only a genius could have assembled these ‘worst possible bound bad copies’, ‘brown, stained, ragged, broken-backed hulking folios, dragging their covers, shabby odd volumes in single misery’. But, as he added in the best idiom of the 19th-century historical novel, ‘there were princes in disguise among them.’ And though he decided to let ‘wealthy or careless purchasers’ buy the books in question rather than spend his own money on them, he brought his copies of the works in question to the Astor House and copied Lamb’s marginalia into them, as excited as the grocer whom he heard exclaim, ‘Elia has actually had this book in his hands!’ A special form of bibliomania began to spread.

Many victims, less discriminating or more impressionable than Duyckinck, bought Lamb’s books at a private auction in February 1848. Annotated copies of the booksellers’ catalogue, library inventories, correspondence and the surviving books provide rich evidence of their fates. Gigante, sometimes following trails partly broken by earlier scholars, traces these in detail. The erudite merchant Prosper Montgomery Wetmore took home Margaret Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters, which Lamb’s friend James Kenney had not only borrowed but taken to live with him at Versailles (Lamb had to make a special trip to recover it). The ‘Conant’ who picked up Cavendish’s World’s Olio was probably the philologist Thomas Jefferson Conant. A Louisville china merchant and antiquarian bought her Nature’s Pictures, as well as Volume IX of the 1724 edition of the Spectator. James Annan, poet and accountant in Cincinnati, bought almost a third of the books, only to sell them and the rest of his valuable library eight months later, at an auction which became a second landmark in the diffusion of Lamb’s books. The lawyer George Templeton Strong, whose massive diary brings back to life the vast meals, lively clubs and busy streets of mid-19th-century New York, had self-diagnosed his bad case of bibliomania in 1842 and when he built his house organised his extensive library with a care worthy of Elia himself. No wonder then that he bought nine of Lamb’s books, including all five that Coleridge had annotated; or that when he brought home a folio edition of Jonson’s Works, which Gigante describes as ‘a degenerate assemblage with broken joints, frayed leaves, threadbare covers, a missing frontispiece and three leather straps holding it together’, instead of having it rebound he commissioned a red morocco case so that he could preserve it intact in its devastated condition.

Association copies – books that had belonged to their authors, to their friends and relations, to people connected with their contents, or, as John Carter explains, simply ‘to someone of interest in his own right’ – had long appealed to collectors. Books owned or annotated by famous scholars had featured in early auction catalogues in 17th-century Holland. In fact, one of the most notorious London auctions of the 1830s was devoted to them. On 7 May 1835, Samuel Sotheby began his sale of what he described as ‘many original and unpublished manuscripts, and printed books with MS annotations, by Philipp Melancthon [sic]’, an erudite Renaissance Hellenist, more eirenic and less bold than his close friend Martin Luther. Melanchthon had created the German Protestant system of classical education and was still a household name, at least in learned Protestant households, in the 19th century. Sotheby produced a spectacular catalogue of this collection, with lithographic facsimiles of the marginalia. This sale, too, was supposed to be an event. The Spectator called the attention of its readers to these ‘scarce, curious and valuable books’, which ‘the great Reformer’ had ‘enriched … with his annotations’. But there was a hitch. Sotheby himself conceded, in his catalogue, that ‘the total absence of MELANCTHON’s name, either as their possessor or their author, and the diversity of styles of handwriting’, cast some doubt on his theory about their provenance. His vigorous counter-arguments did not dispel buyers’ qualms and he ended up having to keep many of the books. That enabled him to continue working on them, even after Dr Georg Kloss, the Frankfurt bibliophile who had collected them in the first place, indignantly denied that the vast majority of them had belonged to Melanchthon. Sotheby reiterated and expanded his views in a second treatise, published in 1840, ‘with numerous facsimiles’. Evidently this too was a failure: an effort on his part to suppress its publication failed. Yet his views gradually prevailed, in an appropriately ironic way. The books gradually went into the trade, many of them to become star items in the growing American rare book collections of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though​ Lamb left Christ’s Hospital at the age of fourteen, he knew his Latin. One of the books that Bartlett and Welford listed, the Latin poems of Vincent (or Vinny) Bourne, whom Lamb described as a ‘sweet, unpretending, pretty-mannered, matterful creature’, contained Latin verse extracts in Lamb’s hand and a six-line Latin poem signed by ‘C.L.’ But most of his books were in English, with clear connections to his essays and to the literary history of England, and they moved readers who were left cold by Melanchthon’s supposed marginalia. Everyone knew their stories, or invented them. When the auctioneer John Keese sold Lamb’s copy of Speght’s Chaucer, Duyckinck described the book’s acquisition in a lively if somewhat steamy version of Elia’s own style: ‘It doubtless had its history. Lamb had eyed it afar off, shedding its luminous rays of the spirit out of the reek and dinginess of a London stall … He had passed it and repassed it on his daily walks, his conscience growing every day more tender over its “unhoused” condition. He felt for it as he would feel for mendicity. He could bear those pangs no longer. The three and sixpence which lurked in reluctant pockets must come forth, and the black letter victim of age and destitution be borne to the warm shelves of the Temple.’ Keese evoked the book’s value with equal enthusiasm, in the special language of his profession: ‘How much? The ghost of Elia would forever haunt me if I should start it at less than ten.’

At this point, Gigante explains, what remained of Lamb’s library had dissolved and his battered veterans ‘were left to find what company they could in the New World’. Sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, they danced to the music of time. And as they did so, she shows, they had an impact out of all proportion to their number and value. Americans had discovered the delights of collecting. Many Bardolaters, for whom Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare had served as a gateway drug, assembled folios of Shakespeare as well as the works of other English playwrights and poets – not to mention busts, pieces of period furniture, prop skulls that had been used in performances of Hamlet, and other relics. Lamb’s books caught their roving eyes. After he left England and settled in New York, William Evans Burton stored his splendid collection in his house on Hudson Street; he found Keese’s auctions as exciting as the theatre. He was among the bidders on the Saturday night when Keese sold Lamb’s Chaucer, which he bought for $25.

Together with his essays, Lamb’s library gave collectors a language and a sensibility. As its contents worked their way through the market, into safe harbours or oblivion, they helped to inspire the great age of American collecting and to shape its style. Americans had learned from Lamb, and the agents who put his collection out to vendors, to look for books to which stories and sentiments were attached – association copies. They also began to think about wider issues. How could their obsession be spread? What sort of libraries, and where, would transform young city-dwellers into the sort of readers Lamb had admired: poor and threadbare, perhaps, but sincerely excited about the treasures of English literature?

Boston had long been a bookish town. When he left England, John Winthrop brought books annotated by his father Adam, an erudite lawyer, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John’s son John Jr – alchemist, flim-flam man and governor of Connecticut – collected books that John Dee had owned and annotated, adding his own notes beneath Dee’s. John’s grandson, Wait, is less popular now than his father: John Jr did his best to eliminate witchcraft trials and befriended religious visionaries, while Wait served as a military leader in King Philip’s War and a judge at Salem and seems never to have repented either of these activities. Still, he too was a bookman. In a tiny herbal that Charles Howard inscribed to John Winthrop Jr, Wait added a note recalling that the gift had been given in London in or around 1662, enhancing its associations.

Gigante has discovered as many fans of Lamb among Boston antiquarians as there were in New York. Bostonians admired his learning and savoured his elaborate, deliberately antiquarian prose, and they too let him shape their tastes. Gigante plausibly suggests that Alexander Young was the ‘Rev. Mr Alexander’ who bought Lamb’s copy of Vincent Bourne. Young produced a nine-volume Library of the Old English Prose Writers, which included Robert Burton, Izaak Walton and many of Lamb’s other favourites. He also built an impressive library and showed his visitors the way to hold and open old books without injuring them. An apostolic succession (a Boston speciality) took shape. Charles Deane, who frequented Young’s library, collected almost thirteen thousand volumes, including two of Lamb’s folios. Like Young, he taught his visitors proper book handling. One of them, Justin Winsor, would become librarian of Harvard, superintendent of the Boston Public Library and first president of the American Library Association. Lamb was an inspiration to the men who transformed bibliomania from a private obsession to a public good, in the proper Bostonian fashion. Collectors began to give or bequeath their cherished books to existing institutions such as the Harvard Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society, both of which were reshaped in this period, as well as new ones, including the Boston Athenaeum and Boston Public Library. When the bookseller Henry Stevens set out to sell a portion of George Washington’s library, he suggested that the volumes might go to the British Museum, for which he acted as an agent. Bostonians, schooled by Elia to value books charged with associations and shocked by this potential loss to their country and its culture, got up a subscription to buy them and presented them to the Athenaeum.

Public institutions also began to emerge in New York. None of Gigante’s protagonists suffered a more florid or a more glorious case of bibliomania than Joseph Green Cogswell. He was one of the first Americans to study in Germany and took his doctorate at Göttingen before travelling across Europe, visiting collectors – including Goethe and Scott – and turning a sceptical eye on booksellers’ offers. His chief inspiration was the Göttingen university library, a product of the German Enlightenment, systematically organised and endowed with a yearly budget for new acquisitions. Cogswell hoped to apply its principles when he became the librarian at Harvard. He managed to replace the library’s old system of ledger catalogues with cards on the German model, but left after two years, defeated by the conservatism and bureaucratic inertia of the university.

In 1836 a wealthy New Yorker, Samuel Ward III, lured Cogswell to the city and brought him together with John Jacob Astor, the first of many J.J. Astors and a man of prodigal interests. Cogswell wanted to create a universal library, encyclopedic and up to the minute. Designs were drawn, but when confronted with the cost of rearing a material monument, Astor dithered. After Astor died, his son revisited the plans. Cogswell became the master of a collection that he could organise from the ground up. He worked insanely hard, forgoing food and sleep as he rifled catalogues and bookshops in America and abroad. He refused to take holidays and eventually moved into the ‘solitary grandeur’ of an apartment in the library, working on weekdays from 4 a.m. to midnight and spending his Sundays in lonely misery: by then he had lost his taste for reading.

Cogswell realised his vision of a serious, scholarly collection, aimed at researchers who would bypass cheap fiction and focus on curated scholarly books. He bought two volumes of minor poets that had belonged to Lamb, but in Gigante’s view, he was anything but a sentimental collector. Still Cogswell laid the foundations of what became the New York Public Library. Later collectors – above all Henry and Albert Berg – saw to it that the library did not lack for association items. The original Berg gift, made by Albert in 1940, included the manuscript of one of Lamb’s Essays of Elia. The Berg Collection included a great many association copies, and now preserves such literary relics as Virginia Woolf’s cane, Jack Kerouac’s boots and Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk. Other institution builders in New York were more in tune with Lamb’s sensibility. In the 1840s, the librarian of the New-York Historical Society and his assistant both bought works that once belonged to Lamb. The itineraries of Lamb’s books don’t map perfectly onto the larger history of bibliomania in Boston and New York, but it’s obvious from the intricate connections which Gigante has traced between the titles, their owners and the libraries they created that Lamb’s collection, and his writing, inspired the citizens of a nation that Melville and many others saw as dedicated only to commerce, to a lust for books. American collectors relished the marginalia that Lamb had left in his battered volumes. The same went for Coleridge, whose marginalia they began to publish – an enterprise that George Whalley and H.J. Jackson completed in the late 20th century. Assembling the books from their knowledge of Essays and Last Essays of Elia and other sources, the 19th-century bookmen collected in innovative ways and even developed new forms of scholarship.

With less​ eccentricity than Samuel Sotheby, and some decades ahead of Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln College and biographer of Isaac Casaubon, Duyckinck and his colleagues understood that books and reading have a history. They made it possible for the scholar-adventurers of the 20th century, as Richard Altick called the manuscript hunters and bibliographers who populated the libraries created by Gigante’s protagonists, to discover long-lost manuscripts and books and devise the tools of modern scholarship. They supported the lively culture of book hunting that still goes on, diminished but not dead yet, in the auction houses and antiquarian bookshops of New York, Boston and other cities.

Can this gentle, humane culture survive the attritions of social media and the carceral state? In a way, it already has. Elia’s essays on eccentric clerks, quirky actors and English public schools allowed Lamb to construct a peaceful world at a remove from his own. On 22 September 1796, his sister, Mary, stabbed their mother in the chest with a kitchen knife, killing her. Charles, who had run into the house, took the knife from her hand. Once the jury brought in a verdict of lunacy, he dedicated himself to looking after her. His life, as he portrayed it, passed slowly and uneventfully as a clerk at the East India Company; as a successful writer, sometimes in collaboration with Mary; and in his and Mary’s evenings of sociability with Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Crabb Robinson and other friends. Lamb himself traced his dismay not to the death of his mother but to the terrifying nights of his childhood, when ‘I never laid my head on my pillow … without an assurance, which realised its own prophecy, of seeing some frightful spectre.’ These terrors led to bouts of alcoholism, periods in a madhouse and the dark passages, reeking of disgust for much of humanity, that interrupt Elia’s charm offensives.

‘There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.’ We are all Walter Benjamin’s pupils nowadays, even if we would rather not. Great collections of manuscripts and rare books show us dark sights along with the charming, candlelit chambers where books were cherished and essays were written. They tell us, for instance, that the same East India Company paying Lamb to work as a clerk for 33 years and then rewarding his faithful service with a pension was pillaging India with its private army, and that the placid life of letters he and Mary led together was an imaginative creation, a frail shield against private horrors. Learning to read as Lamb did can still bring us towards kindness and civility. But we will need to develop other methods to follow the thick web of connections between that world and the darker ones at whose existence Elia hinted, and for which he found only partial consolation in his books.

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Vol. 45 No. 9 · 4 May 2023

Anthony Grafton, writing about Charles Lamb, invokes the pleasures and possibilities afforded by the New York Public Library for generations of readers, including his father who, when depressed, ‘would visit the print room and look at a Dürer’ (LRB, 13 April). On 4 April, the office of the mayor, Eric Adams, who was elected on the promise of serving working-class New Yorkers, announced potential cuts to the library’s funding of as much as $52.7 million. This will mean, inevitably, that those who use the network of libraries for the free internet, language instruction, or simply for the pleasure of reading the books, will experience reduced access and services. Readers who share Grafton’s affection for the NYPL’s collections and its social benefits may wish to write to Mayor Adams urging him to reconsider these proposals.

Sophie Smith

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