Under the watch of Emerson’s descendants and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association (in which the family still plays a major role), the sage’s manuscripts have largely been kept together. After the death in 1930 of Edward Waldo Emerson, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association was formed to maintain and manage the Emerson house and property. The house remains today much as it was at the end of Emerson’s life, with the exception of the contents of the study, which were transferred to the Concord Antiquarian Society (now the Concord Museum) in the early 1930s. The Houghton Library at Harvard was established in 1942. Soon after that, the RWEMA began to deposit Emerson manuscripts and family papers there, and to transfer from the CAS valuable (inscribed or annotated) volumes from Emerson’s library. (They were replaced at the CAS by non-Emerson duplicates from the Harvard libraries.)
Harvard is rich in printed material by or relating to Emerson, as are a number of other American repositories (for example: the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts; the Boston Athenaeum; the Boston Public Library; the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston; the New York Public Library; the University of Florida, which since 1980 has held the Parkman Dexter Howe Collection of New England authors; the University of Texas; and the University of Virginia), and some private collections, as well. Few libraries of any type can boast deeper Emerson holdings than the Concord Free Public Library, which at its founding embraced and ever since has supported the collecting of Emerson-related manuscript material, printed volumes, ephemera, and photographs as part of its mission. Emerson’s long residence in Concord and his service on the town’s Library Committee created an enduring personal identification with this institution that remains as important a local reason to collect as do his national and international significance. Today, the library adds new Emerson scholarship as it appears, ephemeral material that reflects Emerson’s continuing influence, and unique manuscript or inscribed items, and fills in gaps in its established collections.
William Taylor Newton began collecting Emerson even before Emerson died, Stephen Wakeman in 1900, Parkman Dexter Howe in the 1930s. Despite the long history of sophisticated Emerson collecting, motivated and informed collectors are still able to bring together a variety of Emerson-related materials in meaningful ways. For many, Joel Myerson represents the late twentieth-/early twenty-first-century collecting of Transcendentalism in general and Emerson in particular. His once-private collection is now available for research at the University of South Carolina. Myerson tells the story of gathering his Emerson collection:
When I arrived at South Carolina in 1971 I discovered the Thoreau section in the library to be a rather large gap between titles by Simms and Timrod. I also found librarians who really hated books. One refused to move from the open stacks to the rare book room a set of the manuscript edition of Emerson’s writings—so-called because it contained a leaf of Emerson’s manuscript—because she believed the manuscript a facsimile. It was not until I said that if that book was in the stacks the next day, I would take a razor and cut out the manuscript page because I deserved it more than she did, that it was moved to rare books.
Dealing with people like these joined with my natural proclivity to collect to cement my desire to be a scholar-collector. Also, the ability to do nearly all my work out of my basement was just too good to pass up. This was especially important for my Emerson collection, which I assembled primarily to do a descriptive bibliography of his writings. Because the latter type of work analyzes the physical characteristics of the books in order to determine their textual and publishing histories, it requires describing every edition and printing of all book-length works by the author, not just first editions and reprintings done during the author’s lifetime. The comprehensive scope of my bibliography would play right into the omnivorous habits of my collecting: I would be buying items that most collectors avoid, such as duplicate copies (condition was unimportant) for comparison and as many reprintings of the author’s works as possible merely to see and describe them. And this would be a working collection. I was not above picking up a bargain when I could, but because my goal was to be able to work out of my home, it was easier to try and buy everything than it was to be selective. Also, as a bibliographer, I needed as many copies as possible of titles so that I could compare them for variations. There’s no easier and better way to discover binding and textual differences in nineteenth-century books than by placing half a dozen copies of a work side-by-side; and that is impossible when each copy is in a different library in a different state or country. I have been a serendipitous collector: many of my books are the only known copies of a title or of a particular format.
My most important consideration was to collect the greatest number of books in the most economical fashion. By 1975 I was regularly adding some three or four hundred books each year to my general collection of nineteenth-century American literature, and simply could not sacrifice that to my Emerson collection. I established as my primary goal collecting as many reprints and collections of Emerson’s works as possible, picking up first editions whenever I could. This was both a pragmatic and scholarly decision: a first edition of Nature might cost as much as nearly a hundred reprintings, and first editions of Nature came up for sale regularly, whereas the late-nineteenth-century reprints were much harder to find, usually having been cheaply produced and often not considered of sufficient value for book dealers to catalogue them. I also initially decided against actively seeking presentation copies, manuscripts, and private press books, especially the latter, because many of them cost more than the first edition of the work they reprinted. However, after the years of my first big buying binges, I gradually began collecting these types of works as well, especially because Emerson manuscript material was priced very reasonably, and I now have some eighty letters by Emerson as well as manuscript pages from his lectures.
As of this year, I have over 3,100 books by Emerson in my collection, over half of which I collected between 1975 and the publication of the bibliography in 1982. They filled one room in my house before going to USC in 2001. Perhaps the hallmark of my collecting has been serendipity—plain old-fashioned luck. Many of my books have a far greater bibliographical value than a monetary one. My copy of the undated nineteenth-century reprint of the Concord Discourse contains a dated inscription by one of Emerson’s children, thus allowing me to assign it for the first time an accurate publication date; the partial set of page proofs for the “American Scholar Address” (see item 36 in the exhibition) will yield information for a later article on the history of the text of that famous work; the set of the Large Paper printing of the Riverside Edition of Emerson’s collected works (1883-1884) limited to twenty-five sets for distribution in England, which I have not located in any library, was the sole basis for my entry for this item and its eleven volumes; and my many late-nineteenth-century reprints include a number of unique copies which, while worth little money, are invaluable to a bibliographer, for they represent the only proof that books listed in publishers’ manuscript costbooks or booktrade journal advertisements were actually published.
In his essay “Books,” Emerson wrote “The annals of bibliography afford many examples of the delirious extent to which bookfancying can go, when the legitimate delight in a book is transferred to a rare edition.” He knew what he was talking about.
Professor Myerson’s comments reflect the combination of expertise, strategy, luck, and delight in acquisition that mark the serious collector’s efforts.
33. Emerson: “All history becomes subjective . . . ” ([Berkeley]: University of California Press, [1995?]).
34. Second Church and Society (Boston). Order of Services at the Ordination of Mr Chandler Robbins, as Pastor of the Second Church and Society in Boston, Wednesday, December 4, 1833 ([Boston]: I. R. Butts, ).
35. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Original Hymn [the “Concord Hymn”] ([no place: no publisher, 1837]).
36. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Partial proofsheets (pages 1-24) for the second edition (1838) of the “American Scholar” address.
37. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Order to James Munroe & Co. for copies of Phi Beta Kappa (“American Scholar”) and Divinity School addresses, April 18, 1839.
38. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Manuscript discourse read in Concord at the September 12, 1835 bicentennial celebration of the town’s incorporation, .
39. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Autograph letter, signed, Concord, Mass., to “My dear Thoreau,” May 11, 1861.
40. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Manuscript for the essay “Culture,” readied for publication in the Atlantic Monthly, .
41. Admit the Bearer to Mr. Emerson’s Lectures on Human Culture at the Masonic Temple [Boston: no publisher, 1837].
42. Concord Lyceum. Program for RWE’s 100th and final talk before the Concord Lyceum, 1880.