Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stephen H. Wakeman: American Literature Enthusiast

Stephen H. Wakeman

“If you can get that,” said Mr. Wakeman, “all right.  But remember that the collection is to be offered to no one but Mr. Morgan. . . “
          Surprises await even the most assiduous of biblio-readers.  I encountered this passage in George S. Hellman’s largely forgotten book, Lanes of Memory (1927), a collection of autobiographical essays.  Hellman (1878-1958) was a prolific writer and editor.  He was also a dealer and collector of rare autographs, manuscripts, books and art.   In the early 20th century, Hellman sold exceptional literary material to J. Pierpont Morgan and other prominent collectors.  His discursive essays rambled down many literary bypaths and gems of manuscript and book hunting surfaced irregularly.  None read better than his chapter on selling material to J. Pierpont Morgan.  It was Hellman who facilitated the sale of collector Stephen H. Wakeman’s exceptional gathering of American literary manuscripts to Morgan.  That episode, a portion of which is dangled above as a prelude, is reproduced in its entirety below.  Hellman’s account is an unusually candid insider’s view of a blockbuster transaction.  Hellman had an advantage in his retelling.  He originally supplied Wakeman much of the manuscript material including the famous Thoreau journals.

Even as Hellman has disappeared into history, Wakeman remains alive to specialists through the famous auction of his library of American literature in New York at the American Art Association in 1924 (sans the manuscripts sold to Morgan).  The auction catalogue and its contemporary reprint served as a basic bibliographical tool for decades and even now is an astonishing record of a dedicated collector’s achievement.
          Stephen H. Wakeman (1859-1924) was a life-long New Yorker who made his fortune in produce, specifically as head of John Wakeman & Co., Beans and Peas.  Bookseller John S. Van E. Kohn’s biographical sketch of Wakeman in Grolier 75 (1959) is illuminating, “[Wakeman] had three children, the last born in 1900.  The same year Mrs. Wakeman joined the Roman Catholic Church and her husband found the consuming interest of his life in collecting books.  In 1904 he ceased to traffic in beans and peas in order to devote all his time and energy to books.”  Kohn doesn’t speculate whether three children at home and a newly devout wife may have spurred Wakeman in search of a distracting hobby.  Kohn does write, “Wakeman’s family life was on the whole not happy.  He was generous but unsociable.  Extremely taciturn, he liked best to spend his evenings in his second-floor library, reading or corresponding with booksellers and fellow collectors.”
          Wakeman is pictured in the frontispiece to the sale catalogue and Kohn describes him as “a slender man of medium height.  His clean, rather delicate features and high forehead gave his face a sensitive, intellectual aspect . . .  with respect to clothes he was dapper, almost foppish.  He collected paintings and owned several Corots.  He was an enthusiastic operagoer and an amateur fiddler.”
          Kohn records that under the tutelage of pioneer American literature dealer P. K. Foley, Wakeman “began to form his collection of books, letters, and manuscripts of his nine favorite American men of letters, and in the twenty-three years of life remaining to him he attained his goal with brilliant success.  The nine authors are Bryant, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Poe, Thoreau, and Whittier.”
          An unidentified contemporary provided a more detailed view of Wakeman’s collecting habits in an introductory essay to the auction catalogue.  It is titled “Mr. Wakeman as a Book Collector, by an Intimate Associate” and reads in full:
          “When Mr. Wakeman set out in the year 1900 to acquire a library which was to contain the works of certain American classic authors, he brought to the task a penchant for collecting, a taste for good reading, a fund of experience in business affairs and a naturally incisive mind.  For twenty years he devoted himself to the study of his nine favorite writers of fiction and poetry, conducting all the while an active search for copies of first editions of their productions and especially for examples bearing a personal association with their creators through autograph signatures or through accompanying letters referring to the books.
          “Mr. Wakeman was fastidious in securing fine examples.  Many copies of many books received on approval were returned unbought because of slight imperfections.  As a result of adherence to a standard of excellence, the collection is unique in the immaculate condition of the first editions comprising it.
          “That his relations with fellow collectors and with dealers were a source of keen interest and pleasure to him is evident when one peruses his copious and interesting correspondence with them.
          “Besides printed books, Mr. Wakeman acquired a remarkable collection of manuscripts of great American authors and poets of the Nineteenth Century, including among their number all of Thoreau’s journals and important Hawthorne and Longfellow items.  Most of them were purchased from him by the late Mr. J. P. Morgan in 1916, but some precious manuscripts remain in the Wakeman Collection.
          “It was his custom to insert in each of the important volumes of this library a slip of paper bearing in his penciled handwriting a description of the book calling attention to features of especial interest.  These notes form an interesting contribution to American bibliography.
          “After twenty years of activity in assembling this collection, Mr. Wakeman found his task virtually completed.  Around him—in his very bed-chamber—stood bookcases, shoulder to shoulder, filled to overflowing with the friendly books bearing within themselves the very touch of the vanished hands of their authors.  Here he held communion with them during his days of declining health and here they stood about him when he was gathered to his fathers.”
          A number of years ago, I was fortunate to acquire what I consider THE copy of the auction catalogue.  Arthur Swann’s annotated copy with ownership signature.  Swann was director of the American Art Association book department at the time, oversaw the sale, and catalogued the material with the assistance of his staff.  Prices and buyers are recorded.  Correction slips for three lots are tipped in.  Perhaps uniquely, Swann has also recorded absentee bidders and the price Wakeman paid for each lot.  This latter set of annotations is particularly fascinating, and reflects the frequent wide divergence between the auction prices and Wakeman’s costs, sometimes to his favor and sometimes not.  For example, he did very well overall on his Poe and Thoreau, but took a beating on many of the Whittier items.
Arthur Swann's copy of the Wakeman auction catalogue
          The manuscripts and letters not in the auction sale and sold to Morgan previously for a tidy $165,000 included all that survived of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter manuscript, the complete manuscripts of The Blithedale Romance, Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, The Dolliver Romance, Septimius Felton and all the Journals.  Emerson, Longfellow, and Whittier are represented in depth with manuscripts and letters, as is Oliver Wendell Homes anchored by the manuscript of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.  Rare Poe material included the manuscript for Tamerlane.  Kohn writes, “Thoreau must have been Wakeman’s favorite.  This group includes the great Journal in thirty-nine manuscript volumes, The Service, twelve notebooks, and fourteen letters to his mother and sisters, Emerson, Hawthorne, and others.”
          George Hellman in Lanes of Memory recounts the acquisition of Thoreau’s papers and journal, much of which he sold to Wakeman.  Hellman got wind of their location through a “literary discussion with Mr. Bliss Perry—then editor of the Atlantic Monthly—one of the young men associated with the firm of Houghton, Mifflin Company. . . By the next train I was on the way to Worcester, the home of the owner of these precious documents, Mr. E. H. Russell, principal of the high school.  Thoreau had left his manuscripts to his sister; she in turn to Blake, the editor of several Thoreau volumes; and from him they had been inherited by Mr. Russell. It was after ten o’clock when I stood in front of Mr. Russell’s door.  A few moments later Mr. Russell was showing me the two wooden chests which with his own hands Thoreau had carved to serve as the repository of his manuscripts; and before the hour’s pleasant conversation had ended, an agreement had been reached by which Thoreau’s papers were to pass into my possession.”
          In addition to the Thoreau manuscripts acquired from Hellman and sold to Morgan, Wakeman had 103 jaw-dropping lots of Thoreau material in the auction sale.  These included letters, additional manuscripts, inscribed books, and books from Thoreau’s library.
          So, you can see why I was quite excited to acquire the following for my Wakeman holdings:  his own copy of Francis H. Allen’s A Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau (1908).  It has Wakeman’s booklabel, ownership signature, and a letter from Allen to Wakeman, thanking him for his “pleasant note” about the book, and “glad you’ve got that set of proof-sheets.”  Wakeman is acknowledged formally for his help in the preface and mentioned in reference to a number of books in the text.
Wakeman's copy of the Thoreau bibliography
A brief perusal of the auction catalogue itself will give the best flavor of Wakeman’s overall collection (see link below to a scanned copy).  Kohn writes, “The well-written and well-illustrated catalogue abounds in excerpts from manuscript notes that Wakeman had written and laid in hundreds of his books. . . Like the catalogue of the Carroll Wilson collection [published in 1950], which draws upon it to a considerable extent, the Wakeman catalogue. . . is a standard reference work for collectors and librarians interested in American literature.”
          Wakeman’s efforts were the culmination, both in material and technique, of the first wave of American literature collectors.  Most notable among these were Charles B. Foote, Owen Aldis, William Harris Arnold, Marshall Lefferts, Frank Maier, and Jacob C. Chamberlain.  Wakeman’s pursuit of association material, manuscripts, and letters, his insistence on fine, original condition, and his in-depth gathering of ephemeral items, set the standard for the great collectors to follow, particularly Carroll A. Wilson, Parkman Dexter Howe and Clifton Waller Barrett.
          The reference to Carroll Wilson and Wakeman’s influence upon him has a particular poignancy for me. I bought in 2008 a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims (1876) – another favorite author of the two collectors—that bears both men’s bookplates.
The Wakeman-Wilson copy of Emerson's Letters and Social Aims.
Let us finish as promised with George Hellman’s account of the sale of the Wakeman manuscripts to J. Pierpont Morgan.  Reading Hellman’s book inspired this essay and he should not be forgotten.  As you will see, he was among many things a heck of a salesman, both with buyer and seller.

“The addition to the Morgan Library of the preponderant portion of the American manuscripts was negotiated under circumstances that bear recounting.  Mr. S. H. Wakeman, a cultured and wealthy New Yorker, had for many years been quietly collecting manuscripts and association books of the great American authors, and his acquisitions were rumoured to be superlative in the field of literary Americans.  One evening, on walking up Fifth Avenue with Mr. Wakeman, after leaving the auction sale of the library of a Mr.[Jacob] Chamberlain, a collector who had recently died, I said to Mr. Wakeman: ‘It may be rather a tactless question, but what is going to happen to your collection after your death?’
          “I’ve often thought of that,” he answered.
          “Why not let me place it now in the Morgan Library, where it will presumably be intact forever?”
          “But Wakeman could not so quickly come to the decision to part with his treasures, and I left him with the suggestion that he should think the matter over. When next we met, some weeks later, the subject was again broached, and this time Mr. Wakeman said that though he would not commit himself, and would in any case wish to keep his first editions and association books, I might make a study of his manuscripts and suggest what price Mr. Morgan would, in my opinion, be willing to pay for them.  So the next day I went carefully over two or three hundred manuscripts, including such star pieces as Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Poe’s Tamerlane, and various the great essays of Emerson.  At the conclusion of the analysis I named a sum in the six figures as my estimate of the value of the collection.
          “If you can get that,” said Mr. Wakeman, “all right.  But remember that the collection is to be offered to no one but Mr. Morgan, as his is the only library into which I should be willing to have my things go.  I wouldn’t accept fifty thousand dollars more for them from anyone else.”
          “This last remark was made because I had suggested that another collector, W. K. Bixby, of St. Louis, might be willing to pay more than the sum I had suggested in connection with Mr. Morgan.
          “The manuscripts were accordingly sent to my office, there to be carefully catalogued.  With these descriptions in detail, and with many of the more important items forwarded to his library, Mr. Morgan was able quickly to size up the remarkable character of the manuscripts offered.  His interest was immediate, but though he did not question the price asked, it represented a sum larger than he had ever expended on a single purchase of manuscripts, and he asked me to return a few days later for his decision.  At the second meeting Mr. Morgan was still undecided, and said that I should come back the next day.  This was some time in the month of May.  On arriving at the library for the third time I was aware of a rather unwonted atmosphere of activity.  Several gentlemen, presumably business associates of Mr. Morgan, were in conference with him.
          “After a little while Mr. Morgan came, with his energetic stride, into the librarian’s room, where I was waiting, and said: ‘I cannot give you an answer to-day.  I’m leaving for Europe to-morrow.  I’ll be back in July.  Keep the collection for me, and I’ll decide then.’
          “Very well,” I answered, and returned to my office.
          “A day or two later Mr. Wakeman dropped in to inquire concerning the progress of the transaction.  When I informed him of its status, he said:  ‘I am sure you have done your best, but please send the manuscripts back to my house.  The collection is withdrawn.”
          “But I have promised to reserve the manuscripts for Mr. Morgan until his return in July,” I replied.
          “I am sorry,” answered Mr. Wakeman.  ‘Mr. Morgan has had his chance.  The collection is withdrawn.’
          “The situation thus became rather a difficult one.  The owner of the manuscripts was a reserved and wealthy gentleman who at my solicitation had made the concession of offering America’s greatest collector the opportunity of acquiring his cherished treasures.  His request for their return, could, of course, not be disregarded; but on sending them back I took the liberty of retaining just one manuscript, a poem by Longfellow.  This I placed in a large envelope, writing on the outside ‘Property of S. H. Wakeman’; and about the same time I informed Mr. Wakeman that I intended to resume the transaction with Mr. Morgan in July.
          “You’ve heard what I said,” he replied.
          “You’ve heard what I said,” I replied with a smile.
          “July came and the newspapers had recorded Mr. Morgan’s return.  Shortly thereafter I went to his library.  He was alone in his room at the western end of the building, a room which opened into a fireproof chamber that contained his manuscript treasures.  He was seated before a table on which he had been playing solitaire, a recreation that one could not help recalling had been a favourite pastime of Napoleon.  In earlier discussions I had laid stress on various points which made the Wakeman collection the greatest in existence of its kind—finest in the world as regards Hawthorne, Thoreau, Poe, and Whittier, and exceedingly important as to the other authors.  The obvious arguments had been used without convincing success and on this occasion I had determined to try another approach: and if that failed, I did not intend to bother further.  It was with this in mind that I had retained the one manuscript alluded to above.
          “In reply to my inquiry as to how he had decided, Mr. Morgan said: ‘I’ll go over the catalogue once more.  Come in again to-morrow and I’ll decide one way or the other.’
          “No, Mr. Morgan.  I’m afraid it’s no use my coming again.  As a matter of fact I do not know whether today’s visit is of any use.’  And I then told him that Mr. Wakeman had withdrawn the collection, but that I still thought that if he, Mr. Morgan, would come to an immediate decision, I could see to it that the manuscripts would become part of his library.
          “Mr. Morgan, of course, knew of Mr. Wakeman as an ardent collector to whom the money value in the transaction we were discussing was a minor consideration.  As a man devoted to his own treasures Mr. Morgan could readily understand the sentiments that had prompted Mr. Wakeman first to offer and then to withdraw the offer of his collection.  Mr. Morgan sat there for a moment, obviously considering the entire situation.  It was then that I took up the one manuscript that I had kept.
          “Here’s one of the poems in the collection,” I said; ‘and if you will excuse me for being personal, whenever I read it I think of you and your grandchildren.’
          “What’s that? said Mr. Morgan in his quick, incisive way.  I fancy that he was not used to having his private sentiments brought into a business discussion.
          “It’s Longfellow’s poem concerning his grandchildren, and it reminds me of you and yours.”
          “Let me see it,” he said.
          “Mr. Morgan put on his spectacles and read that lovely lyric of grand-paternal affection whose opening verses are so familiar:
                        Between the dark and the daylight,
                        When the night is beginning to lower
                        Comes a pause in the day’s occupations
                        That is known as the children’s hour.

          “When Mr. Morgan finished reading the poem he hit the table with his fist.  ‘I’ll take the collection,’ he said.
          What rare items, worth thousands upon thousands of dollars, had not been able to consummate had now been effected by a short manuscript of comparatively insignificant monetary value.
          “’The Children’s Hour’ had made this enormous appeal to Mr. Morgan because he was himself a lover of children; and in that stately library to which influential and distinguished leaders in all fields came, somewhat as courtiers came of old to a powerful prince, Mr. Morgan’s grandchildren romped around with that freedom made possible by their grandfather’s affection for them.  They were among the comparatively few people who held in no awe whatsoever the masterful man who delighted to play with them” (pp. 42-47).


Biographical sketches of the many collectors mentioned in my essay can be found in Donald Dickinson’s Dictionary of American Book Collectors.

Link to a scanned copy of the Wakeman Catalogue;view=1up;seq=5 

Link to a scanned copy of Hellman’s Lanes of Memory.;view=1up;seq=9

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