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Poetic Associations

The Nineteenth-Century English Poetry Collection of Dr. Gerald N. Wachs

Exhibition on view from September 21, 2015 to December 31, 2015
Special Collections Research Center Gallery

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. Poets read and revise and each other's drafts, dedicate their works to each other, review it, and send each other copies of their publications, sometimes with personal inscriptions. The collection of nineteenth-century English poetry formed by Dr. Gerald N. Wachs (1937-2013), the result of an extraordinary partnership with bookseller Stephen Weissman, includes works published from the start of the age we now call Romantic to the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition to very scarce works, inscribed copies testify to some of the poetic associations that produced some of the most well-known and well-loved poetry in English of all time.

The Wachs Collection, which numbers nearly 900 titles, was started in 1970 and continued to grow for over forty years. It was guided throughout by the third volume, covering 1800-1900, of The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (1969-77). Books selected for the Wachs collection are nearly all "special" copies: in splendid condition, often with a presentation inscription that reveals a personal association, and sometimes one of very few known copies.

It is difficult to single out representative examples from such a rich assemblage. Some are little-known works by famous authors, and often quite unimpressive in appearance: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's first book, The Battle of Marathon; A Poem (1820), privately printed in an edition of fifty copies, of which only fifteen copies are known to survive. Others are the first appearance of famous works that differ considerably from the version we have come to know, such as Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade.

After Dr. Wachs's death, the collection was placed on deposit at the University of Chicago Library. Part of the collection will be dispersed, but thanks to the great generosity of the Wachs family (Deborah Wachs Barnes, Sharon Wachs Hirsch, Judith Pieprz, and Joel Wachs, AB'92), hundreds of titles are being donated to the University of Chicago. This magnificent gift will create entirely new areas of depth to the Library's collection, for example Anglo-Indian poetry, and add many works previously not in the collection or with features of great interest to researchers. The University of Chicago Library will produce a comprehensive catalogue to serve as a permanent record of this remarkable collection.