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Dickens and the Berg Collection

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From the collection's very beginnings, Dickens formed a rich part of The New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, now one of America's most celebrated collections of literary first editions, rare books, autograph letters and manuscripts. The founding collection was presented to the Library in 1940, with an endowment, by Dr. Albert A. Berg in memory of his late brother, Dr. Henry W. Berg. The brothers Berg were both distinguished physicians, as well as passionate bibliophiles and brilliant real estate investors. Lifelong bachelors who shared a deep personal attachment, they also shared a townhouse off Fifth Avenue with their three canaries, each named "Dickie," and spent their evenings reading to one another from their favorite authors, mostly Dickens, Thackeray and Scott.

By the time of Henry's death in 1938, the Drs. Berg had assembled a distinguished example of what used to be called a "gentleman's library," consisting of approximately 3,500 volumes, focussing primarily on important first editions and other rare books (Dickens accounted for a tenth of the holdings). As for manuscripts, they had concentrated on autograph letters by their favorite writers, such as Dickens and Wilde, although they also secured Dickens's 1867 pocket diary, a most important acquisition that is featured in session 5 of this seminar. Soon after his original gift to the Library, Albert Berg purchased the magnificent private libraries of the American collectors W.T. Howe and Owen D. Young for the Berg Collection; these acquisitions immeasurably increased the collection's depth and breadth, particularly in literary manuscripts (the Berg now holds more than 500 Dickens letters). In addition to its myriad literary treasures in both print and manuscript, the Howe collection also brought with it a mahogany writing table from Gad's Hill Place and an armchair used in the office of Dickens's periodical Household Words (both shown in the accompanying photograph), as well as other realia associated with the "Inimitable Boz." (At the formal dedication of the Berg Collection and its new reading room on October 11, 1940, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia sat in the Household Words chair and promptly broke its caning.)

A selection of Dickensiana in The New York Public Library'sBerg Collection, including a mahogany writingtable and brass lamp from Gad's Hill Place.A selection of Dickensiana in The New York Public Library's
Berg Collection, including a mahogany writing
table and brass lamp from Gad's Hill Place.
Like other Dickens relics in the Berg, the crystal inkwell and pocket compass shown here are accompanied by handwritten notes from Georgina Hogarth, Dickens's long-lived sister-in-law and trusted confidante, attesting to their "intimate association" with the novelist. One of these notes, which "Georgy" dated January 31, 1910, confirms that the lamp comes from the library at Gad's Hill. In the small box in which the note is stored, there is also a folded page, which was torn from the May 5, 1920, edition of the New York Evening Sun. On that page, now yellowed and brittle, there is this brief item: "A lamp once owned by Charles Dickens is on sale here, but the purchaser can scarcely hope to read nature by its light as Dickens read it." The card calendar, in the tin box, is stopped on June 9, the day of the great man's death in 1870.

 

 

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