Why America Buys England's Books


DURING my frequent visits to England I have often been asked why Americans are so persistent, even voracious, in acquiring the great, literary treasures of Great Britain. I have been accused in its public prints of being the greatest offender. I have been likened unto the ogre of ancient times. Perhaps it is pertinent, therefore, to know the reason why Americans are so anxious to obtain, at almost any price, not only the choicest English books and manuscripts, but the outstanding contemporary documents that chronicle so faithfully and so inexorably the political and literary history of England. According to some of the English newspapers that bewail the loss to England of her great monuments of the past, it is a new thing, this interest in things English on the part of the American public. On the contrary, it has been going on — increasing in volume, it is true—from about the year 1840. Before the Civil War those two farsighted collectors, John Carter Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, and James Lenox of New York, were scouring England for volumes relating to the early history of this country, and incidentally gobbling up such rarities as the first folio of Shakespeare. They were ably assisted in their raids by an American who had taken up his residence in London, Henry Stevens of Vermont, the Green Mountain Boy, who, among the string of titles after his name, included the cryptic letters, BLK BLD, ATHM CLB, meaning ‘ Blackballed by the Athenaeum Club.’

It is extremely gratifying to note the extraordinary love of books persisting in one American family for almost a century. In England the Huths and many others have shown the tendency, the collector’s instinct passed on from father to son for many generations. In this country it is rare. The remarkable exception, however, is evidenced by the Browns of Providence. The great library founded by John Carter Brown, with its glittering array of superb volumes, among the finest in the world, bears eloquent testimony to a continual devotion to books and learning. The family of the original founder has never for a moment flagged in its interest, and the volumes added to the collection since its establishment bear silent witness of a loving regard for books unequaled in America.

In 1847, James Lenox brought to this country from England the first Gutenberg Bible. The earliest first folio of Shakespeare in America was purchased in London about 1836. Since then they have flowed to us in a constant and ever-widening stream, until to-day there are far more of them in the United States than in the British Empire.

England need not complain, however, or consider it such a serious loss as some of her statesmen do. She has within her narrow boundaries superb volumes that America can never hope to possess. The British Museum and the great libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of the wonderful Spencer collection, now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, are treasure houses that luckily can never be despoiled. They will be able to resist the American invader and they will remain always at the service of students and scholars. It is not generally known that the libraries have left no stone unturned to increase their already stupendous hoards. The British Museum has added constantly to its collections, and to-day it is a greater library, in many respects, than the Bibliothèque Nationale, which long held the leadership. I think it is actually the largest and most important library in the world. Under the able direction of Alfred W. Pollard, formerly Keeper of Printed Books, the British Museum acquired many books and manuscripts of great intrinsic value, and it is to the remarkable genius of this man that the British public owes much. Not only is he a bibliographer of extraordinary ability, but, when in charge of the books, he developed the rare faculty of finding the very volumes that would complete a certain series; he was, therefore, ever on the alert to secure for the Museum the things that were most needed. And this in the face of American competition! As to the latter, it is worthy of note that the late J. P. Morgan, and his son as well, in forming their memorable collection, whenever possible never bid against the Museum. If the authorities particularly desired a certain manuscript that belonged of right to the Museum, the Morgans gracefully refrained from bidding.

In fact, Englishmen have always taken a greater pride in their national library than Americans in theirs. Ever since its foundation, the British Museum has received important bequests from collectors, such as the superb gifts of George III and the Honorable Thomas Grenville. Recently, when it was found that in the Museum there was no first folio containing the portrait of Shakespeare in its first state, several patriotic and discerning Englishmen secured it for the nation.

True, a few of our citizens have made noteworthy gifts to our national library in Washington, but in the main it has been sadly neglected. Americans have given wisely and well to their own local foundations, but the Congressional Library, which should be the pride of every American, has never received the encouragement it deserves. Dr. Herbert Putnam, the gifted Librarian of Congress, is making every effort to remedy this glaring defect in our national armor. The Right Honorable Ramsay MacDonald told me, during his recent visit to Philadelphia, that an organized effort was being made by friends of the British Museum to secure the invaluable things that the Museum required. Why not form a society of friends of the Library of Congress, in order to purchase for it, while we have still the opportunity, the many volumes of Americana and the precious documents that bear directly upon our country’s history?


It is a curious thing that rare books and the precious things of the collector follow the flow of gold. When the United States became the great creditor nation, taking the place of England, at least, for the time being, it was but natural that the various objects of art and interest should gravitate to this side. During the last twenty years rare books and literary documents have left the shores of Albion at an alarming rate (for England). Most of them are now in the private and public libraries of the United States. I should hate to state how much I assisted in this magic exodus.

England was the great offender in this same sort of thing a century ago. It is the old threadbare saying, which must have first been uttered by Methuselah, that history repeats itself. In the eighteenth century, Italy, France, and Spain were complaining of the raids made on their artistic resources by Englishmen, as England is complaining of us to-day. The extraordinary increase in gold in England during the Napoleonic Wars was responsible for this. It was the era when the great collectors, Richard Heber, Earl Spencer, the Duke of Roxburghe, the Duke of Sussex, the Duke of Devonshire, Sir Mark Sykes, and Robert Stayner Holford were making the Grand Tour and buying in the great emporiums in Rome and in Florence, in Paris and Madrid, their choicest objects. It is true that the Grand Tour has been the fashion in England ever since the days of Chaucer, and that great libraries were formed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, but it was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the greatest collections were made. In those days Sir Richard Wallace could purchase the finest Watteau in Paris at the price of an etching to-day. The best eighteenth-century paintings, drawings, bibelots, furniture, so dear to the heart of the Frenchman, were transferred from the Rue St. Honoré to Carlton House Terrace, or to grace the drawing-rooms of the elegant country homes of Great Britain.

The wheel of time, however, turns.

It is really unfortunate for England that she is compelled now to give up some of her possessions. No nation has a finer appreciation of great works of the imagination. She receives payment for them, it is true. But money is a thing that can be had; it passes in cycles from one nation to another. A rare book or a manuscript, if it once goes into a public institution, can never be regained. Whether England, to protect her historical and literary relics, should make laws, as Italy has done, is no concern of mine. In her wisdom she probably knows the most expedient procedure. It is an economic as well as cultural question, and of economics I am glad to say I know absolutely nothing. There are, however, masters of the subject in Great Britain; they will probably solve the difficult problem.

The wisest among the collectors in England do not look upon this exchange as a total loss to England. I shall never forget my last conversation with the late Sir George Holford in Dorchester House, London, after I had purchased some of his dearest possessions. He said: ‘The world is growing smaller — Englishmen are great travelers; they can see these very books some day in an American institution far more readily than in the private collections in England. I know myself how difficult it is to throw open private homes to students. You recall as well as I do that the finest library of English poetry was never at the beck and call of students. I am glad that most of it has gone to America, where it will be accessible to scholars of all nations.’ Broad-minded men, like that erudite scholar, Lord Crawford, know that these books will have tender and loving care in America, and that they will be an inspiration to our students.

We Americans have the enthusiasm of youth. Perhaps the traditional Englishman has been so accustomed to seeing about him the finest things of art and literature that in the course of years he becomes a trifle bored. Perhaps we shall also, in the fullness of time, experience this, but at the present we are eager to fill the great libraries and edifices in America with the rarest and most precious books. In the East, and in the West as well, there are enormous library buildings of the finest architectural types. Alas, they have not the books to fill them. The Free Library of Philadelphia has spent nearly seven million dollars on a superb edifice. It will be necessary to fill this building with suitable volumes. The growth of American universities, unparalleled in all time, calls for the apparatus of the student. They must have the tools of their trade — books. It is no wonder that there are not enough to go round. The demand is greater than the supply. Consequently prices will go steadily upward, and it is well to secure them while we may.

It seems a pity that some Americans give such enormous sums for library buildings and spend literally nothing on the volumes themselves. Books, not edifices, make libraries. A friend of mine only fifteen years ago spent four million dollars on a superb library building; some arc already complaining that it is no longer up to date! Buildings pass; they soon become obsolete. Books alone are everlasting. ‘Men may come and men may go, but books go on forever!’ The late Mr. Huntington used to say: ‘The ownership of a fine library is the surest and swiftest way to immortality!’

I have to-day in my New York vault a collection of early English manuscripts unequaled in any library on this side of the Atlantic. It includes four manuscripts of Chaucer, two of Gower’s Confessio Amantis, several of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and the famous manuscript of Occleve’s Poems with a contemporary portrait of Chaucer. It will be impossible ever to secure another assemblage like it, for it does not exist. They will be appreciated after the last, building has tottered on its foundation.


The past fifty years have produced in this country a group of book collectors equal to any that has appeared in England or on the Continent — men well in advance of their time, like the greatest book lover of them all, Richard Heber. I always envied this bibliomaniac his two possessions; as Sir Walter Scott so neatly puts it, ‘Heber the magnificent, whose library and cellar are so superior to all others in the world!’ Would that Americans could be as successful gathering old vintages as old books! In this, England has it all over us.

It is melancholy to record that in the last few months three of our most distinguished collectors have passed away, each one of them possessing in full measure the most extraordinary vision. I refer first to Mr. Edward E. Ayer of Chicago, who was one of the pioneers in making a serious collection of books relating to the American Indian, which he presented, before his death, to the Newberry Library in Chicago. The late Mr. William A. White of Brooklyn, of beloved memory, was among the earliest of our collectors to gather the choice and alluring volumes of the great Elizabethans. His judgment was unusually good and he had a vivid understanding of this golden period, equaled by few scholars. He did not hesitate to lend his finest volumes to any student who showed an intelligent interest in English literature.

I cannot speak at length of Mr. Henry E. Huntington. I feel his loss too poignantly at the present time. He was without doubt the greatest collector of books the world has ever known. Without possessing a profound knowledge of literature or of history, his flair for fine books was remarkable. His taste was sure, impeccable. The library at San Gabriel, California, which houses his wonderful collections, will be the Mecca of students for all time. No gift to a nation or to a state can ever equal his. America does not appreciate it to-day, but, as time spins its web and the world becomes better acquainted with the Huntington treasures, this fact will be adequately recognized.

I do not mean to imply that American collectors are forming great libraries and art galleries solely for patriotic reasons, or for the good of their generation. It is perhaps, after all, a secondary consideration with them. Certainly it is not the first. Neither is their motive the encouragement of scholarship or of the arts. It is something more human. The bump of acquisitiveness is strongly developed in our collectors, and perhaps I know this as well as anyone. They like to exhibit their treasures as other mortals do, to show them to their envious friends with a twinkle in their eyes and a certain amount of deviltry. American amateurs, who have built railroads and great suspension bridges, who have been financial giants and captains of industry, must surely possess the red blood that made them thus. Of course they like to flaunt a folio of Ben Jonson or a Keats’s Poems, with a presentation inscription, before the eyes of other collectors. In these ecstatic moments they do not care a whit for the nation or for the people. But with the passing of years, with the gradual oozing of the enthusiasm and candor of youth, they think of the ultimate disposal of their books. It is then and then only that the people of America come into their own.

It is a wonderful and magnificent thing that the gathering of books in this country is in the hands of leaders of her industries, the so-called business kings, and not in the hands of college professors and great scholars. The latter generally, in forming a collection, make a sad mess of it. The instinct of the collector, the heluo librorum of Cicero, is entirely different from that of the scholar. They are two distinct and separate faculties: the acquisition of knowledge and the gathering of books. Men to be successful in either must have an entirely different cosmos. Both are indispensable. It is paradoxical, but true, that not a single great library in the world has been formed by a great scholar.

Every year our collectors pitch their tents on the fair and hospitable shores of Great Britain, where they exchange their useless gold for ancient and modern English books. The pleasant bookshops all over England, Ireland, and Scotland welcome the American visitors, who take home with them ingratiating little volumes like Herrick’s Hesperides and Lovelace’s Lucasta. The supply of such charming volumes has become well-nigh exhausted. Nowhere can this migration be more clearly seen than in the Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, l475—1640 issued by the Bibliographical Society. This monumental work has been compiled by A. W. Pollard, G. R. Redgrave, and a host of the ablest English scholars. A glance at its pages reveals the fact that there are many important books of English dramatic poetry of which no copy now remains in England. Take, for instance, the second edition of Hamlet, published in London in 1604. It is really the first edition containing the true text, as the first, of 1603, was a pirated one, with inferior readings. Twenty-five years ago three copies, all that exist, were in important private libraries in England. To-day all three are in America — in the Huntington Library, in the Elizabethan Club at Yale University, and in the private collection of Mr. H. C. Folger of New York. The check list shows that of many of the most exquisite volumes of poetry and romance not a single copy remains in the great country that saw its birth. On the other hand, there are thousands of books remaining in the British Museum, at the universities and colleges, at Lambeth, at Edinburgh, in the Patent Office, at Peterborough, at Winchester, of which not a single example exists in any library in the United States.

The situation, for England’s scholars, has certain compensations. The books are really accessible in this country. Following the procedure of the members of the old Roxburghe Club, beautiful reprints have been made by American collectors of various great rarities and distributed to the libraries of Great Britain. Heywood’s King Edward the Fourth, 1599, which exists in a single copy in the library of Mr. C. W. Clark, has now been made in facsimile by the courtesy of the owner and issued for the use of students. Wager’s unique Interlude, Enough is as good as a Feast (about 1565), has also been reprinted. It was in Lord Mostyn’s library for many, many years, quite out of the reach of most scholars. I trust no one will infer from this that the great English collectors bury their things and are niggardly in offering their books and manuscripts to the learned. On the contrary, the Duke of Devonshire, Sir R. L. Harmsworth, and Mr. Thomas J. Wise have always opened their doors to worthy scholars.


It is a great mistake for England to think that America is willing to pay mad prices for every English book. When bidding around the board at Sotheby’s the trade have often smiled when they dropped a ‘hot one’ on me. I shall never forget when I bought a book for £640 in the Britwell sale and someone kindly remarked, ‘Why, Richard Heber gave two shillings for that very copy in 1826.’ Needless to say it made not the slightest difference to me what he paid for it; I only knew that I was getting a great book and that no price was too high for it. Books of intrinsic worth, which exist in one or two copies, cannot be measured in terms of shillings and pence, or dollars and cents. Occasionally, however, when bidding, for moral (or immoral!) effect I have dropped a common rarity on my competitors, and they have paid twice what I thought the book was worth. And I might have been mistaken at that! It’s all in the game. It is also a great mistake to think that when a book is knocked down to an English bookseller it will remain within the British Isles. There is nothing more fallacious than that. At least fifty per cent of the purchases of British dealers eventually wend their way to this country.

Once I had a serious qualm when relieving Great Britain of her cherished belongings. That was when I purchased privately the Battle Abbey Cartularies, the original documents of those valiant men who came over with William the Conqueror. There were hundreds of deeds and legal documents dating from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, bound in ninety-nine volumes. They were the very foundations of English history. It was with a feeling of genuine regret that I saw them leave England forever. I hope in their home in the New World they will have the tender attention and respect they received in their former abode in the west of England.

The muniment rooms in the great houses still retain valuable documents of all kinds. A search through the many volumes and calendars of papers issued by the English Historical Manuscripts Commission will reveal the wealth of material still remaining in Great Britain. I remember only last year looking with envious eyes upon the muniment chamber of a noble family. There were ancient papers, rolls, parchments of all kinds, bound volumes of letters, from floor to ceiling, some of which had been in the same family for over eight hundred years. What a treasure-trove for a student of the social and political history of Great Britain! In looking quite casually over the lot I found a paper bearing the signature of John Milton; another of Thomas Killigrew; a whole stack of Samuel Pepys. My mouth began to water. I even thought if I looked more thoroughly I might find one of William Shakespeare — who knows? Professor Wallace found several in the Public Record Office in London. The famous impresa is in the Duke of Rutland’s collection at Belvoir Castle. Why not find one hidden away among these musty records?

It was, however, with a sense of relief that I heard the noble owner say to me: ‘You cannot carry these off, Doctor Rosenbach. Thank God, they are entailed; even my children’s children, if they fall on evil days, will be unable to dispose of them.’ Down in my inmost soul I was delighted. Although I could never possess them, it warmed the cockles of my heart to hear the words that blasted my hopes forever. However, there are compensations. I was invited to visit the house any time I came to England, and to examine at my leisure these entrancing documents. My student days rushed back to me. How I should have been rejoiced, in the old days, when I was making original investigations into the beginnings of the English drama under the guidance of my beloved teacher, Dr. Felix E. Schelling, to study these papers, with a chance of finding something that would add, if only a trifle, to our knowledge of the subject. I felt a renegade. I had deserted the halls of learning for the bookshop; I had given up my fellowship to enter a business that would, perhaps, put money in my purse.

I did not, when at college, appreciate what a high adventure the business was to prove, the excitement and anxiety of the chase, and that I had a better chance, a far greater opportunity, to unearth unpublished documents and uncover original source material than ever I could have as an instructor in English in some university. After twenty-five years I am still of this opinion; although I sneakingly hanker for the time when I can quietly return to my early love, and carefully survey, without a thought of their commercial value, the many interesting things that have fallen to my collector’s bag. Perhaps I have been of some help to other students, who can investigate at their leisure the great mass of material that I have been the instrument of placing in their hands.

The study of English letters in the universities of this country is also responsible for the persistent demand for everything relating to the language and literature of Great Britain. Theses on almost every subject are being turned out regularly by candidates for ihe Ph.D. degree. I would do almost anything rather than be compelled to read most of them. I plead guilty, however, to having written one myself, long before I dreamed of entering the more diverting sport of book hunting. The quality of some of the work done by our scholars is extremely high, almost astounding, like Dr. Hotson’s bombshell, describing accurately, for the first time, the death of Kit Marlowe.1 All the professors in the colleges and all the students in the seminars (how I hate this word!) are urging the university authorities to supply them with books. And there is only one place to buy them — England. It is no wonder, therefore, that we are probably getting ourselves thoroughly disliked on the other side by carrying off, like so many lusty buccaneers, the sacred treasuries of English thought. Admiral Drake, the ‘dragon’ of Lope de Vega, on his West Indian voyage looted the pearls and emeralds of the New Empire, taking them back to England to show to the mighty Queen Elizabeth. Our pirates are almost as ambitious. We go after far more precious things, things that outwear time and are not dependent on taste or fashion. The demand for England s books will not lessen; it will increase with every decade. There are some English collectors, like Sir R. L. Harmsworth, who are trying gallantly to stem the tide. Others are steeling themselves to heroic efforts to check the rush, but mere man cannot conquer an economic situation of such dimensions. It will be impossible to check the welling flood unless the Government comes to the rescue.

As I have said before, the most sagacious among Englishmen do not consider the matter a very serious one. They look with equanimity upon the situation. They really admire the pluck and spirit of our collectors, for the English are sportsmen of the first order. Recently I was speaking to one of them about the Pierpont Morgan Library. He said how marvelous it was that such a great collection should be given to the public during the owner’s lifetime. He knew of no gift to England of like magnitude. I reminded him of the splendid Althorp Collection of Lord Spencer, given in 1892 by Mrs. John Rylands to Manchester, which equals anything in this country. We, however, have just begun. New collectors and new libraries abound. New foundations, with large sums for the purchase of books, are springing into being. Mid yet some of the English (not the wisest) say that the United States is a country where the dollars count most. A libel, of course. In fact some of our amateurs are almost prodigal, nay, quixotic in their use of money. I know one who gave up a lucrative business in order to devote himself to the purchase of old books. Bravo! Would that there were more like him, not alone in this country, but in England as well.

Following the financial centre, the book mart has gradually shifted to New York. In a few years it will be impossible to purchase the finest English books in London. I have only recently sold to a well-known English collector some volumes purchased at the Britwell sale not. two years ago. I can foresee the day when Englishmen, with the taste and ability to buy, will be browsing in shops in Philadelphia, in New Orleans, in Minneapolis, in San Francisco, and taking their lucky finds back with them to their old home.

  1. See ‘Tracking Down a Murderer,’ by J. Leslie Hotson, in the Atlantic Monthly for June 1925.