What Happened to the Rare Books Brought Aboard the Titanic?
Emma Smith on Transatlantic Book Collecting in the Early 20th Century
A portrait of Harry Elkins Widener shows a soft, dreamy-faced young man with a severe center parting, his left forefinger holding his place in a small-format book—perhaps his prized edition of Keats’s poems. Born in 1885 to an elite Philadelphia family, Widener grew up in the moneyed leisured class, the same world that gave the economist Thorstein Veblen his insight into what he called, compellingly, “conspicuous consumption.” Harry’s own conspicuous consumption was bookish.
By the age of twenty-four he had a serious book collection of over fifteen hundred volumes. In his application in 1909 to join the Grolier Club, an exclusive New York society for rich bibliophiles, he proudly admitted to collecting “chiefly the books which interest me,” especially nineteenth-century writers and illustrators. “At present, the finest art of my library consists of Shakespeare, Extra-Illustrated Books… and almost complete sets of the first issues of Swinburne, Pater, Reade, Stevenson, and Robert Browning.”
All we know about Widener’s actual reading, by contrast, is that his go-to book was Treasure Island. Helped by an indulgent and wealthy mother, his collecting became more serious with Grolier membership. Philadelphia society bookdealer A.S.W. Rosenbach collaborated with his young protégé and client on a privately printed catalogue of the Widener collection. Pride of place went to a recent acquisition, the Countess of Pembroke’s 1613 copy of Arcadia inscribed by the author, “Your loving brother, Philip Sidney.”
The catalogue, as befitted an ambitious bibliophile, was itself a lavish work: a hundred copies on paper and two on vellum in large quarto (printed on four leaves to a sheet) format, with tissue-covered facsimile reproductions. Edmund Gosse congratulated Widener “on the possession of a superb house of books.” Their owner made a will leaving them to his mother, with the desire that they should be given as a named collection to Harvard University.
Book-collecting was one of the high-status occupations of wealthy American men in the Gilded Age, when J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry E. Huntington, and Henry C. Folger were all using their libraries to launder the substantial proceeds of corporate finance, railroads, and oil respectively. The sociologist Russell W. Belk defines collecting as “the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use”: the collected book is for show, not for reading.
Collecting, Belk observes, is a fundamentally acquisitive and possessive activity, but these impulses are sometimes disguised by the high aesthetic or cultural value of its objects. This should be familiar to us: a person who buys more books than they can possibly read occupies a different place in the anatomy of consumerism than someone who stockpiles designer handbags, or high-performance cars, or branded sneakers.
The Western enjoyment of the Japanese term tsundoku, meaning the tendency to accumulate unread books, suggests a desire for a category that recognizes book purchases as somehow distinct from the run of material luxury consumption, and underwrites, without stigma, the value of the book beyond reading. Writing in the early fourteenth century, Richard de Bury offered Philobiblon, his account of the pleasures of book-collecting, as a means to “clear the love we have had for books from the charge of excess.”
This charge, and the attempt to counter it, are perennial. The nineteenth-century diagnosis was harsher still than mere excess. “Bibliomania” was typically characterized by an immoderate, even ruinous attachment to books acquired through purchase or theft, with a strong suggestion that these books were to serve an inert and possessive collection, rather than for reading or other direct use. Among other things, this pathology of bibliomania made troublingly little distinction between the collector and the thief: each was programmed to acquire books by whatever means available.
One of the few clinical discussions of bibliomania, published by Norman D. Weiner in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, draws exclusively on literary and historical references. Weiner suggests that there are few clinical case studies since the behavior is “ego-syntonic,” that is, it is acceptable to the self because it is compatible or consistent with fundamental beliefs or personality, and therefore not experienced as problematic or presented for therapeutic intervention.
A mania for books, just like the justifications for collecting books, sees it as desirable, ethically distinct from other kinds of collecting. Weiner’s theory found suggestive analogies between tales of book acquisition and stories of sexual conquest, bringing “to mind the activities of the hypersexual male hysteric who just constantly reassures himself that he has not been castrated.” His evidence, perhaps not strictly scientific, was that Casanova’s eventual retirement was to gentle employment in the Castle of Dux in Bohemia, as Count Waldstein’s librarian.
Writing in the great age of book-collecting, P. G. Wodehouse continued this appetitive theme in creating the comic American bibliophile Cooley Paradene of Long Island. Paradene’s expensive library “caused bibliophiles on entering it to run around in ecstatic circles, prying and sniffing and uttering short excited whining noises like dogs suddenly plunged into the middle of a hundred entrancing smells.” The apparently cerebral activity of book- collecting is clearly more id than superego. Not all book collectors are in fact male: there were significant female American collectors contemporary with Harry Widener, including Abby Ellen Hanscom Pope and Amy Lowell (her collection, like Widener’s, is now at Harvard). They are, however, exceptions that tend to prove the rule.The transfer of valuable books from the libraries of the English aristocracy to the new money palaces of the New World was a source of comment and cultural anxiety in Britain.
And if collecting expresses something particular about the collector, it also transforms the essence of the object. The theorist of collecting, Belk, again: “When an object enters a collection it ceases to be a fungible commodity and becomes a singular object that is no longer freely exchangeable for something of similar economic value—its value is in the context of the collection.” Collecting thus removes the book from circulation and exchange. It is thus one of many means we have encountered—including gifting, annotation, inscription, and reading itself—of turning mass-produced books into unique relics.
We can see this transformation in progress as Harry Widener goes book-shopping. In late March 1912, he was with his parents in London on a buying spree. It was an extraordinary time to be a wealthy book collector. The shift in economic power from Europe to the US, the decline of landed English families and the break-up of their estates, and the rise of what Bernard Berenson called the “squillionaires” all meant that large sales of rare books commanded intense public interest and high prices. The transfer of valuable books from the libraries of the English aristocracy to the new money palaces of the New World was a source of comment and cultural anxiety in Britain. Widener was in the mood to comfort-buy, having been outbid on everything he wanted at a recent sale by his new, and extremely wealthy, rival Henry Huntington.
At London’s foremost antiquarian bookseller, Bernard Quaritch in Grafton Street, he bought many items, including a set of nine quarto half-morocco volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In addition, he picked out a 1598 copy of Francis Bacon’s Essaies, which Quaritch had bought at the sale of Alfred Henry Huth a few months earlier. This first edition of ten of Bacon’s essays was a pocket-sized book, some twelve centimeters high, with the full title Essaies. Religious Meditations.
At the shop of J. Pearson and Co., Widener then bought a rarity from the first century of the printing press, a small, four-leaf octavo (printed on eight leaves to a sheet) news pamphlet printed in black letter type from 1542. With hindsight, it’s hard not to see the dramatic irony in this last-minute purchase of a disaster narrative: Heavy News of a Horrible Earthquake which was in the city of Scarbaria in this present year. At the time it was believed to be the sole surviving copy. Widener packed it, and his new copy of Bacon, into his traveling bag and joined his family on the maiden voyage of the luxury liner that was to take them home. The name of the ship: RMS Titanic.
On the night of April 14, 1912, four days into the crossing and about four hundred miles off Newfoundland, the extent of the damage done to the ship’s hull in an iceberg collision became clear. Harry’s mother, Eleanor Widener, and her maid were evacuated in lifeboat number 4 at 1:55 a.m. The survival rate of women in first-class accommodation was the highest for all categories of passenger: their lifeboat was picked up by the Carpathia and the women were taken to New York. Neither Harry Widener, aged twenty-seven, nor his father, survived. Their bodies were never recovered.
Although it might jar now, it did not seem tasteless to his friends to point out that one of his book purchases was also lost in the catastrophe. Although most of his London haul was sent across the Atlantic in a tin-lined trunk on RMS Carpathia (the ship that navigated the ice floes to respond to the Titanic distress call and picked up hundreds of survivors), the book of essays bought from Quaritch was not. “Just before the ‘Titanic’ sank,” his bookdealer friend A. S. W. Rosenbach reported in a posthumous catalogue of Harry’s collection of works by Robert Louis Stevenson, “he said to his mother, ‘Mother, I have placed the volume in my pocket; little “Bacon” goes with me.’” “This is surely,” added Rosenbach, somewhat gratuitously, “the finest anecdote in the whole history of books.” The pamphlet about the earthquake was also apparently lost, but not so susceptible to anthropomorphic eulogy.
Excerpted from Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith. Copyright © 2022. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.