A Feature Review of
The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio
Hardback: Simon and Schuster, 2015
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Anna Visser
In her prologue to The Millionaire and the Bard, author Andrea Mays says all that needs to be said about the book that is to follow: “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” (xvi). In this one, summative sentence, Mays reveals her awe and fascination with Shakespeare and his works, and she draws us into this tale of a man who revered Shakespeare even more than she does. The story that follows is, indeed, somehow magical—even to a reader who might not necessarily otherwise identify as a Shakespeare enthusiast.
Mays begins by explaining the history behind this magnificent book that would become the object of academic affection and collectors’ obsession—Shakespeare’s First Folio, a massive 900 page collection of 36 plays, collected and edited by two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell.
There is no such thing as a “true text” of Shakespeare. This Folio was not published until after his death, and Heminges and Condell worked from a variety of published and unpublished sources along with their memories and knowledge of Shakespeare’s words and style; there is no record of any notes or sources they used or of the original pages of the Folio from the printer. Additionally, each copy is unique due to errors and inconsistencies in type, spelling, and editing. Some editions have pages missing; others have extras. And as the Folios were sold unbound, each buyer was free to cut pages to size, add covers, and even gild the edges in silver or gold. And yet, Shakespeare scholars throughout the ages have desired to study and compare all these versions of Shakespeare’s words, in an attempt to discover his true words and intentions.
Here, Mays brings the story ahead several years and across the ocean to New York and to the life and work of Henry Clay Folger during the Gilded Age in America. From modest upbringings, Folger attended Amherst College and received a liberal arts education. Though he was nearly forced to drop out because of finances, Folger graduated fifth in his class, and despite being offered two different teaching jobs, Folger chose to return to New York and begin working for an oil company.
Folger was an excellent businessman who went on to become the president of Standard Oil in New York; slowly, the business practices and wealth he gained from the oil industry would allow him to become the world’s most successful collector of First Folios and other Shakespeariana, as well.
Folger’s first purchase was a copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio—he bought it at auction for $107.50 and had to pay in installments. Several years later, after a trip to England with his wife Emily, they purchased their first First Folio. Several pages were missing, and one entire play was taken from another Folio. A few years later, he bought another First Folio. This copy had all its original pages and cost $4,500.
And this was only the beginning. Together, Folger and his wife became experts in Shakespeare. Folger developed relationships with rare book dealers and other collectors and Shakespeare experts, and he began purchasing Folios in secret, before they came up for auction. He also collected other books, manuscripts, art and playbills. As he and Emily lived in a small, rented apartment, they rented storage units to house their collection. Folger never had the luxury of seeing his entire collection together.
His most prized purchases included a First Folio whose original owner had been gifted the book by its publisher; Folger paid $50,000 for this copy. At the time, it was the most that had ever been paid for a book, and Folger completed the transaction entirely in secret. Folger also won an original 1594 quarto edition of the play Titus Andronicus and the earliest known compilation of Shakespeare quartos, known as a “false folio,” for which he paid $100,000.
While it was known that Folger owned more copies of the First Folio than any other collector—and more than existed in all of England, it was not known how extensive his collection was until the Folger Shakespeare Library opened in Washington DC in 1932. Folger died before the library opened, but he was instrumental in planning the library; it was his wish for his collection to be available to other Shakespeare scholars. When the library opened, books and artwork were brought in by the truckload from storage units and bank vaults all over New York. After the stock market crashed, his collection was valued at just over $4 million. He owned 82 First Folios, over one-third half of the known still existing copies.
Folger kept records and lists of his purchases, but his and Emily’s attempts at recording his bibliography never came to fruition. Presumably, it is for this reason that Mays’ account feels flat at times; her story contains dry passages that amount to nothing much more than a chronological list of purchases of Folios at about the same price and about the same unremarkable condition.
At other times, however, Mays manages to paint suspenseful and exciting pictures of Folger’s bidding wars, secret correspondence, and unstoppable drive to own Shakespeare. It is clear that Folger was obsessed with having as many Folios as he could find; the amount of money he was willing to spend is astonishing. And yet, he was humble. He hated publicity—even when his library was being built, he wished to keep the process as quiet as possible. He rarely allowed news of his purchases to be published. It wasn’t until he retired that he ever bought a house. Folger was a smart businessman, and he spent money only on his Shakespeare collection. In the end, he gave his collection back to his country to be used by future generations of Shakespeare scholars. And it is for this reason that Mays is able to paint such an impassioned, tender history of the man who, like Shakespeare, died before his efforts could be fully realized.
Hers is a scholarly historical account of a man and his obsession, and while it is impassioned, with intensity and fascinating elements, it is not itself a magical story. Instead, Mays’ account serves to remind us that there is still magic in story—the ones we create ourselves and the ones that have been canonized as great literature.