Anecdotes brighten tour of Rosebach rare book Museum and Library
June 20, 2022
Docent Charlie Karl gives a floor-by-floor history tour of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in downtown Philadelphia. Known for its collection of important manuscripts first additions, illustrated copies of literary works and artifacts the Rosenbach houses the personal collection of the rare book dealer Dr. A.S.W, Rosenbach. With his brother, Philip, he had a 50 year run as a dealer in books and manuscripts. "Renowned dealers in books, manuscripts, and ﬁne art, the brothers played a central role in the development of private libraries that later became our nation’s most important public collections of rare books, such as the Folger and Huntington Libraries." (from the Museum's website). Karl sprinkles narrative with anecdotes. For an exhibition to celebrate Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, first published as “The Whale,” lamps were lit with whale oil. At the very top of the multi-floor staircase, we encounter a miniature model version of the Rosenbach’s New York office. So much attention is paid to detail that six tiny books in the model are actually miniaturized books. Watch video tour here.
A portrait of the renowned actress Fanny Kemble painted by James Sully in 1833 is the departure point for docent Charlie Karl’s fact-filled and wry tour of the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Karl relates that Kemble, who came from a renowned British theatrical family traveled to the U.S. with her father in 1832 to do dramatic Shakespeare readings along the East Coast. During a stay in Philadelphia she met Pierce Butler and in 1834 they married. Britain had abolished slavery in 1833. The fact that her husband owned 700 slaves on a Georgia plantation and made trips there without the family was such a source of discomfort to Kemble that she insisted on going with her husband and children to visit. There she journaled and tried to improve the lot of the women slaves. The experience became the basis for her book “Journal of a residence on a Georgia plantation” not published until Kemble had divorced, returned to England and the civil war had ended. In her later years, Kemble, who saw herself more as an artist and writer, resumed dramatic readings, crisscrossing the ocean. Watch video of portrait and short life story of actress writer Fanny Kemble here.
In a room of the Rosenbach Museum and Library dedicated to the literature of Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland the James Joyce manuscript of Ulysses sits in several boxes behind a glass covered bookcase. Guide Charlie Karl recites a ditty Joyce had written exhibiting his distain for Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, as a collector.
“Rosy Brook he bought a book
Though he didn’t know how to spell it
Such is the lure of literature
To the lad who can buy and sell it”
(According to the Rosenbach blog, a telegraph operator had apparently misspelled the title in a message)
Karl relates the backstory: At a manuscript auction, Rosenbach had purchased acclaimed Joseph Conrad manuscripts for a hefty sum but was able to acquire Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript from a collector, to whom Joyce had sold it, at a relative bargain. Subsequently, Joyce wanted the manuscript back but Rosenbach declined. Karl posits that Joyce didn’t really sufficiently appreciate Rosenbach as a bibliophile, who held literary works in such esteem that he mentored a generation of private collectors and enthusiasts dedicated to the preservation of these works. Watch video here.