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Two Tonics for Teutonic Turpitude

Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library
Edited by Esther Ferington
Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2002. 222 pp. $60 hardcover

In the spring of his senior year, Henry Clay Folger (Class of 1879) attended a lecture at Amherst College given by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Folger was so impressed that he went on to read more by Emerson, including another speech in which Emerson said, “Genius is the consoler of our mortal condition, and Shakespeare taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper and richer than the spaces of astronomy.” Folger was so moved by these words that he made it his life’s mission “to collect in one place for posterity not only the works of Shakespeare but also the works upon which he drew or that alluded to him, and materials that conveyed the essence of his age.” The result was the establishment of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 1932.

Infinite Variety is an impressive general description of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is administered by the Trustees of Amherst College. It explains Henry Folger’s fascination with Shakespeare, his desire for a research library to house his book collection and his choice of a site on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., where scholars would have easy access to its collections. It records the library’s evolution from a repository of Shakespeariana to a collection encompassing the English and Continental early modern age. It also documents the Folger Library’s ties with Amherst through the Amherst Board of Trustees, who continue to have responsibility for it. Most important, however, Infinite Variety describes some of its incomparable treasures.

The Folger Library owns the largest Shakespeare collection in the world. The collection, established by Henry and Emily Folger in the late 1800s, includes 79 of the extant 240 First Folios. (These are large volumes of Shakespeare’s collected works, published two years after his death. The First Folio, as it was later called, contained 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, 18 of which had never before been printed and would otherwise have been lost.) In addition, the library owns 200 quartos (small editions of the individual plays published in the late 1500s and the early 1600s), as well as books about Shakespeare, playbills, costumes, promptbooks, films and portraits. The text advises us, “Only two existing images are considered authentic likenesses of William Shakespeare: the memorial bust at Stratford and the engraving by Martin Droeshout for the ‘Vincent’ First Folio.” This volume, however, provides a generous sampling of the specious portraits and explanations of how they were misattributed.

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s holdings range well beyond works by or about Shakespeare. For example, Elizabeth I’s own copy of the Bishop’s Bible; the Caxton edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, 1477 (one of just 10 known copies); Henry VIII’s copy of Cicero inscribed, “Thys Boke is Myne Prynce Henry”; and the 1494 Thomas à Kempis text bound in blind-tooled pigskin and equipped with an iron chain.

As a member of the Amherst Glee Club and the College Choir, Henry Folger developed an appreciation for music that led him to collect early modern music, including the compositions of the English lutanist John Dowland, who received an appointment to the court of King James I in 1612. The handsome Harton lute from that period is pictured as an example of the musical instruments in the Folger collection. Members of the Folger Consort have performed early modern music at the Folger Library since 1977. English scientific thought of the period is represented in the collection by such important works as Newton’s Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687.

The book also describes how the Folger reaches out to the Washington community and the general public with contemporary poetry readings, lectures, concerts, exhibitions and programs for children. The recently dedicated Wyatt R. ’61 and Susan N. Haskell Center for Education and Public Programs, located across the street from the main building, facilitates this part of the Folger’s program.

Editor Esther Ferington, Folger Librarian Richard Kuhta, Head of Reference Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, and Head of Photography Julie Ainsworth have all contributed to an attractive and highly successful book on one of the world’s great libraries. Infinite Variety is a book that is well worth reading and treasuring.

—Willis Bridegam
Librarian of the College

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