An exacting inquiry into Shakespeare’s First Folio and the art of extreme book collecting, demonstrated by the life of a pathological bibliophile.
In her debut, lifelong Shakespeare enthusiast Mays (Economics/California State Univ., Long Beach) meticulously details the “curiously unexamined” life of millionaire businessman Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930), an obsessive, discriminating Bard collector who acquired an extremely rare, inaugural edition of dramatic works known as Shakespeare’s First Folio. He then went on to spend millions on other collectible tomes with the intent to amass as many Folio copies as possible and enact text comparisons with each—“to subject them to meticulous comparative analysis.” Mays begins with Shakespeare’s rise to prominence among London theater and literary circles. His death in 1616 left half of his oeuvre as yet unpublished until unauthorized attempts at collecting these works produced the much-pirated “Pavier Quarto” (False Folio), followed by a modest, laborious printing of the First Folio and subsequent editions thereafter. Mays describes this undertaking in vivid detail, and she confidently presents Folger as a driving force behind the eventual success of industrial giant Standard Oil, a position that would provide him with the wealth to pursue his obsessive passion. However, the impetus of Folger’s burgeoning interest in Shakespeare’s Folios remains a mystery even to Mays, whose scrupulous research is evident from her revealing closing notes and bibliography. Folger’s proliferating “Foliomania,” which endured throughout the early 1900s until his death, comprises the remainder of the book. Without becoming fiddly, the author assembles Folger’s “forgotten” lifetime through chapters brimming with biographical specifics (some known, some fascinatingly obscure) of his and wife’s substantial estate, and she honorably resurrects this affluent, rapacious eccentric who became wholly consumed with the acquisition of a priceless bonanza of Shakespeariana.
A methodical opus comprising intensive memoir and inquisitive investigation.