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Shakespeare & Beyond

Celebrating a spectacular Fourth with Folger exhibitions

Located a block from the US Capitol in Washington, DC, the Folger Shakespeare Library is not far from one of the country’s best Fourth of July fireworks displays, for which the National Mall is one of the top viewing locations. The original Declaration of Independence (adopted, of course, on July 4, 1776) is on display at the National Archives, partway down the Mall and within walking distance of the Folger.

The Folger collection, though, is primarily focused on other topics. It includes the largest Shakespeare collection in the world, major holdings of early modern materials from Shakespeare’s time, and materials on numerous related subjects. While the Folger’s holdings include plenty of American items, some of which are now on view, you may be surprised to learn that among the fascinating materials from the collection on display in the Out of the Vault exhibition is a letter by former First Lady Abigail Adams, a piece of social correspondence from December 18, 1816. Nor is that all. At the other end of the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall, several other amazing American artifacts are included in the temporary Imprints in Time exhibition (see below).

Abigail Adams is well known for her lengthy letter exchanges with her husband, John Adams, to whom she was a close advisor, including during the Revolutionary War. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, he later became the first US vice president and succeeded President George Washington, becoming the second US president. In 1825, their son John Quincy Adams became the sixth US president. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the Fourth of July, 1826.

In Out of the Vault, remarkable items like the Abigail Adams letter are used to illustrate all kinds of activities related to the Folger collection, to give a sense of activities related to major research libraries. It shows how Henry and Emily Folger collected materials long before the Folger Shakespeare Library was built, although the process of collecting still continues today.  (Like many other rare materials on display at the Folger, the Abigail Adams letter cannot be safely displayed on a permanent basis and will only be exhibited for a short time, so be sure to come see it soon.)

So how and why did the Folgers add this letter to their collection? Abbie Weinberg, Folger reference librarian and archivist, wrote about it in The Collation in 2015. Here is an excerpt from her account:

The curious part is not that an autograph letter from Abigail Adams survives, but that we have it in our collection. Early 19th-century letters from notable American revolutionaries are not precisely within the Folger’s collection development policies. So how did it end up here?

The Hamnet record itself gives the first clue as to how the letter ended up at the Folger: there is a Case File number, cs2079. As readers of the Collation may know, Case File numbers were given to the materials that the Folgers themselves purchased (based, literally, on which crate—or case—the item was packed in). In this case, the file for Case 2079 contains a list of items from a lot of autograph letters that the Folgers purchased from a rare book and ephemera dealer, John Heise Autographs. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a date for the purchase, but looking through the list gave a clear idea of why the Folgers were interested in the lot: most, if not all, of the letters had some sort of Shakespearean connection, either in the person writing the letter,  or in the form of quotations within the letters themselves.

Abigail Adams’s letter is addressed to “Elizabeth” Rush, wife of Richard Rush, then Attorney General of the United States. (Mrs. Rush’s name was actually Catherine Elizabeth, and she signed the return letter “Cath. E Rush.”) The Adamses had a long connection with the Rush family, and Abigail begins the letter by apologizing to Mrs. Rush for “intruding” upon her hospitality “by my frequent introduction of my friends to your acquaintance.” And that is, in essence, the scope of the letter—a letter of introduction for Miss Eliza Sumner and her brother, who were planning on spending the winter in Washington.

Abigail goes on to admit that, if pressed whether she knew Richard Rush, “personally I do not think I Should recognize him, or he me” but that she is still comfortable making these introductions because “his Heart and Soul are my familiar Friend’s, and as Such, in the Language of Shakespear— ‘I Grapple him to my Soul with hooks of Steel’”. This (almost) quotation of Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, line 69 is certainly the reason the letter was included in the lot. [“Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel” is from a long speech by Polonius, which is more famous for the line “to thine own self be true.”]

The misquotations of “my” instead of “thy” and “hooks” instead of “hoops” might or might not have been intentional. Abigail was unafraid of adapting quotations to suit her purposes, and did so frequently in her letters. However, it could also have been an honest mistake by a woman who had probably learned the passage some 60 years prior.

But the intent is clear: because Richard Rush was considered by John to be a friend, Abigail could consider him (and, by extension, his wife) one as well. Abigail had a habit of sprinkling quotations of Shakespeare (among others) into much of her correspondence, and this habit allowed one of her letters to find a home here at the Folger, amidst so many of the writers that she admired. I’d like to think that she’d be pleased with that.

At the other end of the Rose Exhibition Hall, the temporary exhibition Imprints in Time, an extraordinary assortment of 52 objects from Stuart and Mimi Rose’s collection, ranges through time and space from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, from about 100 BCE (that is, the first century BCE), to the Apollo 11 flight plan from 1969, annotated by the astronauts who used it. It offers several rare American artifacts, as shown below.

In addition to the Apollo flight plan, the exhibition includes the first work of poetry published by an African American, Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773; the only book published by Thomas Jefferson in his lifetime, which was privately printed in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia; and the first edition of the first of Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies, in the original wrappers.

Other items include the uncut and unbound corrected proofs for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with corrections in Hawthorne’s own hand; an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inscribed by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife; an inscribed presentation copy of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; an inscribed presentation copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; the earliest known presentation copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; galley proofs of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage with corrections in his handwriting; and an advanced press copy of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Folger is closed on the Fourth of July, but we would love to share these and other wonderful offerings with you another day. Plan your visit.