Poetic associations inspire an exhibition and a gift from the Wachs family

Poetry, usually considered a solitary art, is often produced within social circles and communities, shaped by friendships, rivalries, and collaborations. The same can be said of book collecting, an activity at once completely individualistic and yet pursued within a network of other collectors, booksellers, and librarians.

The fall exhibition in the Special Collections Research Center, Poetic Associations: The Nineteenth-Century English Poetry Collection of Dr. Gerald N. Wachs, showcases selections from the nearly 900 items assembled through the extraordinary collaboration between Dr. Wachs (1937-2013) and bookseller Stephen Weissman. It also celebrates an exceptionally generous gift from the Wachs family to the University of Chicago Library.

Over 40 years of careful collecting, Dr. Wachs and Mr. Weissman obtained rare publications, both famous and obscure, including many with inscriptions or interesting provenance that provide a roadmap to the poetic associations that spanned several literary eras from the Romantic age to the beginning of the twentieth century and produced some of the most well-known and well-loved poetry in English of all time.

Examples from this rich collection include Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798); the only known copy of Alfred Comyn Lyall’s first edition of Verses Written in India (1880); Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ England and Spain; or, Valour and Patriotism (1808); Alfred Tennyson’s The Ode on the Opening of the Exhibition (1862), the first poem written in his capacity as poet laureate, woven on a silk ribbon for the opening of the International Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace; and The Battle of Marathon; A Poem (1820), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s first book, privately printed in an edition of 50 copies.

The University of Chicago is most fortunate to have received, as a gift, hundreds of titles from the Wachs Collection thanks to the tremendous generosity of the Wachs Family— Deborah Wachs Barnes, Sharon Wachs Hirsch, Judith Pieprz, and Joel Wachs, AB’92. This splendid gift will create new areas of depth in the Library’s collection, such as Anglo-Indian poetry, and adds many works with features of great interest to researchers.

Joel Wachs’s generosity has extended beyond the donation of his late father’s books. As a member of the Visiting Committee to the Library and a University of Chicago alumnus, he made a magnanimous overall commitment of $1 million, including the gift of books, to support the Library. This leadership gift to the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact includes a generous pledge in support of the Library’s Annual Fund, and supplements Library endowments that Joel previously established. His gift also supports the publication of a catalogue of the Wachs Collection, and the work of English graduate student Eric Powell as a co-curator of the exhibition.

Joel’s gift was inspired by his desire to honor his father’s memory and to champion the University of Chicago and its Library. “The libraries were central to my experience at the University, and supporting them has been a way of making sure that these resources are available for generations to come,” he explained.

“The poetry collection was one of my father’s proudest achievements, as he knew that the rare volumes contained much for scholars,” Joel said. “In the years before he passed away, he worked with Library leadership and staff on ways that he could make his collection available for academic research. I have worked hard to help fulfill my father’s hopes.”