The Millionaire and the Bard
“He was Not of an Age, but for All Time!”
IT STARTED, as many great obsessions do, with an unremarkable incident, an encounter between a man and a book. It happened during the Gilded Age, in New York City. Henry Clay Folger was a recent graduate of Columbia Law School living in rented rooms, working as a clerk at a local oil refinery, and trying to make his way in the world.
He walked into Bang’s auction gallery in Manhattan with, as he later admitted, “fear and trepidation.”1
The books to be sold that day overflowed from the shelves. As an undergraduate at Amherst College he had studied literature, including Shakespeare, whose plays he “read . . . far into the night.”2
He had continued reading for pleasure ever since. He saved every book he ever read. He had always been a collector. At college, he made scrapbooks for his most trivial ephemera, including theater and lecture tickets. But his hoarder’s impulse was still in search of a grand obsession.
Henry had never bought a rare book. The closest he had ever come was when he purchased a gift for his young wife. She shared his literary enthusiasm, so he had bought her an inexpensive facsimile of the First Folio of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. He had never seen a real one. The old book that caught his eye at Bang’s was not, however, a coveted First Folio published in 1623, but to his amateur’s
eye it seemed close. It was an authentic Fourth Folio, printed in 1685; it was a less valuable edition than a First. Its antiquity excited his fancy. He bid on the book until the auctioneer hammered it down to him for $107.50. He asked if he could pay in installments. When he took it home, he and his wife gazed at the familiar engraving of Shakespeare on the title page. They turned the thick, durable rag paper pages, and savored the familiar words of the plays they both loved, and which they had read many times before in cheap, modern editions. Holding that old book in his hands changed Henry Folger’s life, just as the publication of its first edition more than two hundred fifty years earlier had come to define its author’s.
Soon, Folger found himself in the thrall of obsession. The young man who could barely afford a hundred-dollar book would spend a year’s salary for another one, and devote the rest of his life, and millions of dollars, to chasing the rare books he coveted. The apprentice clerk would rise in the world of Gilded Age titans—John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Henry Huntington—and join them in a frenzied competition for some of the rarest books in the world. Soon, he would own more volumes than he knew what to do with. They would overwhelm his shelves, his rented rooms, and then his home, and fill secret warehouses and storage lockers to their ceilings. Before long, Henry Folger’s books would dominate his life. But in this ocean of books he prized one above all the others.
Today, it is the most valuable book in the world. And, after the King James Bible, the most important. In October 2001, one of the First Folios sold at Christie’s for more than six million dollars. No more than 750 copies were printed, and two-thirds of them have perished over the last 391 years. Around 244 of them survive, and most of those are incomplete. Shakespeare’s First Folio—Folger wanted to own them all.
As Victor Hugo wrote, “England has two books, one of which she has made, the other which has made her—Shakespeare and the Bible.” Published in London in 1623, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies revolutionized the language, psychology, and culture of Western civilization. Without the First Folio, published seven years after the playwright’s
death, eighteen iconic works, including Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest would have been lost.
Recognizing that every folio was superficially the same book but that each surviving handmade copy was in fact unique with its own idiosyncratic typographical fingerprint, binding, and provenance, Folger decided that the only way to rediscover Shakespeare’s original intentions and language—what he called “The True Text”—was to buy every copy he could find and subject it to meticulous comparative analysis.
Believing that the mysteries of the folios could be fully understood only in the context of their time, he amassed an equally stupendous collection of artwork, books, letters, manuscripts, and antiquities from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. He wanted to own Shakespeare. And he did. He came to own more copies of the First Folio than anyone else in the world, more than even the British Library, the ultra-repository in Shakespeare’s homeland. Folger collected more than twice the number of copies known to exist in all of England. How this happened is more than the tale of one passionate bibliophile. It is a story of the Old World giving way to the New, of the power of modern economics and transatlantic trade, and of the irresistible democratization of taste.
Everyone knows William Shakespeare. He was born in 1564, and died in April 1616. He wrote approximately thirty-nine plays3
and composed five long poems and 154 sonnets. He failed to publish his collected works—during his lifetime plays were considered ephemeral amusements, not serious literature. By the time of his death he was retired, was considered past his prime, and by the 1620s many of his plays were no longer regularly performed in theaters. No one—not even Shakespeare himself—believed that his writings would last, that he was a genius, or that future generations would celebrate him as the greatest and most influential writer in the history of the English language.
Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare transformed the nature of man and created modern consciousness. If that is so, then the
First Folio—not the works of Darwin, Marx, or Freud—is the urtext of modernism. If the Bible is the book of God, then Shakespeare is the book of man on earth. We use the words he invented, we speak in his cadences, and we think in his imagery. The epitaph that fellow poet Ben Jonson penned for William Shakespeare proved to be prophetic: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Without the First Folio, the evolution from poet to secular saint would have never happened, and the story of that book is an incredible tale of faith, friendship, loyalty, and chance. Today, few people realize how close the world came, in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, to losing half of his plays.
Henry Clay Folger, however, remains one of the least-known industrial titans of his time. Folger, from the twilight years of the Gilded Age through the comet’s arc of the Roaring Twenties, built the greatest Shakespeare library in the world, transporting it across the Atlantic piece by piece and hoarding it in thousands of unopened shipping crates, locked away in secret New York warehouses. And yet his life remains curiously unexamined. He is a forgotten man.
This is a story of resurrection, of a magical book and two men, an American millionaire and an English playwright—the man who coveted the First Folio, and the man who composed it.