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Remembering Charles E. Feinberg

May, 2010
By Roy Meador

Just as Linda Loman knew attention should be paid to her husband, so attention should be paid to collectors who preserve the works and memorabilia of authors. Some bibliophiles through their collections become outstanding benefactors.

The chronicles of collecting include John Harvard, a butcher's son, who left funds and his library of several hundred volumes to a start-up college that honored the donor by taking his name. Railroad executive Henry Huntington used his fortune to create a supreme book center. A Massachusetts town asked Ben Franklin for a church bell. He sent books to start a library instead, “sense being preferable to sound.”

Charles E. Feinberg belongs among the famous collectors whose books enrich others. He is largely unknown outside collecting circles and little known even among collectors. He lacked a need for recognition, letting his collections—not the collector—harvest accolades.

Feinberg endowed no enduring monuments such as the Pierpont Morgan and the Folger Shakespeare Libraries. He did not compile books about his collecting in the manner of A. Edward Newton, Abraham Rosenbach, Lawrence Clark Powell, et al. No biographies pay tribute to Feinberg and his collecting. Yet he epitomizes serious book collecting at its finest and stands out as a teacher and inspiration for those who want to do more than simply accumulate favorite books.

He collected with a prime focus on knowledge and scholarship. He put together arguably the finest Whitman collection since Whitman collected Whitman, and bequeathed his name by association to permanent treasures at the Library of Congress (LOC) and various library special collections. He was an admired if little known figure in the world of books for decades before and after his death at 88. The New York Times obit, 4 March 1988, identified him as a Detroit businessman and “A Whitman Collector.” Chances are the description would have pleased him as the ideal epitaph.

John Ciardi in his Saturday Review column, “Manner of Speaking,” on 7 December 1963 wrote that when he heard about the assassination of John Kennedy from a New York hat-check girl, “I was somewhere near 60th and Lexington having lunch with my good friend Charles Feinberg, the Whitman collector. We had been talking along, as we always do, about Whitman and about other literary figures in whom Feinberg is interested not only as a collector but as a scholar.”

In the Summer 1968 issue of The Private Library, William White wrote, “Charles Feinberg is enthusiasm. Charles Feinberg is the love of books and man. Charles Feinberg is stories, endless stories, and talk. Charles Feinberg can't be put down on paper.” Maybe not, but let's try to know more about the “collector's collector.”

Serendipity At The LOC

The Three Princes of Serendip gave me a nudge at the Library of Congress in January 1997. Browsing the catalogue, I discovered items from the “Feinberg Whitman Collection” available on request from the LOC Rare Book & Special Collections Division. The computer screen lit up with a remarkable series of Whitman items including many books the poet owned (e.g., Poems by Sadakichi Hartmann, Historical Sketches of the Churches of the City of Brooklyn, Shakspere [sic] by Edward Dowden), inscribed and annotated editions, books about Whitman —anything and everything related to America's quintessential national poet. As a “Whitmaniac” since high school in Clinton, Oklahoma, I was intrigued. Who pray was Feinberg; how did he gather such a focused horde of treasures?

The LOC Rare Book and Special Collections Division credits him with giving “the Library of Congress the finest Whitman collection in the world.” Placing his Whitman collection (468 titles) at the LOC solved a problem for Feinberg who wanted the fruits of his collecting intact and accessible for the benefit of scholarship and future generations.

The LOC also acknowledges other enriching gifts from the collector: “In addition to the Whitman material, Feinberg donated substantial runs of inscribed and signed books by Archibald MacLeish, Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Untermeyer, Mark Van Doren, and small gatherings of a number of twentieth-century poets, novelists, and literary critics.”

I discussed Feinberg with my friend Tom Bishop, an LOC librarian who participated in the cataloguing of the Feinberg Whitmans. He proved an expert on the collection but knew little more about Feinberg other than that he had been a Detroit businessman. So home to Ann Arbor.

My Feinberg quest got underway at the University of Michigan Graduate Library whose Special Collections section was also a major beneficiary of Feinberg's collecting and generosity. The search reached out to other universities and colleges where he had given talks on Whitman and allowed exhibits based on his collection. It stretched to bookstores where Feinberg found books and made friends. I felt early on I was tracking one of the most interesting individuals among collecting crusaders in the annals of bibliomania.

“I am a product of the public library,” said Charles Feinberg. Thus onward to the Detroit Public Library (DPL) where Feinberg was a charter member of the Friends, a member and director of the Friends Board, and a frequent donor or catalyst for the gifts of others to the library's rare book collections, ranging from 19th century historical documents to Sinclair Lewis's elusive first book, Hike and the Aeroplane, (1912), a boy's novel written under the pseudonym Tom Graham.

The DPL newsleter “Among Friends” in 1959 praised Feinberg as a collector and student of the American mind who “shared his knowledge and his books not only with the people of Detroit but also with people across this country as well as with thousands overseas.”

Following Feinberg led overseas—to London, England where he was born 27 September 1899. During his childhood, the family emigrated to Canada where the little formal schooling he had occurred at Peterborough, Ontario. There were seven other children; and Feinberg left school at twelve to help support the family, but he refused to let work end his education. Libraries and second-hand stores supplied books as his lifelines to knowledge. In time the self-taught lover of learning contributed to about 200 institutional libraries, received honorary doctorates, and was host to scholars who used his library for research.

At the start of it all, young Feinberg earning $2.50 a week met a bookdealer who sold him a book for a nickel and gave him three cents credit on another book when he returned it. He decided a full lunch wasn't necessary—“So you ate an apple or a banana and bought a book.”

“It began with a book,” recalled Feinberg in a 1955 catalogue for the Leaves of Grass 100th anniversary. The bookdealer said one day, “Here, boy, buy this book and see if you like it—bring it back if you don't.” The book was American Poems, edited by William Rossetti, published by Edward Moxon (London, 1872), and dedicated “with homage and love” to Walt Whitman by Rossetti, an English Whitman enthusiast.

The anthology had a large selection of Whitman's poetry. And it cost 10 cents! Feinberg took it: “That was the beginning of my interest in Walt Whitman. The seed planted by the old bookdealer has grown into this harvest of Whitman's works...To me Whitman sang of a new land, in a new way.” He didn't know it then, but that steep dime investment gave him an exciting road to travel for the rest of his life.

Still in his teens, Feinberg paid $7.50 for his first Whitman letter, a king's ransom then at his weekly salary of $22.50. “When I started collecting I didn't even know what book collecting meant; I suddenly found myself with a Whitman collection without consciously having intended to be a collector,” noted Feinberg. But he was on his way in a decades-long journey to compile a uniquely comprehensive collection of Whitman editions, manuscripts, autograph letters, and association materials.

In 1923 he left Canada for a job in New York, but lack of funds forced a detour to Detroit where he became a fuel-oil distributor. Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1932, he prospered in business, but books, became his true profession. Feinberg retired from business to devote his time and funds to collecting, speaking to others about authors, sharing his library with scholars, contributing rare books to public institutions, and sponsoring exhibits.

In 1959, he arranged an exhibit in Michigan of his collection of John Ciardi books and manuscripts, and he supported the preparation of a Ciardi bibliography by William White (published by Wayne State University, Detroit, 1959). A friend complained to Ciardi, “You're not even dead yet”! Ciardi, as the living recipient of a Feinberg tribute, wrote, “Knowing Charles Feinberg is better than being dead...How many people, after all, get a chance to go to their own funeral”? For Feinberg's writer friends it could be managed.

Along with Whitman, Feinberg collected first editions, manuscripts, work sheets, and letters of other authors. In 1948 for the Detroit Public Library quarterly he wrote about collecting A.E. Housman from the age of twenty and quoted the poet's lament about a printer's typo in Last Poems: “The blunder will probably enhance the value of the 1st edition in the eyes of bibliophiles, an idiotic class.”

A permanent member of the “bibliophile class,” Feinberg sought Housman letters, books from his library, and association items. In addition to admiring Housman's lyrics, he appreciated the poet's July 1898 instructions that royalties on a second edition of A Shropshire Lad should be used “to reduce the price at which the book is to be sold.” Latin professor Housman insisted, “I do not wish to make a profit out of my poetry. It is not my business.” This echoed Feinberg's own attitude. “I am a book collector, not a bookseller,” he said.

Feinberg maintained “The greatest Whitman collector was Walt Whitman.” John C. Broderick, Assistant Chief of the Manuscript Division at the LOC, wrote in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (April 1970) that if the poet was his own greatest collector “Mr. Feinberg himself has been his most serious rival.”

When the his Whitman Collection reached port at the Library of Congress in the 1960s, highlights included nine Leaves of Grass firsts (out of 795 self-published copies) and the famous letter of 21 July 1855 in which Ralph Waldo Emerson saluted Whitman's “free and brave thought,” and told him, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Among the memorabilia he had acquired were the poet's pen, glasses, watch, notebooks, photographs, and a walking stick given to Whitman by John Burroughs. The “heart of the collection,” reported Broderick, were about 2,000 letters to Whitman, over 1,000 Whitman letters, and over 1,000 manuscripts.

Feinberg had become a Whitman authority, widely sought as a lecturer and consulted for his expertise on the authenticity of Whitman items. In a 1958 paper delivered at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America, he stated, “Forty years ago, I bought my first Walt Whitman letter. Since then, I have tried to acquire all available letters, postcards, checks, bills and documents, primarily to reconstruct Whitman's daily life and creative activity.” One item Feinberg obtained was the only known sheet from the original Leaves of Grass manuscript that Whitman had saved because he'd used the obverse to make word lists for a poem, “Song of the Broad-Axe.”

“I thought it would be interesting to know where Whitman was on what dates, and a lot of this information comes from bills, checks, and postmarks,” he explained in a 1962 lecture he called “Adventures in Book Collecting.” He expressed the hope his lecture would “encourage others to have their own fun collecting” and he also observed that the poet's work sheets and related materials “are the closest I'll ever get to Walt Whitman's brain box.”

When asked what makes a person want to collect books and letters, he admitted “collecting adventures” are always part of the answer. In 1954 at a London shop he bought a 1900 Leaves of Grass for five shillings. The book wasn't valuable, but he recognized a photograph glued to the flyleaf as a picture of Whitman's Long Island, New York birthplace. In a Bloomsbury tea shop, he carefully lifted the picture and there in Whitman's hand was written: “House where Walt Whitman was born May 31, 1819, back view of the house to the road.”

Feinberg encouraged the use of his collections for exhibits and insisted on catalogues. “I have always deplored the showing of an exhibition without the publication of a catalogue,” he wrote. “Exhibitions come and go and are quickly forgotten; it is the printed catalogue that is important to the scholar and the collector.”

For the 1955 Library of Congress exhibition catalogue to commemorate Leaves of Grass at 100, Feinberg provided an excellent preface, “Notes on Whitman Collections and Collectors.” It is information about early collectors who saved Whitman materials. “His manuscripts, letters, postcards, and books continue to be game in a happy hunting ground for the collectors of Walt Whitman—National Poet of America—whose Leaves of Grass is sure to be read long after its first hundred years,” he stated.

Fineberg dedicated the 1955 Detroit Whitman Exhibition catalogue to the collectors who preceded him, “...who preserved the writings of Walt Whitman and who made this collection possible.” The event produced a singular “collecting adventure” due to the disappearance from the Detroit Library exhibit of a 398-page Whitman Commonplace Book containing personal entries from March 1876 through May 1889. The theft frustrated private detectives, insurance investigators, and the police. On 28 December 1955, the library received the book in a manila envelope with an unsigned note saying, “Dear Sir, The book was not stolen. I'm sorry I didn't return it sooner.” Feinberg called the book's return his best Christmas present.

Feinberg On Collecting

Feinberg talked little about himself—his impulse was to step back and let the books speak. About Whitman he wrote in an exhibition catalogue, “It is his story that is important not mine.”

Relating stories of books won and books that got away, he stressed, “It helps to be born lucky.” His own collecting achievements make clear that luck favors the persistent. In addition to luck, it also helps to be considerate of and generous with others. Articles and books about Whitman proliferated in the Feinberg collection, and many of the items were added to the collection by grateful scholars who were beneficiaries of Feinberg's hospitality.

He criticized two types of collectors: “Those who buy priceless items and withhold them from scholars, and those who purchase books with an eye to resale at a profit.” He saw himself as a book custodian with a duty to share and he was always eager to make his collections available to scholars, libraries, and universities.

Feinberg paid tribute to dealers in the U.S. and abroad who assisted him in his collecting. He in turn readily helped them. Doug Price, a Michigan dealer in antiquarian books and vintage photographs at the West Side Book Shop in Ann Arbor, recalls talking with Feinberg about Whitman photographs and a first edition of Whitman's rare “temperance novel,” Franklin Evans (November 1842). Price received practical advice that helped him make sales to the University of Michigan and the Getty Museum.

Whitman told Horace Traubel, “That whole mania for collecting things strikes me as an evidence of disease—sometimes of disease in an acute form.” Feinberg welcomed the disease. He knew Whitman collectors were essential to the preservation of the work of the poet and he clearly was among those who take collecting itself to a higher level.

“Walt Whitman lives throughout the world,” wrote Feinberg, “because there were a dedicated few who bridged the period from Whitman's day to our own, and these few would not let perish the greatness of the man.” A similar dedication encourages us not to let perish the memory of collector Charles E. Feinberg.

Roy Meador, a writer and book collector in Ann Arbor, Michigan, died on January 16, 2007. Roy was the co-author with Marvin Mondlin of Book Row, their history of the bookshops that once flourished along Manhattan's Fourth Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood.