"Today it is the most valuable book in the world. Recently one sold for over five million dollars. It is the book that rescued the name of William Shakespeare and half of his plays from oblivion. The Millionaire and the Bard tells the miraculous and romantic story of the making of the First Folio, and of the American industrialist whose thrilling pursuit of the book became a lifelong obsession." --
I didn't love Henry Folger himself, certainly not to the extent that the author, Andrea Mays, did. I really thought I would: I mean, he loved Shakespeare; I love Shakespeare. He was eccentric and reclusive; I am eccentric and as reclusive as my husband will put up with. Of course, Folger was also obscenely wealthy, which is, alas, where the similarities end.
But I had a couple of issues with Folger. First, I have qualms about his role at Standard Oil. It's hard to say a lot about that, given that Mays really doesn't cover his business career much except to list promotions; but what I know about the history of Standard Oil isn't flattering. Mays does make one brief comment to the effect that criticizing the treatment of Standard Oil's workforce displays an ignorance of economic realities; I did not find that a particularly convincing defense. Again, I don't know exactly what Folger did at Standard Oil. But I found it inherently difficult to root for an oil exec.
Secondly, the secrecy with which he conducted his negotiations bugged me, even though I realized it was a useful tactic. And when he's bidding against a library for an extremely valuable rare book with historical significance -- well, sorry, I want the library to win. It bothered me that Folger's acquisitions were hidden away. These are valuable pieces of literary history, and for years no one could study them--in fact, even Folger himself rarely saw them. What was the point of acquiring them? I kept wondering. Folger did seem to have a real affection for Shakespeare, but the appeal of the books seems to have been more of a game than anything else. To me, he was like a hunter who isn't hunting for food but just for the thrill. I thought it was a real shame that the books were essentially in a lockbox for decades.
I'm not arguing that Folger was a bad guy, necessarily, but I did wish the author had done a little more analysis of him as a person. I think a biography of him would probably be fascinating, but this book takes more of a bare-facts approach. The bare facts are interesting in themselves, but I still wish the author had engaged with Folger as a person a little more.
At the end of his life, of course, Folger did establish the beautiful Folger Shakespeare Library. This means that the many Folios he collected are now available for scholars to study, and I applaud him for that. Folger himself never got to see the finished library; like Moses, he died just before reaching the Promised Land.
Henry Folger became obsessed with Shakespeare and that folio. He paid enormous amounts of money to own them. He had to have them all. Of the couple of hundred that survived into the 20th century, Folger eventually bought 82. He spent millions. He also bought paintings, playbills, ticket stubs – anything connected to Shakespeare and his plays. When the house overflowed he rented whole rooms in warehouses around New York for decades, to hold well over 2000 crates of Shakespeareana. When he died, the book count was well over a quarter of a million. The playbill count was over half a million. To this day, they still have not completely catalogued them all. His wife’s right hand became gnarled from filling out index cards in her tiny handwriting. Every purchase had a card. They carted around large cases of these cards to check if they already had purchased the item offered.
In another irony, Folger, who could not actually enjoy any of his acquisitions because they were all sealed away in storage, was never considered an authority on Shakespeare. He was viewed as a rich American, draining the heritage out of England. He was recognized for his power and his money (He spent his whole career at the side of John D. Rockefeller, eventually becoming Chairman of Standard Oil of New York and New Jersey). He became the classic Ugly American. Today, the library he built in Washington is a private warehouse. His wife Emily is the only person to have ever borrowed a book from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare himself would not be allowed to examine the First Folio collection.
Andrea Mays does a terrific job of profiling the creation of these folios and quartos, their context, importance and their history, at the beginning of the book, so that when we meet up with them again in the 1900s, we know and appreciate their significance, even more than their owners did. You really feel you are cashing in on your newfound knowledge. Her writing however, is not economical. She takes a lot of words to say very little, and repeats herself often. She probably tells us ten times that if not for the First Folio, we’d never have any Shakespearean plays. Fortunately, the story itself is so compelling, you overlook the style to see how it all shakes out (sorry).
Tells the story of Henry Clay Folger and his collection of Shakespeare's First Folios, which eventually became the Folger Shakespeare Library.
I enjoy books about books and I love Shakespeare in play and film, so I was interested in the story as soon as I saw it as an Advanced Reading Copy possibility to download. Mays breaks it down in incredible detail, starting with several chapters that explain the creation of the First Folio and the downward popularity of Shakespeare's plays after his death, long before Folger ever comes onto the scene. There are moments of interesting tidbits, such as Folger's stint at Amherst College (about 45 minutes from my hometown), his wife Emily's scholarship and pursuit of a graduate degree, and Folger's sometimes very American businessman approach to buying First Folios from English gentlemen and the reactions that ensued. Unfortunately, it gets rather bogged down in the details and I felt like the more interesting story of his obsessive collecting was overshadowed by a litany of lists: the Folios he bought, what condition they were in, how much he paid. The footnotes were really confusing - I actually got the book out of the library because I feared much of it was the e-book ARC I was reading (and it was, to some extent, because the numbers didn't match up). There were times I wasn't sure if I wasn't too dense to get the connection, but others where the content of the footnote was repeated in the text, and one chapter where it looked like about twenty more footnotes were planned than were actually in the text, leaving a lot of quotes with no citation. If I hadn't been so interested in the topic, I might not have pursued it to the end.
The book is structured somewhat like a Shakespeare play with stories within stories: the creation of the First Folio, Henry Folger's purchases and finally the building of the Folger library (which I've probably walked past but never knew existed). The middle (all the purchases) dragged a bit.
I guess the Millionaire and the Bard was a better title than the Millionaire and his Wife and the Bard, but I found Emily didn't get enough credit. Her exclusion from the last sentence in the book really struck me: “In the First Folio, Ben Jonson wrote William Shakespeare's truest epitaph: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” So, too, are Henry Clay Folger and his magnificent obsession.” There are other books that give Emily more of the recognition she deserves..
In the end, I decided this book was not about "the millionaire" or "the bard". We learned a lot about the millionaire's collection, but very little about him as a person. The book isn't really about the bard either, but about the attempt to capture some of his great writing for posterity. I got no sense that Henry Folger loved Shakespeare's works. His collection was locked away; he seemed to view the works he bought as commodities and never developed any expertise in the bard, his life or his works. The book is more about the "gilded age of capitalism" (as I've heard it called) and about the rising prominence of America as Britain's treasures were shipped across the Atlantic.