Stanford acquires late professor’s renowned collection of ‘association copies’

L.A. Cicero oldbooks douglass

In his autobiographical My Bondage and My Freedom (at left), Frederick Douglass inscribed a dedication to Ellen Richardson, a Quaker woman who helped secure his manumission.

L.A. Cicero oldbooks adams

A 1703 edition of Pliny the Younger’s Epistolae et Panegyricus bears the bookplate of John Quincy Adams.

When Jay Fliegelman was 12 years old in New York City, he was ill with a life-threatening disease. Sick children are usually lonely—isolated from their peers not only by the illness itself but also by the altered experience the illness offers. This particular child found an uncharacteristic companion to wile away his hours: old books. It was not a penchant for reading them that sustained him, but rather a passion for collecting them.

It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination for Fliegelman, the William Robertson Coe Professor in American Literature, who went on to become a leading figure in American studies. He died Aug. 14, 2007, at 58, following complications from liver disease and cancer.

During his childhood illness, he discovered the Fourth Avenue bookstores, owned by Jewish immigrants who had arrived with rare books and set up shop. "I realized that you could get a book that was 300 years old for $10, if it were missing two leaves and had been stored vertically so that the heavy page block, which is supposed to lay flat, had begun to pull away from the binding," he wrote in his final unfinished manuscript, Belongings. Fliegelman's manuscript is part inventory and part love affair.

Its object is now housed in Green Library's Special Collections, which has just acquired the nationally renowned collection from Fliegelman's widow, Christine Guth, an independent scholar and recent Humanities Center fellow. According to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor and director of the American Studies Program, the 258 volumes form "one of the most impressive book collections likely to be put up for sale in our time."

The price of the collection is confidential, said Associate University Librarian Assunta Pisani. She added, however, that "the collection was worth more than what we paid for it—and the difference was a donation from the widow."

The inventory has grown and altered in the decades since Fliegelman's early rummages through Fourth Avenue bookstores. The collection at the Green Library is definitely a grown-up acquisition organized with a grown-up's eye.

An accomplished and renowned collector, Fliegelman specialized in "association copies." These books have a great, sometimes huge, added value largely because of who owned them. In this case, some of Fliegelman's books once belonged to Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Washington, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and the Empress of Russia. One of them carries the most famous American signature of all, John Hancock.

A stunning example of the cache rests within a book box covered with green marbled paper, with the words on the spine: "Frederick Douglass—Narratives of His Life." One of the books inside is the statesman's autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. The volume is inscribed to Ellen Richardson:

"With the respect, esteem, and most grateful regards of the author and as a token of his sentiments towards her, as the friend and benefactress, through whose active benevolence, he was ransomed from American Slavery. 1860"

The simple message is so moving and alive it almost conveys a pulse, connecting us through time to the former slave whose manumission was championed by the Quaker headmistress from Newcastle who acted as a fundraiser for Douglass's freedom.

Clearly, the books in Fliegelman's collection have a story, and this particular one is "an incredible piece of history," Pisani said.

These are the famous names—but the lesser known, too, have their stories. Richard Bellingham (1592-1672) owned the 1609 edition of George Buchanan's popular translation of the book of Psalms. Bellingham was a three-time governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony immortalized in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, where he serves as a symbol of Puritan theocracy. Fliegelman calls him "the real frog in the imaginary garden."

Beauties of the English Stage is one of the few survivors of the library of gifted Gambian-born poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), who was bought as a child slave wearing only the remnants of an old sack. She died in poverty, but free, after the birth of her third child. "A book from Wheatley's library is virtually unattainable today," Fliegelman wrote. Wheatley's husband, having abandoned her, survived her and sold her books—but they're a rare find.

Fliegelman "changed his collection constantly, buying and selling all the time," said John Mustain, Special Collections librarian. "He would go into a store and recognize these names, and the dealer wouldn't. It was just pure gold for him."

According to Fliegelman, association copies "ideally are books not simply owned by important people, but books that influenced them, with which they had an emotional as well as intellectual relationship, often a longstanding relationship in which the book served—to use tropes of the 18th century—as friend, mentor, father, child." This relationship is often marked by "marginalia, signatures, dating, wear patterns, turned down corners, thumbprints."

The relationship may surface in more profound ways, too: Longfellow's copy of The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) was probably an inspiration for his best poem on slavery, according to Fishkin.

Fliegelman's tastes distinguish him from the majority of collectors: "In the usual marketplace the book that is sought after is the pristine copy of, say, The Scarlet Letter, untouched, off the press. I am interested in the other end of the spectrum, the book that's been read to death," he wrote.

Faculty and students urged Green Library to acquire the Fliegelman library: "Jay's collection is, in my opinion, one of the most important examples of its kind in the world, and would surely become a magnet to scholars, from diverse disciplines, for generations to come," according to Gavin Jones, associate professor of English. He added that the collection has "the power to realign scholarly interpretation of 18th- and 19th-century literature. … Scholars have barely scraped the surface."

In his letter to the library, Albert Gelpi, the Coe Professor of American Literature, Emeritus, emphasized the cohesiveness of the library: "It is a single collection; the books speak to each other."

Certainly Fliegelman speaks to us through them. What he told his students and fellow scholars was to pay attention to the physicality of a book—"anything that shows the actual engagement of the reader with text." Mustain sometimes refers to it as the book's "archeology"—the layers of annotations, marginalia and signatures that take place over generations.

For example, Amelie Opie (1769-1853) may have been a prominent poet in her time, but James Fenimore Cooper scribbled "silly" on the title page of her poetry collection. President John Adams carefully copied Greek words in the margins of Hermes, or a Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar.

In a time when paper was rare and expensive, margins are sometimes marked with arithmetic sums or otherwise marked as scratch paper, since notepads weren't an option. Thomas Jefferson was upset that James Madison had written his name five times (apparently trying to draw ink into his quill) in his 1751 edition of Milton's Paradise Lost. After trying unsuccessfully to erase Madison's name, Jefferson was forced to sign his own name on the title page, "a practice he abhorred," noted Fliegelman.

Jones explained the rationale behind Fliegelman's collection: "Behind Jay's collecting mind, which can be seen as a kind of attack on the very idea of marginalia, whereby what seems incidental—a dedication, a note—becomes in fact central to a radical reinterpretation of the text in question." It also became the basis for a unique kind of pedagogy.

"One of the best things about Jay's teaching was that he frequently invited graduate classes to his home," wrote graduate student Natalie Phillips. "He did this so he could show us his library and his collections of 18th- and 19th-century Americana—a truly life-altering experience for a young academic in the field. Jay would talk endlessly, pulling book after book from his shelf, with us in a tight, fascinated circle. It was not only invigorating and exciting. It was real learning."

She continued: "By keeping Jay's collection at Stanford, we both commemorate Jay's intellectual legacy and create an 'association collection,' a collection of books drawn together for their associations, drawn to Jay by his associations with them, and kept at Stanford for his association with it, with us."

Odd that a collection begun so much earlier in Fliegelman's life, by a child looking backward into the past, extends a new and very different meaning into the future, for us. In any case, the early collection served its first purpose: to console and comfort a frail and lonely boy. The young Fliegelman opened the pages of his old books and peered into another world.

"I'd go to a bookstore and see them stored wrongly and just feel the drama of the 'skin' coming off in a slow battle against the weight," Fliegelman recalled. "So I had these various things that were easy to get—British Library lanolin and glue and sewing materials—and I'd buy these old books and repair them in a very amateurish way as a way of modeling to my parents and the doctor how I wanted to be taken care of. But I reversed the role; I was now the doctor."