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Feature

The Word Museum

Exploring the literary treasures of the Rosenbach

By Harry Siegel | HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 3

Reinvention may just be the oldest American tradition, and there are few museums that embody that tradition quite like the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia.

The museum is in two joined townhouses on a quiet residential block in Center City. You could walk by every day without a glance—the sort of place that you have to know about to notice. Inside, though, it is strange and sprawling, weird and wondrous, an adjective-exhausting collection that tells an American story. Actually, hundreds of them.

In my day there, I went from Thomas Jefferson's handwritten lists of his slaves to Maurice Sendak’s original sketches, then spent an hour deciphering Emily Dickinson's elegantly illegible letters, slowly gaining new glimpses of her prose and voice. From there, I went over the extensive collection of baseball books in the complete living room of the great American poet Marianne Moore, which has been moved, in full—chairs, shelves, chachkas, and all—from Greenwich Village to the museum’s third floor. It’s a place Maurice Sendak visits from time to time to enjoy the familiar comforts of his old friend and neighbor’s room, but that's getting ahead of the story.

Let’s begin instead with the Rosenbach brothers themselves. The children of a once prosperous cotton broker whose business had suffered, Philip and Abraham Simon Wolf grew up middle-class, and both evidenced an early fascination with objects and artifacts, perhaps inspired by their uncle Moses Polock, a well-established bookseller. Philip, thirteen years older, put Abraham through graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1901. After completing his dissertation on the influence of Spanish literature on English theater, the beginning of a lifelong relationship with both Cervantes and Shakespeare, Abraham spent the next two years as an assistant at Penn. Uncle Moses died in 1903, and willed the Doctor, as Abraham was now called, his collection of early American children’s books (most of which Abraham later donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia, but again, that's getting ahead of our story). That same year, the brothers formed the Rosenbach Company, with Philip selling fine and decorative art objects while the Doctor sold rare books and manuscripts.

After a few relatively lean years establishing the business, things picked up when the Doctor claimed as a client and disciple in the ways of book-collecting Harry Elkins Widener, a young Harvard graduate and heir to one of America’s great fortunes. Harry had caught the collector’s bug. Derick Dreher, the museum's director, explains it thus: “By collecting and arranging in the order you want, [you] could write history in a sense; arrange the history.”

On Harry’s return from a 1912 book-buying trip to England, though, he and his new purchases went down with the Titanic. His loss became the Doctor’s gain, as Harry's mother made it out on a lifeboat, and on her return charged the Doctor with completing his library, promising whatever money was needed. Within the first month, Rosenbach had spent $100,000 putting together the foundation of what is today a more than five-million-volume library at Harvard.

The purchases made the Doctor’s name, and with young American money seeking out suddenly cash poor, object-rich European sellers during World War I and after, the Rosenbachs were in business. The Doctor found himself creating libraries for many of the wealthiest Americans, including the three great Henrys of the day: Folger, Clay Frick, and Huntington. Rosenbach served them as not just a dealer, but also an adviser on how to assemble collections. Naturally, these men were eager to outdo each other and amassed collections the likes of which had never been seen before.

As Dreher puts it, “The Doctor was buying and selling like a pirate”—and collecting his cut each time, as well as building an awesome private collection, which he supplemented with transfers from the company to his own library. These acquisitions were out of the sight of his older brother, whose own business never enjoyed similar success. Yet Philip continued to be the boss, albeit one as eccentric in his own fashion, and as lax in his bookkeeping as Abraham.

The Doctor’s passion, though, was building collections, not hoarding objects, and throughout his life he gave parts of his own collection to the public, and encouraged his buyers to do the same. Princeton, the Library of Congress, and many other great American libraries owe parts of their collections to the generosity of the Doctor and his charges. Most famously, after failing to convince a client to return Lewis Carroll’s  Alice’s Adventures under Ground (the first handwritten manuscript, illustrated by Carroll himself, of what would later be published as Alice in Wonderland) to the Brits, he eventually purchased the manuscript himself and put together a group of purchasers to buy it from him and return it across the Atlantic, where it now resides in the British Museum.

The Doctor, a short, stout man with apple-red cheeks and a gruff style of dress and comportment, brought the same creativity to swearing that he brought to business, and the same dedication to drinking. Philip, by contrast, was prone to playing the dandy. Their grooming kits, which are both on display at the museum, are a study in contrasts: Philip’s has more than twenty gilded, ornately initialed and bejeweled pieces, like something one would read about in a Waugh novel (his scent, I'm told, is still fragrant and powerful when its case is opened), while Abraham’s seems highly functional, and flask-oriented.

The Doctor brought the same roguish attitude to his public persona, which was world famous by the 1920s. A showman, Rosenbach would attend book auctions, which were genteel affairs, and literally jump up and down with an outrageous offer on a volume, knowing he'd not only profit in newspaper coverage (“Philly dealer sets world record” and the like), but also then be able to sell it for more to one of his clients. As a 1956 Harper’s article entitled “Dr. Rosenbach: The tycoon of rare books” said, “Only one American that I know of has parlayed a doctorate of philosophy in English literature into a fortune.” Every Rosenbach catalog carried on its back cover Proverbs 20:14: “It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer, but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth.”

But the Doctor was also a highly discerning collector and reader. His acquisitions included the original manuscript of Joyce’s Ulysses, the aforementioned Alice, and—perhaps his trademark—four of the nine Gutenberg Bibles that went on the market during his career (he also had an option on a fifth).

In 1950, the Rosenbach brothers, who had long since retired and receded from the public eye and memory, liquidated the Rosenbach Company and created the museum, with the idea that it would be a collector of sorts of its own, free to buy and sell as its directors saw fit. Neither brother lived to see its doors open in 1954. Philip died in 1953, and the Doctor the year before in the townhouse they shared in their final years. While the dozens of caged birds in the bay widows and a handful of parrots that had free flight of the place left with them, much of the museum still resembles the home the Rosenbachs shared, down to the hodgepodge collection of art objects and artifacts throughout the ground floor that are often related only by sensibility, not era. Here the proclamation letting women onto the English stage, there the phantasmagoric demons-with-their-tongues-out ironwork of Samuel Yellin. And in the rooms above, the manuscripts that are the heart and soul of the museum. It is a collector’s home still.

For its first several decades, though, the museum was public in name only. With no regular visiting hours or promotion, it mostly served a few old family friends, the well-off and in-the-know, and a few scholars. Dreher laments, “You practically had to know the secret knock to get in.” Meanwhile, it supported itself by selling as needed anything that wasn't nailed down. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the museum had a professional director, who undertook the first catalog of the collection—meaning there’s no way to know what was sold off or stolen away in the interim.

These days, the museum is not just open to the public, but actively reaching out and engaging with it. By “putting things out there and letting people tell us what they mean to them, they can find new ways to interpret our collection” says Dreher. In that spirit, the museum has begun a series of partnerships with local schools, and it regularly holds events, including a Dracula Festival and a Bloomsday reading. The museum stages exhibitions and installations curated by outside experts who cull the museum’s collection and holds performances by artists in residence, including the great jazz pianist David Burrell.

The Rosenbach will cap a forty-plus-year relationship with Maurice Sendak with “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak” this May, the largest ever exhibition of the artist's work. Three large rooms are dedicated to his work, going far past the well-worn Where the Wild Things Are into his sadly less well-known and far more adult work. Numerous related events, including the Sendak in Spring festival, should expose many newcomers to the great secret trove that is the Rosenbach.

Perhaps some will come back and spend a day immersed in the original prints of William Blake, or in the plain and strong handwriting and words of George Washington, or in the thousands of books about America’s westward expansion, or . . .

Harry Siegel is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn and the coauthor of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life (Encounter Books, 2005).

Since 1976, the Rosenbach Museum & Library has received six NEH grants for preservation, exhibition, and building projects.