University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Washington Irving and the Rush Rhees Library

Volume III · Autumn 1947 · Number 1
Washington Irving and the Rush Rhees Library

Statistics do not tell the full story of a library's growth – which is one of the chief reasons for publishing this Bulletin. How a library grows, by what means special collections are formed, and what efforts are used to secure integration are aspects of library science which are often too unfamiliar to the reading public.

First of all, there must be vision and a plan. After that, there must be funds to implement the plan and determination to carry it through, with flexibility and daring to meet any changes which circumstances may bring in their wake. The vision is what comes first – though what form the vision may ultimately take cannot always be immediately clear to those in control of the library concerned. Therefore the plan must be flexible, and if the initial gift is made without restricting conditions, the eventual value of the gift to the institution is more apt to be greater than if the books or manuscripts could not be used or placed in certain ways.

The Irving Collection in the Treasure Room of the Rush Rhees Library is a case in point. Here the vision was furnished by Mrs. C. Schuyler Davis, who in the summer of 1942 presented to the Library her outstanding collection of the writings of Washington Irving. No conditions were attached to the gift, and the implied confidence in the Library to use this treasure to the greatest advantage was an inspiration. There were at the time but few examples of Irving's works in the Treasure Room; however, what pieces there were fortunately supplemented the items in the Davis collection. Since Irving was one of the first professional authors of America, and one whose vogue continues to the present – a favorite with both readers and collectors, we had never dared raise our institutional eyes to the hope of having what is today regarded as the fourth best collection of Irving in this country.

Irving's name has always been a "conjure-word" to those who have read (or what is better – have listened to someone read aloud) the story of Rip van Winkle, the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," or passages from the essays on Old England. These early writings of the New York gallant who was to become the grand old man of American letters have become part of American folklore. The thunder of the little men's bowling still rolls through the valleys of the Catskills, latter-day Ichabods still shiver apprehensively near graveyards, and Christmas is still celebrated joyously and gracefully in Bracebridge Hall.

Literary historians continue to discuss the reasons for Irving's lasting hold on the affections of his countrymen. His popularity as an author was immediate, and from year to year his audience has continued to grow in this and other lands. In America, Irving's success was first due to his wit and satire. It was a sparkling wit, never insistent, skipping lightly from subject to subject, and never tearing a witticism to tatters. The satire was not too personal (although some of the stuffier New Yorkers had a sneaking belief  that they were being twitted, nor was it particularly biting – the tone was more Horatian than Juvenalian. This humorous approach to life's problems characterized all of Irving's life and most of his writing; he was urbane, polished, gentle, and kind. Here was a man whose writings, manners, and character enabled him to meet any man on equal ground; it gave the American reader a feeling of pride and stability to realize that the infant republic could produce such an author. His books sold, the buyers read them and told others of their pleasure; so the circle increased and Irving became the American dean of letters, and his vine-smothered home in Tarrytown was transformed into a literary shrine.

A survey of the munificent gift from Mrs. Davis left us with a feeling of awe. The cornerstone of the collection was a magnificent copy of the Sketch Book, in original parts. This had been completed with great care, using as a starting point several of the parts which had been purchased by members of the Davis family at the time of issue. 'The condition of all parts was pristine, and the points checked exactly with all those demanded by Irving specialists. As an entity, the book is rarer than Poe's Tamerlane, even scarcer than the Bay Psalm Book. There seem to be but eight perfect sets of the Sketch Book known to exist and one of them was ours!

Among the seventy-five other volumes in Mrs. Davis' collection was the extremely rare 1813 Brunswick edition of Irving's Biography of James Lawrence, an excellent copy of the first edition of Knickerbocker's History of New York , and numerous other first and subsequent editions of the important Irving books. An interesting Irving letter completed the collection. Here was something to build on, something which could be expanded to become one of the University's outstanding possessions.

The first step was to survey what material was already on hand to supplement this breath-taking acquisition. We found a fine Irving letter already in the Charles A. Brown Collection, and another letter linking Irving with the Cooper country, given by the Misses Florence and M. Gertrude Deavenport. In the book stacks we located a first edition of the Sketch Book in book form (as contrasted with the book in parts in the Davis gift); this later issue was from the Sherman Clarke Gift. And by searching bibliographies and histories of literature we found where we were strong and where our weaknesses lay in the general field of early nineteenth century American literature.

The vision had been provided and had in turn inspired a plan. The determination to follow the plan was easy to find, with such a challenging foundation on which to build, and although no large sums were available for immediate fulfillment of the plan, careful buying and ceaseless reading of catalogues soon led to fairly noteworthy results. First editions of Irving which had escaped Mrs. Davis' net were located and purchased, but the chief additions to the shelves were made by building up runs of subsequent editions already represented by fine examples of the earliest known issue. Thus the tools were ready for a study of Irving's technique of correction and improvement of his own work.

Nor was the collection increased solely by purchase. Several fine additions came in the Ira S. Wile library, and in 1944 Mrs. Davis gave the Library another black swan – the first edition of Irving's first work, Salmagundi. This was finely bound in two volumes, and its possession gave us the right to boast of still another prime rarity in the field of American literature.

From time to time it has been possible to buy Irving letters of interest, although inflation in the rare-book market has of necessity cut down our buying program here. Large concentrations of Irving manuscripts are in the New York Public Library, the Yale University Library, and Columbia University Library. It was reasoned that since these libraries have such a good start, and because they are fairly easy of access from Rochester, it would not be wise to try to compete with them in acquiring a great many Irving letters and manuscripts; rather, it would suffice to own representative letters (of textual importance whenever possible) showing Irving's handwriting at various periods of his long life. Additions would be made in this department whenever possible, but it would not be made a prime specialty. Rochester would concentrate on books of the Knickerbocker School, and not on the manuscripts.

With this plan in mind, it has been possible to fill in many gaps in our holdings of early American authors. The Charles A. Brown Collection contained a remarkable selection of manuscripts by James Kirke Paulding, the American diplomat who was one of Irving's original coadjutors in writing Salmagundi; this led to a decision to purchase as many of Paulding's printed works as we could locate and afford. The works of Charles Fenno Hoffman and other of Irving's friends have also been added when they could be found; and an effort is made to acquire books which illustrate the world of Irving's time. Van Wyck Brooks, although he succeeded in turning the interest of many to this world of Washington Irving, unfortunately was all too successful, for just at the time we planned to increase our holdings in the field, many other readers and collectors got the same idea, and the market prices began to rise higher and higher. This is where flexibility and daring came into the picture, as well as persistence in hunting down obscure volumes which might prove to be of great importance.

The Irving Collection so fortunately begun by Mrs. Davis' gift is not complete: no "live" collection is ever finished. As new persons come to add to the collection and as new instructors arrive with different interests, emphasis in the formation of the collection will change, and additions will be made in other supplementary lines. That is how a library grows and becomes great.

There are now two hundred editions of Irving's works in the Treasure Room, and six Irving letters; in addition to these, there are numerous other books and manuscripts which pertain to Irving, his friends, and his period. A program is underway, and where it will lead us cannot now be foretold with any degree of certainty. But an impartial New York specialist in American literature now ranks the University of Rochester Irving Collection as the best in the country, after those in the New York Public Library, Columbia University, and Yale. The continued excellence of this unusual concentration of rarities will depend on the persistence and determination of those into whose charge it has been given; and these things in turn depend upon the encouragement and vision supplied by friends of the Library, within and outside of the University.