Collecting Chaucer

We built our house with a two-and-a-half car garage because all houses in America are supposed to have a garage, but our garage has never seen a car. For the first fifteen years it was full of boxes of books and all the odds and ends of life and living that weren’t really wanted or needed but were considered too valuable or important to give away or throw away. Then I decided that since the garage was full of books anyway, we should turn the garage into a library.

And so I built a library with wall to wall, floor to ceiling bookcases to hold the books. It wasn’t built as a Chaucer library. Science fiction took up the west end. Non-fiction, fiction, and mysteries were on the north wall. The east wall was poetry, and on the south wall history, translation theory, literary theory, books on versification, and books on teaching and educational theory fought for space. And over the doors and windows I jammed as many of my father’s collection of cameras as I could. Chaucer came later.

I built my library with oak book cases, covered the counter tops with granite, and put down a plush, deep green, wall-to-wall carpet.. It is still not one of the great libraries of the world. In fact most libraries would think of it as a poor, second-hand cousin wearing second-class books. Still, I think of it as the best library ever. It’s mine and it contains my books. It holds the books I want to read. It’s a reflection of who I am.

The library is the first room people enter when they come to visit. And while I haven’t had anyone run screaming from the room upon seeing the floor to ceiling, wall to wall bookcases all filled with books, I have had people blurt, “You live in a library?” and, from the daughter of friends of friends, “I can’t go in there. That’s my English teacher!”

That’s right. I am, or at least was, an high school English teacher. Now I am a recovering English teacher, and I meet monthly with fellow recovering addicts at the back room of the local pool hall where we sit on rickety metal chairs, and I introduce myself my telling everyone, “Hello. I’m Bob, and I am an English teacher even though I have not been in front of a class for twelve years.”

But I am more than that. I am also the president and founding member of the Save The Adverbial Form Society. I continually create mental plans for grandiose gardens that rival the great gardens of Europe. I make my own soap and can my own tomato sauce. I am a wood carver. I make relief prints and bind books. I am a poet, a pianist, an arborist, a fool. Like Whitman I am large, I contain multitudes. I am a renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades who continually strives to master something, a butterfly flitting from one thing to another without the sting of a bee. An accidental collector of books by and about Chaucer.

 I have a PhD in English literature, but I am not a scholar of Chaucer. I am merely a retired high school English teacher who has published a small bunch of poems, one poetry chapbook, and one book on teaching: Teaching in the Real World.   I might give myself the delusions of being a Chaucerian manqué or at my most grandiose, of self titling myself Don Quixote de la Chaucer tilting not at windmills with a shaving basin on my head, but a Don Quixote who goes around with a ratty old paperback on my head slashing my way through dust-covered, unbound books forgotten in the backs of out-of-the-way used book stores looking for the holy grail: an unknown, original manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

My interest in Chaucer started with an interest in Chaucer’s usage of the final –e after going to Dartmouth for an NEH Chaucer seminar. But the real start of my collection was when I was able to acquire a most beautiful copy of the Urry Chaucer, known far and wide as the worst Chaucer ever made. My collection is my golf game, and in any given year I spend about as much on my collection as some people spend playing golf. But unlike golf, at the end of the day I have more to show for the money I have spent than just a pencil stub and a wrinkled up score card.

I collect editions of Chaucer because there is just enough difference between Modern and Middle English that he transports me into another place and time; and I am no longer a simple, retired English teacher whose only foreign language is the most rudimentary of Italian. With Chaucer I become an Indiana Jones of linguistics capable of the most impossible feats of translation. I become the best in the world at slashing through the swamps and quagmires of meaning with only the OED standing between me and disaster as I achieve feats of translation and understanding that are the marvel of the western world.

Others can watch movies about the conquest of Everest and imagine themselves climbing that mountain single handedly without Sherpas or oxygen or any supplies other than what they are carrying on their backs. Or perhaps they read a book and become that one man who emerges unscathed after saving the world from invading hordes of aliens at incredible odds. They take on the leader of the Tour de France mano-a-mano and break him on the highest mountain climb in the Pyrenees or dream of having so much money that even Bill Gates is poor by comparison. With Chaucer, I dream my own impossible dreams.

And while I have lived and known the power and glory of dreams, I have always been enough of a realist to know that dreams tend to fade when exposed to the bright sun of reality; that dreams, like rainbows, are beautiful to behold but impossible to hold on to. Knowing this, and after a lifetime of dreams, I find myself in an undiscovered country where imagination rules; where the world has been inverted and a dream has become reality.

And unfortunately for my other books, Chaucer has turned out to be a bully. He has continually needed more space until now he takes up half of the library. Literary theory, history, books on teaching and education, all have had to go to make room for an insatiable appetite. And now, after twenty years of collecting, I sometimes think I might have more editions of Chaucer’s works than Harvard or the combined holdings of all the various campuses of the University of California.

I sometimes feel that I should join BCA (Book Collectors Anonymous); and I imagine a dialogue about me, my books, and my collecting habit would go something like this when someone new comes to my house:

“You read all them books?”

“No. I collect editions of Chaucer. Most of the books on these walls are filled with various editions of Chaucer’s works, and I haven’t read The Canterbury Tales a thousand times.”

“Oh. I remember I had to memorize Chaucer in high school in old English. Still remember it, “Whan thought prill with his shirs suit! Never did make any sense.”

With that the conversation usually goes off into one of the following directions:

“Hey, I like your cameras.” (I have fifty or sixty cameras on shelves above the doors and windows in the library.) “Where’d you get em? I’ll bet they’re worth a lot of money.”

“No, they’re really not. Most of them I either got from my father or picked up for five or ten dollars.”


“How about them Lakers?”

This could even be during football or baseball season. Or the subject might change to politics or money or anything but books. . . and certainly anything but Chaucer.

I collect Chaucer editions because I find Chaucer to be the most humane of writers, and I am endlessly fascinated with the way he has been received over the centuries. I have something in excess of one hundred and fifty Victorian and Edwardian editions from various publishers. In most cases, the covers are beautifully decorated in greens, reds, yellows, browns, or black with the edges gilt and gilt lettering on the front covers and spines. And although many are now a little tired looking with their colors faded or even grubby and the tops of the spines showing the abuse of fingers grabbing onto them and tilting them out so the shelves they have been sitting on could be cleaned, the one thing they all have in common is their text blocks. Their text blocks are almost always pristine. The text blocks look like they have sat on their owners’ shelves for their entire lives without anyone opening the books or doing anything other than fanning through the pages to see if there were any pictures to look at. The Victorian and Edwardian editions only rationale for existing seems to have been to look pretty on a bookshelf.

In 2003, in conjunction with the British Library, Oak Knolls published the wonderful book, Chaucer Illustrated: Five Hundred Years of The Canterbury Tales in Pictures”; but as good as this book is, its focus is on the better known illustrated editions. It does not even hint at the lost, abandoned, or forgotten illustrations and editions. Now some might think that these editions and these illustrations deserve to be neglected, but they were not all the work of people no one but the most erudite Chaucer scholars have heard of. Edmund Dulac, Elizabeth Frink, Charles Mozley, and Rockwell Kent were also illustrators of The Canterbury Tales that have been lost, forgotten, neglected, or abandoned.

I had the opportunity of delivering a paper at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2008 as part of a panel dealing with “Chaucer and Image.” During my presentation I presented a set of etchings done by Eunice Young Smith, a children’s writer and illustrator who wrote and illustrated her own children’s books as well as the books of others primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. Young’s work was completely unknown to the Chaucerians in attendance at that session. This didn’t surprise me. In email conversations with Smith’s daughter and son, I discovered that Smith only pulled a few sets of prints and that only one or two were ever sold. It was more surprising that the Chaucerian illustrations of Dulac, Frink, and Mozley were not known; perhaps because these artists were not Chaucerians or perhaps because their illustrations of Chaucer’s works comprise such a small segment of their overall work.

Looking for books on the internet can be time consuming. I know. I’ve been checking both eBay and ABEBooks a couple of times a day for the past twenty years. It doesn’t take much time each time I check, but the time does add up. Searching in this way it is possible to find things that could not be found in a lifetime without the internet. You also get a feel for average prices and a feel for when something is a good deal and when something is way over-priced. Sitting in my library I have been able to acquire more editions of Chaucer, and a wider range of editions than collectors before the internet were able to acquire in a life time of searching. Of course I don’t get the pleasure of going to England and poking around used bookstores doing things this way, but I could not have afforded to have done it in any other way.

My collection is marked by all the excesses, mistakes, and foibles of a true amateur. I even play fast and loose with the definition of what makes an edition. I just leave it undefined in my own mind and if there are differences between one book and another, list them as two separate editions rather than do the proper, scholarly, and erudite thing of listing and discussing the variations in the variants.

I have found that you can’t trust a title page. It seems like publishers, when reprinting an edition will sometimes slap the title page of a previous printing onto a text block even when there have been changes to the text. There are wide variations for instance between one Tyrwhitt edition and another without any indication that differences exist, and even one copy of the hallowed Riverside may not be the same as another copy. As Susan Yager pointed out to me, “of the three copies of the Riverside Chaucer I’ve somehow gotten hold of, some wording/punctuation differs between copies. So how can you quote from the authorized edition when there are authorized differences?” And how many changes must there be before one edition becomes another? For me it’s like testing to see how much you can stretch a rubber band before it breaks.

My collection will never contain a foundation or cornerstone edition. It will never have a single defining book like the Huntington library has with the Ellesmere Chaucer. It will never have a Caxton, a de Worde, or a complete Pynson; and while I fool myself that sometime there will be a Thynne for sale that I can afford, I know that that possibility is about as likely as a mouse scaring an elephant. And as for a Kelmscott Chaucer, I dream about it but make do with facsimiles. I love what I do have, and I also love the fact that there are a finite number of editions. What if I had decided to collect editions of Shakespeare instead of Chaucer? Then where would I begin and how would I begin? I might as well walk along the beach with my trousers rolled and dream of sea-girls. Has even the Folger Library a complete collection all the editions of Shakespeare’s works?

At the present time, out of the more than 1,500 editions I have so far been able to identify, I have between 900 and 1,000. Most of these are editions of The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida. Relatively few editions focus on individual tales or editions made and marketed to students taking a college class in Chaucer.

I have divided my collection into various categories: illustrated Chaucers, children’s Chaucers, Victorian and Edwardian Chaucers, Chaucers with decorative covers, Chaucers which deal with a single tale or a small number or tales, translations and modernizations, and text book Chaucers. Often books have been placed in more than one category.

Why so many editions for such a limited number of tales? It isn’t just because of greed or because I’m a secret hoarder. At the present time I have 372 books that are categorized as illustrated Chaucers and find the illustrations are often more a reflection of the times the illustrations were made than they are of Chaucer’s stories. As a result of my collection, when reading Chaucer Illustrated: Five Hundred Years of The Canterbury Tales in Pictures, I was able to go to the editions being discussed and look at the original illustrations rather than being satisfied with the (sometimes) smudged reproductions.

For editions of the Victorian-Edwardian periods, fifty to seventy-five are books with decorative covers. And even when the text blocks are identical, they are worth the space they take up because of the variations in the covers. Books with decorative covers seem to be their time period’s answer to today’s coffee table books. Good to look at, but never read.

In the collection there are books with goffered edges, fore edge paintings, and books that are just unusual. Can you imagine putting a Penguin paperback in a full-leather binding with blind stamped designs on both front and back covers? And then gilding the edges? It was done, and I have it.

But what is most important is that the books are here. I don’t need to go to the local library or to the closest university (which is 100 miles away), or get on a plane to look at an edition or view an illustration. All I have to do is reach out and pull a book off a shelf.

This allows me to compare my books with the books listed in the end notes and bibliographies of the experts and see what I am missing. It also allow me to see whether I have any editions that these authors were unable to find or were unable to include in their discussion.

Before I started collecting editions of Chaucer I had not known that Chaucer had been so popular in the nineteenth century. The publisher Thomas Crowell, for instance, seems to have put out editions with different covers just about every year for at least twenty years. I love looking at and comparing the changes and similarities between those editions. In 1854 Routledge brought out the Wright edition with the Corbould illustrations. In 1855 Appleton brought out an American edition with the same illustrations, same number of pages, and almost the same spine design. But, to my eye at least, the illustrations in the Appleton edition do not seem as crisp as those in the Routledge. I haven’t checked yet to see if the Appleton edition was pirated or if there was a business relationship between Routledge and Appleton. So far it is enough for me to notice the similarities and differences between one edition and another. It is enough to look through the Corbould illustrations in the various editions and see how they have changed as they have been reused and recut. For example, in the 1854 edition the Dalziel Brothers signature is very clear on some of the illustrations. In later editions the signature becomes distorted and in still later it is gone completely.

I have just about every book Velma Bourgeois Richmond discusses in her wonderful book, Chaucer as Children’s Literature as well as others that she does not mention, and find the Chaucer for children books to be really rather amazing. Chaucer’s stories were used to instruct children in proper behavior and morality rather than dirty stories for dirty old men.

Then there are the translations/retellings/modernized spelling versions. If you haven’t had a chance to look at the James Donohue translations, I would recommend you do so. Donohue was a teacher at Loras College and seemed to have translated Chaucer for his students in the 1950s and 1960s. I find them much more readable than the Coghill translations. And when I came across a copy of the Penny Poets edition of Chaucer translated by Edith Johnstone, I found the translation, which is more of a modernized-spelling version than a translation, to be wonderful even though it is an abbreviated version. After all, what else would you expect from a book that was sold at train stations to be read by people on their commute to and from work and home.

Another reason for having my own collection is that real collections from real libraries are not available to me. While libraries do make their collections available to recognized researchers, what happens when I, a no-name, affiliated-with-no-one, plain-old-run-of-the-mill person want to go to see a collection of Chaucer manuscripts or different printed editions? Where does someone like me go? The Huntington Library in Southern California has a great collection, but the only book they have on display is the Ellesmere. (I know I’m greedy, but please sir, may I have some more?) The rest of the Huntington’s collection are unavailable to someone who is just walking in off the street. I know. I asked, and was made to feel like I was something nasty that they couldn’t wait to scrape off the sole of their shoe. Would I have had a better reception at the Dunleavy Chaucer Collection at the University of New Hampshire Library? What about the Chaucer Collection at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee? Both of these have very nice web sites, but seeing a page on the web isn’t the same as going there in person. How about the Henry B. Fernald Collection at NYU? Is this collection accessible to the public? Where in the United States can peasants like me walk in the door and see Chaucer on display? Now that I am retired, it is possible for me to go just about anywhere. Go to England? Absolutely! But will their libraries even let me look at their books, much less handle them?

This is what a member of the Chaucernet listserv had to say about my desire to view and hold a rare edition of Chaucer:

“Human beings carry germs, dirt, humidity with them, for example. Too much humidity etc., and cave paintings crumble and fall to dust. You can imagine what this does to mere skin or paper, rather than stone. So curators—people who take care of cave paintings and ancient or medieval manuscripts—restrict access to the originals to those who actually need to know, for purposes such as confirming statements made about what is in fact contained in these ancient records of human history, and try to have as-near-as-possible facsimiles available for people who don’t actually need to know but have a genuine curiosity that does call for a friendly response. But as Pat Conner says, “Access increases traffic, which means things like humidity, germs, dirt, all the trappings of crowds” which in turn decreases access, because the previous old things just fall apart under the weight of being looked at, not to mention breathed upon. It’s an incredible privilege to be permitted access, not one to be taken lightly, I’m sure you can understand. Can you be satisfied with those lovely images, turned into large pictures in front of you, and use your imagination as to the rest? That would be an act of surrender which would be deeply appreciated by scholars.”

I can understand, and he’s probably right. But I still prefer the attitude of the rare book librarian at Dartmouth. The members of the NEH Chaucer seminar I was part of were taken to the library to look at books and manuscripts printed on vellum. We were all hesitant to pick up any of the books with our bare hands. Where were the white gloves? Wouldn’t we damage the books? The answer was no. We wouldn’t damage them if we picked them up and turned the pages. We were told it was good for the books to be handled. It was good for the pages to be turned. And it was better for the books to be held in bare hands than it was for them to be held by people with gloves on, because people wearing gloves were more likely to tear the pages. We just had to make sure that we had just washed our hands.

Jack C. Thompson of the Conservation Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, in a private email writes:

“After I’d put together a large research collection of my own a colleague, having taken a look at my ranks of shelving units, said that it was not appropriate for a private individual to have so many research books under one roof.

That is when I decided, “F*** ’em” I built my collection for two reasons. I can’t find it in any local college/university/public library, and I like to wander about my shelves at 3:00 am to find the book/journal article which answers my question of the moment.”

I feel the same way. I have also been told it is not appropriate for me to have editions of Chaucer’s works that are three or four or five hundred years old. “They belong in a library!” I have also been told that my plebian breath will damage the books. Apparently dirt and grime must still ooze out of the pores of my lower-class, Italian roots; or possibly some people are worried that I don’t know the difference between the pages of a Thynne or Speght Chaucer and toilet paper.

I wonder if they ever stopped to consider how libraries the great collections were gathered together in the first place. That does not mean I have a great collection. I merely have a large one. Except for facsimile, I will never have any of the great editions. Nor will I ever have an original manuscript. I only have what a high school English teacher who has never won the Lottery can purchase.

And for the choleric scholars who think that my books should be available only to themselves and their cohorts and friends who truly need to access them, the last I checked college teachers do get paid more than high school teachers. They can either buy their own copies, or they are welcome to apply for reading privileges at my library.

As for the argument that my books belong in a library, my answer is that my books are in a library. They are in my library where they are cared for by someone who loves them. They are not sitting in some inaccessible stacks ignored by some undergraduate student on work-study who thinks that Chaucer wrote in old English. And will the exhalations of me and my wife and dog really do more damage to the books than the breath of an esteemed scholar?

As for the “access problem,” when I wandered through the Treasures of the British Library a couple of years ago it did not seem to me that they were worried about the access problem. Would you really prevent the unwashed multitude from having the thrill of being only a foot away from THE Beowulf or an original manuscript of the Canterbury Tales? The Ellesmere is on permanent display at the Huntington, and it is still protected while anyone, no matter how unwashed, can stick their nose within a couple of feet of it. If the problem is theft, the present restrictions did not prevent Stephen Blumberg from stealing over 23,000 books from libraries throughout the United States over a twenty-year period. So in my library, Chaucer sits in plain sight. After all, why would I want to hide Chaucer away from all except the privileged few? If I did that, I would also be hiding him away from myself.

Now if this was the introduction to a book instead of merely being an introduction, then the chapters of that book would be the following:

  1. Condition, Condition, Condition
  2. Why do you want to do that for?
  3. Bragging rights
  4. Resource to the world–Wherein a scholar-manqué, a literary knight errant, rides to the rescue
  5. A real rare fruit . . . grower
  6. Children’s Chaucer–They must of grown em smarter back then
  7. Illustrated Chaucer–Would you like to come over and see my etchings?
  8. The Victorian Chaucer–Look at all the pretty covers
  9. Searching for the source of the Nile—Discovering a book exists is the first step to acquiring it.
  10. Who needs seven-league boots?—Finding books on eBay and other internet sites
  11. Thirty dollars? Three hundred dollars? Three thousand dollars?—Finding bargains and getting burned
  12. What do you mean it doesn’t exist?—Knowing more than the experts
  13. Stalking the wild edition—The pleasure and anxiety of not knowing where the next book is coming from
  14. Gathering dust and taking up space—What do I do with them now I that have them?
  15. The disapprobation of the grey eminence—Arguments from experts against owning a collection in the first place
  16. A convocation of vultures—What happens to the collection when I die

But this is merely an introduction.