'Millionaire' Tracks One Man's Fruitful Obsession With The Bard Of Avon

'Millionaire' Tracks One Man's Fruitful Obsession With The Bard Of Avon

12:47pm May 14, 2015
The Millionaire and the Bard promo photo option 1
The Millionaire and the Bard promo photo option 1
Emily Bogle / NPR
  • The Millionaire and the Bard promo photo option 1

    The Millionaire and the Bard promo photo option 1

    Emily Bogle / NPR

  • Andrea E. Mays has degrees in economics from UCLA and the State University of New York at Binghamton. She teaches economics at California State University at Long Beach.

    Andrea E. Mays has degrees in economics from UCLA and the State University of New York at Binghamton. She teaches economics at California State University at Long Beach.

    Randy Brooke / Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Senators beelining for roll call at the U.S. Capitol, protesters brandishing signs on the Supreme Court sidewalk, guides mama-ducking tourists past the Beaux-Arts splendor of the Library of Congress — they don't always stop to note the elegant Art Deco low-rise tucked in alongside those showier landmarks. Andrea Mays thinks they ought to — and in The Millionaire and the Bard, a brisk chronicle of how William Shakespeare almost vanished into obscurity and how one obsessive American created the playwright's finest modern shrine, she makes a snappy, enjoyable case for why.

"The millionaire" is Henry Clay Folger, though he wasn't always wealthy. "The bard" is that too-easy shorthand for Shakespeare as Literary God, though he was nothing so grandly poetic during his lifetime. As Mays details in a confident précis of both Shakespeare's career and the scramble to get his plays into print for posterity, he was an artist-entrepreneur who kept busy writing and performing, helping run a theater troupe, investing in a playhouse. He made his mark, to be sure, but he left the scene largely unremarked, only to be better appreciated later thanks to the colleagues behind the publication of the First Folio of his collected plays. He was a man, in short, who had much in common with Henry Clay Folger.

The author, for her part, is a California-based economist and academic and a Shakespeare fiend who has gone digging for the details on how and why a cash-strapped Brooklyn kid became fascinated with the work of a man who died an ocean away and centuries before. Folger pursued that fascination relentlessly as his fortunes improved and he became a power player in the waning years of America's Gilded Age; in his penurious years at Amherst College, as a junior clerk at a company that would become part of John D. Rockefeller's vast Standard Oil combine, and eventually as one of that monopoly's senior-most officers, Folger would study and see and one day chase down the rarest copies of Shakespeare's work.

Not just those priceless prizes, either, but playbills and pamphlets and all manner of more ordinary stuff — there's no better word for the variety of oddities he accumulated — related to the times and social tides his hero was steeped in. Ultimately, as Mays lays it out, Folger would assemble the world's greatest collection of Shakespeareana. Then, triumphantly but tragically, he'd build for it a glorious repository that he himself would never see.

Mays' tone is admiring throughout, though she does step back occasionally to hint that today, Folger might well be diagnosed as a hoarder. But her emphasis is on the keen analytical mind that served him as both collector and businessman, the parsimonious nature that saw him through lean years — and almost cost him his greatest treasure — and the self-effacing instincts that let him scoop up rare books by the boxful when a collector with more ego might have made market prices spike.

A collector with more ego, frankly, might have made a sexier subject. Folger the man comes off as a touch dull, a guy with a so-so golf game and a day job involving memos and ledgers. Mays turns for excitement not to any behind-the-scenes business dramas or purple-tinged personal crises but to a handful of battles for especially rare volumes — one, very publicly, a crushing defeat for Folger. It's greatly to her credit that these episodes, which are essentially recaps of discreet negotiations among gentlemen of leisure, read at their liveliest like taut spy-vs.-spy maneuvers from some Cold War novel.

And Mays pays respectful tribute to Henry Folger's wife, Emily Jordan Folger, daughter of a Lincoln administration official, president of her Vassar class, herself a trained Shakespearean and a collector of formidable instincts. "Emily has never received proper credit for her role," Mays writes, "perhaps because Henry wrote the checks and handled the correspondence, but their acquisitions were the result of their collective judgment."

One-third of the 233 surviving First Folios — an astounding 82 of them, compared to the five held by the British Library — form the nucleus of Henry and Emily Folger's legacy, which stands there still on Capitol Hill: the Folger Shakespeare Library, a sleek white-marble Washington monument, not to justice or liberty or anything particularly American, but to the vast riches of the Anglophone heritage that binds these United States to their mother country, and through it to so many nations more. That, as Mays rightly notes, is a heritage shaped by Shakespeare more profoundly than by anyone else.

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