July 29, 2002
In a sad coincidence, Henry Folger died a mere three days after the cornerstone for his library was laid in 1930. He and his wife had after much consideration decided to build the library in Washington as "a gift to the American people." Emily faithfully carried out their plan after Henry's death.
Located only a few blocks from the Library of Congress, the Folger is actually administered by the Trustees of Amherst College, Henry Folger's alma mater. Folger had wanted the library to resemble a Tudor mansion but was overuled by the local Planning Commission, so he settled on a Greek Revival exterior with Art Deco touches.
The restrained exterior gives little hint of the magnificent Tudor interior, with its main room a replica of an Elizabethan great hall, with dark oak panelling from tiled floor to elaborately plastered ceiling. But is it what is ranged around the room in the glass cases that evokes true astonishment.
The exhibit on display during my last visit was "The Pen's Excellencie: Treasures from the Manuscript Collection." While the common theme was a connection with Shakespeare, the manuscripts were surprisingly varied. One case devoted to Mark Twain's essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" held his characteristically carefully-edited manuscript. James Boswell's commonplace book, with the notes that he had transcribed as a precocious ten year old, was in another. The regally sprawling signatures of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth graced several documents. I drifted from case to case, dreamily: John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot… even A.A. Milne. Most delightful to me, the manuscript of Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," long a favorite.
The docent-led weekend tours are wonderfully informative, not to mention that they offer a peep at the private Reading Room and entry to Emily Folger's personal study, which contains a famous painting of Elizabeth I. It struck me that the entire library, masonry to manuscripts, was one incomparable literary shrine. Anyone with even an ember of literary passion should visit the Folger at least once in a lifetime.
From journal Paper Chase