Saturday, April 30, 2016

Photo of the Day: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

This past month marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, but before the celebrations fade away, I wanted to discuss what might be the central point, at least in the United States, for all things about The Bard. No, I’m not referring to a theater—despite the fact that Shakespeare’s enduring fame was earned as a dramatist (and, come to think of it, plays are performed in a theater within this particular building).

No, I’m talking about the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital is so dense with museums and historic sites that competing for a visitor’s limited attention is all but impossible. But this rectangular building is located on Capitol Hill, only a short walk from the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress. I spent a good part of a day in just this area last November, and found the time well spent—including at this building, home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.

The building represented the culmination of decades of collecting by a most unlikely pair: Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily (herself a noted Shakespeare scholar). After marrying in 1885, they rented a small apartment in Brooklyn. Childless, the couple poured much of their energy into their powerful bibliomania, to such a point that their collection eventually could not be contained in their home.

Coming from a family with little money at their disposal, Folger had been frugal, even doing his own laundry at Amherst College. After running out of money at the end of sophomore year, he had his tuition paid for his last two years by the father of his classmate and friend, Charles Pratt, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist for whom Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute is named.

Folger graduated from Columbia Law School in 1881. His knowledge of law made him instrumental in fighting antitrust legislation of the early 1900s, and after Charles Pratt sold his company to Standard Oil, Folger became President of Sunoco in 1911.

In other words, Folger not only had the burning interest in nearly everything related to Shakespeare, but the fortune to help pay for it. As the dimensions of his ambitions became more apparent, many Britons were annoyed that so many of the materials related to their greatest literary figure would leave the country.

A shrewd collector, Folger kept his identity secret as much as possible so as not to drive up prices. He paid cash to get discounts, and his insistence on bargaining annoyed some collector-sellers (this practice was not common at the time) and meant he would sometimes miss out on what he wanted.

Still, step by step, the Folgers assembled as many copies as they could of Shakespeare’s “Folios.” These were the materials gathered together by the playwright’s friends John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623, at a time when 18 of his plays hadn’t even seen print and it was hardly a foregone conclusion that he would become one of literature’s immortals. The Folgers’ painstaking assembly of these 17th-century publications form the heart of the 82 Folios in the invaluable collection housed in DC today.

During a travel delay in WWI, when he had occasion to walk around Washington, Folger came to think that the Capitol Hill would be best for housing his collection. He then spent spent nine years, acting through his agent, gathering up the properties then existing here. A close ally in his effort was Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, subsequently worked for a Congressional resolution that secured the land for Folger's use.

Folger scrutinized every expense associated with the building, keeping costs down. He died not long after the cornerstone of the library was laid in 1930. After his death, Emily decided not to maintain it as a private space. The building was finished in 1931 and opened the following year.

Though this has the world’s primary collection of Shakespeareana, the library also reflect Folger's wider interests in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, as well as materials related to David Garrick (the English actor-theater manager who began popularizing Shakespeare again in the 1700s), butterflies and golf. Also here are such unusual items as a copy of Cicero owned by Henry VIII and a first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In the hall is a map of the London of Shakespeare’s time, with the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River. It was part of a district under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. Unlike much of the rest of the city then, it was not under the control of the Puritans, who, through the city’s mayor, sharply curtailed practices such as theater, bear-baiting and prostitution. As it happened, the Globe was the only theater of its time in the city without bear-baiting.

The Founders Room is filled with Elizabethan/Tudor furniture of dark wood. It contains figures associated with Shakespearean characters, as well as of famous actors who played Shakespearean roles, such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. Also in the room is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. 

This year, the Folger is not only acting as a magnet for those fascinated by Shakespeare in DC, but also reaching out across the country. An exhibit, "also reaching out across the country. An exhibit,"First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare," is visiting all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, before returning to the library in January 2017. Eighteen First Folios will be on display throughout the tour, with six displayed at any one time.

Just how influential the printing of Shakespeare’s plays have been to the development of literature is demonstrated by a quote on a door in the library by John Milton, who made his first appearance in print in Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare,which was included in the Second Shakespeare Folio of 1632.

Quote of the Day (John Updike, on ‘The Rich Above You’)

"No matter how hard you climb, there are always the rich above you, who got there without effort. Lucky stiffs, holding you down, making you discontent so you buy more of the crap advertised on television." —John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (1990)

That quote explains a lot about the current election and its discontents, doesn’t it?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Photo of the Day: Horace Greeley Bust, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

When I visited Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn a year and a half ago, I had no plan for how to maximize my time. I didn’t know, for instance, that shuttle tours operate only at certain times and days. As this is a megalopolis of the dead, with more than half a million “permanent residents” in their final resting place, I would have to get around on foot, and though a map I got near the center’s entrance helped me some, it seemed to collapse distances. Finding a grave would be a matter of serendipity.

The one you see here was among the most dramatically situated, on a hill in Section 35, Lot 2344—one of the highest points in the whole sprawling cemetery. How appropriate: the man in this 12-ft.-high green bust that I photographed, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, possessed not only a lofty vision for his readers, but also for himself in the life of the country. He was more successful in achieving the former view than the latter.

Greeley is often credited with a famous saying that epitomized Americans’ movement across the continent: "Go west, young man, go west." His actual advice, though essentially the same, was not as pithy: "If any young man is about to commence in the world with little in his circumstances to prepossess him in favor of one section above another, we say to him publicly and privately, Go to the West; there your capacities are sure to be appreciated and your industry and energy rewarded." It goes to show, I guess, that even an editor may need editing.

I have been looking to write about Greeley and his final resting place for a while, and now I have a ready excuse: this month marks the 175th anniversary of his newspaper, the New York Tribune. Hiring top talent (including leading literary figures of the time such as Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Richard Hildreth), and adding editorials and commentaries, Greeley created a “penny paper” affordable for the working class. That enabled the Tribune to reach a circulation of more than a quarter of a million, fulfilling the ambition he had proclaimed to the wife of a clergyman friend of his: that it would be “a power in the land.”

One cause after another absorbed Greeley’s interest: workers’ rights, women’s rights, scientific farming, free distribution of government lands, and Irish nationalism. But, coming to feel that journalism wasn’t enough to shape the nation’s debates, he longed to be part of the political arena. A three-month stint in Congress as a Whig in the 1848-49 term only whetted his interest. Over the next 24 years, he ran three times for Congress, twice for the U.S. Senate, and once for the Presidency. He lost every race.

What bedeviled him was the same issue that vexed the nation: slavery. He was simultaneously an abolitionist and a pacifist who believed that the South had a right to secede; then a supporter of war and immediate emancipation; then, as Northern forces temporarily stalled in 1863 and 1864, a backer of peace negotiations with the Confederates. Abraham Lincoln bore patiently with his constant offers of unsolicited advice and hot-and-cold attitudes. “I do not suppose I have any right to complain," the President remarked wryly. "Uncle Horace agrees with me pretty often after all; I reckon he is with us at least four days out of seven."

In 1872, Greeley came as close as he ever could to real power by being nominated for President by both the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties. His campaign brought catastrophe on him in multiple forms. Backers of President Ulysses S. Grant pointed to Greeley’s vacillating support of the war as evidence of his unsteadiness of purpose, and cited multiple aspects of his appearance and personality (e.g., oversized boots, rumpled trousers, a battered hat, and a white overcoat jammed with papers) as proof of his extreme eccentricity. In the election that November, Greeley was soundly trounced in the Electoral College.

Just before the election, Greeley’s wife died. Within a few weeks of his crushing defeat at the polls, he also lost control of the Tribune to Whitelaw Reid. The cumulative effect of all of this was so devastating that Greeley first suffered a complete breakdown, then died a month after the election. 

Such was Greeley’s eminence that after his death, his opponents felt obliged to honor him. President Ulysses Grant, who had defeated him in the election of 1872, attended his funeral, and the committee formed to create his memorial was headed by Thurlow Weed, a onetime ally who had fallen out with Greeley when this New York state Whig political boss did not secure for him the party nomination for U.S. Senate in 1854.

The Greeley sculpture, unveiled in December 1876, was created by Charles Calverley, who also fashioned busts in Green-Wood Cemetery of sewing-machine inventor Elias Howe and “Precious Georgie,” a four-year old boy who died of scarlet fever. The Greeley bust anchors the family plot in Green-Wood. You have to hope that Greeley finds more serenity here than those closest to him would have provided the editor during his life: only two of his seven children lived to adulthood, and his wife experienced so many nervous ailments and neglected the household so much that he was obliged to sleep closer to his city office.

Quote of the Day (H.L. Mencken, on Government)

“The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic.”— H.L. Mencken, Minority Report (1956)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Quote of the Day (Willie Nelson, With Becoming Modesty for a Celebrity)

“I sing okay, I play okay, and I know I can write a good song, but I still feel like I've been given a whole lot more than I deserve.”— Country music legend Willie Nelson, It's a Long Story: My Life (2015)

(The accompanying photo of Willie Nelson getting ready to perform at Farm Aid 2009 was taken by Larry Philpot.)