Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections: An Illustrated Guide
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American Literature

The researcher will find important materials on American literature in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The Library's rare American literature material is not comprehensive and this may seem strange to the outsider, but historical reasons exist for the situation. Early Library reports observed that "the American literature collections are weak in relation to the collections of American historical material." Until the 1940s much of the literature up to the first half of the twentieth century remained in the general collections, where the books were subjected to extensive use and consequent damage. Therefore most of our rare early American literature collections have come through gift.

The Library's most outstanding nineteenth-century collection is formed around the great American poet Walt Whitman. In 1942 a bequest from Carolyn Wells Houghton brought us copies of every publication Houghton cited in her A Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman, among them approximately 100 copies of Leaves of Grass, including both issues of the 1855 first edition. The division added to this collection through the purchase of the Charles Feinberg gathering of Whitman materials, including first editions of most of Whitman's writings as well as works about Whitman. The Feinberg Collection of Whitman's manuscripts, housed in the Library's Manuscript Division, is the most extensive in existence. The combination of the printed works and manuscripts gives the Library of Congress the finest Whitman collection in the world.

Thumbnail image of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" (Brooklyn, 1855) Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, 1855). First edition, first issue of one of America's best known books of poems. The Library holds the world's best collection of Whitmaniana. (Carolyn Houghton Wells Whitman Collection)

Another example of a splendid gift of nineteenth-century fiction is the 1922 bequest from Mrs. Clarence W. Jones of the writings of Henry James (1843-1916). The 350 volumes include first American or British editions of his works, significant later editions, and volumes to which he contributed essays, short stories, and prefaces. The division has added to the collection such relevant pieces from the Library's holdings as proof pages of several novels that were deposited for copyright. One of the rarest pieces for the researcher to note is an 1882 privately printed copy of the dramatization of Daisy Miller, not publicly circulated.

Most recently, in the summer of 1992, Mrs. Frances R. Friedman presented the Library with splendid Mark Twain materials collected by her late husband. The Roy J. Friedman Mark Twain Collection numbers approximately 450 items, many of them rare and unique. Included are first editions of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and many other Twain titles; presentation copies, such as Joan of Arc; autographed books; a select, but highly important, gathering of manuscript letters; and a manuscript chapter from A Tramp Abroad. The Friedman holdings have greatly enhanced the Twain collection and are yet another good example of the importance of donors in building the Library's collections.

The division has significant holdings of earlier American fiction. Over 40 percent of the titles mentioned in Lyle Wright's American Fiction, 1774-1850, including one of two known copies of Francis Hopkinson's A Pretty Story Written in the Year of Our Lord 2774 (Williamsburg, 1774), are in the collections.

An impressive gift of American literature came in the Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) bequest in 1935. Consisting of the libraries of several generations of the Holmes family, the collection includes presentation volumes inscribed by James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here the researcher will also find such rarities as Illustrations of the Athenaeum Gallery of Paintings (1830) and the New York edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866) bound with sheets of the suppressed English edition of the previous year. Many of the books contain handwritten comments by the famed chief justice and other members of his family.

Leonard Kebler's gift of first editions of American authors has gone a long way toward improving the quality of the Library's holdings. Among the Kebler gifts, a fine collection of Washington Irving and many of the more important books by Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Bryant, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier are especially significant.

The Library has made great efforts to collect twentieth-century literature. Books that came to the Library before present quarters of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division opened in 1934 show the effects of poor storage conditions and unregulated use. Many were bound or rebound, or they were lacking dust jackets. The first attempt at upgrading the literature collections came in 1943 when Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish launched a program of transferring to the Rare Book Division the works of twenty-seven living American writers. The author list has now grown to more than two hundred, and the copyright office automatically sends to the division one copy of first editions of these writers.

Donors have played a vital role in building our modern American literature holdings. The gift of Herman Finkelstein comes immediately to mind. Finkelstein, longtime friend of the Library, gave approximately 300 important American literature first editions, including dust jackets, in immaculate condition. The gift contains splendid runs of the works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John Steinbeck. The Washington, D.C., painter and lithographer Prentiss Taylor had a long-standing relationship with the Library that lasted until his death in 1991. His gifts included large collections of the writings of Carl Van Vechten, Laura Benet, and Langston Hughes. Charles Feinberg has enriched the collections with a number of gifts. In addition to the Whitman material, Feinberg donated substantial runs of inscribed and signed books by Archibald MacLeish, Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Untermeyer, Mark Van Doren, and small gatherings of a number of twentieth-century poets, novelists, and literary critics. The Danish actor Jean Hersholt gave, along with collections of the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and Hugh Walpole, a significant batch of Sinclair Lewis material. The division also builds the literary collections by forming comprehensive collections of writers who have been poetry consultants and poet laureates, beginning with the first, Joseph Auslander in 1937, and up to Mona Van Duyn in 1992-93.

Thumbnail image of "American literary first editions" The division's collections extend into the twentieth century as shown by this group of American literary first editions. (Herman Finkelstein Collection)

The divisions collection of African-American literature includes one of the most celebrated of early black writers, Phillis Wheatley, who was educated by her Boston master and began writing poetry at the age of thirteen. In 1773, while Wheatley was being entertained by British nobility, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. In 1853, only one year after Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin had captured national attention, William Wells Brown (1815-84) published Clotel, or the President's Daughter, considered the earliest novel written by an African American. Tracing the misfortunes of three generations of slave women, Brown depicted the injustices of slavery and the destruction of the black family. Brown had escaped from his Kentucky slave master in his youth, was active on the antislavery circuit, and became a delegate to the World Peace Congress in 1849. Other black literary landmarks include Brown's Escape, the first play, and his Three Years in Europe, the first travel account by an African American. The division has the campfire edition of Brown's popular Clotelle (1864), intended by the publisher, journalist and abolitionist James Redpath, to "relieve the monotony" of camp life of the Union soldiers and "kindle their zeal in the cause of universal emancipation." The division also has the first novel written by a black woman in the United States--Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859).

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Library was fortunate to have African-American staff members who gathered important examples of black literature. Most notable of these was Daniel A. P. Murray, mentioned above, who collected poems, plays, and songsters on black life for the period after Reconstruction. The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, another employee of the Library, often used ethnic dialects in his short stories and poems. The division has a dozen of his works, including Folks from Dixie, Lyrics of Lowly Life, and Poems of Cabin and Field. Among twentieth-century African-American authors that the division systematically collects are Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright.

Any researcher in juvenilia will find in the division one of the largest and best collections in existence of rare American children's literature. Dating from the early eighteenth century to the present, these 18,000 volumes include a very broad representation of the works of such authors as Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Jr., Jacob Abbott (creator of the Rollo series), William Taylor Adams (Oliver Optic), Edward S. Ellis, Charles A. Fosdick (Harry Castlemon), and Harriet Mulford Stone Lothrop (Five Little Peppers series). J. K. Lilly, Jr., was the generous donor of many of these books.

In 1941 Frank J. Hogan presented 86 rare pieces of juvenilia to the Library. Included in the gift was 1 of 3 known copies of Samuel G. Goodrich's The Tales of Peter Parley about America (Boston, 1827), the first native production which accented entertainment in a child's book as strongly as it did instruction. The Hogan gift also included 10 New England primers, the earliest of which is the very rare Providence edition of 1775, which contains the well-known childhood prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep," and the only known copies of the Boston primer of 1790. Another rarity in the Hogan gift was the earliest American edition of Cock Robin's Death and Funeral (Boston, ca. 1780).

For the student of American popular culture the Library's collection of dime novels is especially valuable. Among approximately 40,000 titles received through copyright the researcher can find popular attitudes on a great variety of social issues ranging from the Civil War period through the early twentieth century. The dime novel collection contains large numbers of detective adventures, society romances, rags-to-riches stories, songbooks, jokebooks, and handbooks. Similar in nature is our pulp fiction magazine collection--known as pulp fiction because of the poor quality wood pulp paper these magazines were printed on. The division holds the famous serials Black Mask, Weird Tales, and Amazing Stories, with stories by such famous authors as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Thumbnail image of "dime novels" The division holds one of the country's largest collections of dime novels. Portrayed here is an assortment published by the House of Beadle.

The division's large copyright records collection, dating from 1790 to the 1890s, is another important source for the study of American literature and the Anglo-American cultural heritage. These extensive holdings include court registration ledgers, deposited title pages, deposit copies, and ledgers from the Patent Office and the State Department that indicate that a copy of a published work had been deposited with them. Bibliographers and historians can benefit from copyright information about claimants, the identification of authors of pseudonymous or anonymous works, and the exact dates of registration. Deposited title pages help document the pre-publication history of these works and often offer significant bibliographical details. Some registrations refer to books no longer extant or never published. The division keeps adding to these holdings as copyright records are periodically released from the Library's Copyright Office.

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Rare Book and Special Collections in American Memory

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