Amherst Magazine

College Row

From the Folger

Although the Folger is famous for its rare books, especially for the 79 Shakespeare First Folios that are the heart of the collection, the Library also has a remarkable collection of 16th-  through 18th-century manuscripts. These precious, handwritten links to the past require special skills to decode, since they are often faded or damaged, written in sometimes difficult scripts (e.g., secretary hand, which forms letters quite differently than modern italic handwriting), containing abbreviations that we no longer recognize and spellings that may seem bizarre to modern eyes. In the case of letters, since the writers may expect their addressee to know the business at hand, reading a letter is often like decoding a larger narrative.

Yet in its way the manuscript collection is as central to the Folger’s holdings as are the printed materials, for several reasons. One is that they offer an intimacy of approach, the sense of a living voice that is often missing from the printed page. Another is that in Elizabethan society, a lively manuscript culture flourished alongside print culture long after the invention of movable type. Poets circulated their poems in manuscript, often without a thought of print publication. This is certainly true of John Donne’s famous lyrics, which were copied over and over again in manuscript miscellanies and which were first published in print only in 1633, when Donne had been dead for two years. It is also possibly true of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which seem to have circulated in manuscript before their publication in the famous 1609 quarto. 

The “handwritten worlds of early modern England” was the topic of an NEH-funded institute that met at the Folger for six weeks this summer under the direction of Professor Steven W. May. It brought together 16 participants and 11 guest faculty from the U.S. and abroad to look at manuscripts in relation to such issues as authorship, originality, intellectual property, gender and distinctions between public and private, amateur and professional. Summer is always a busy time of year in the Reading Rooms, since research scholars come from all over to work here. This summer, the tables were even more crowded, as Summer Institute scholars engaged with the handwritten materials that are their focus.

Among the great manuscript treasures of the Folger are the 15 letters in the poet John Donne’s own hand, written in the wake of Donne’s scandalous secret marriage in 1601 to Anne More, the niece of his patron. As Donne wrote in a bitter pun, “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone.” Since only 39 letters of Donne’s are extant, the Folger’s holdings represent a significant share. Because of their rarity and their significance for Donne scholars, the Folger has just published John Donne’s Marriage Letters in the Folger Library, a handsome, slim, paperbound volume edited by Professors Thomas Hester, Robert Parker Sorlien and Dennis Flynn. Each letter is given its own color plate, an annotated transcription and an explanatory headnote, while the lovers’ secret courtship and marriage are painstakingly set forth in the editors’ introduction. Penned with care, urgent in their pleadings for reinstatement, the Donne letters are a magnificent demonstration of the importance of manuscript evidence for literary biographers, historians and the lovers of English poetry generally. 

— Gail Kern Paster