About the Berg Collection

The Berg Collection contains some 35,000 printed volumes, pamphlets, and broadsides, and 2,000 linear feet of literary archives and manuscripts, representing the work of more than 400 authors. Printed books in English date from William Caxton’s 1480 edition of the Chronicles of England to the present day, and the manuscripts encompass an almost equally lengthy period. The collection’s earliest manuscript, dating from around 1605 and named for its early owners, the Dukes of Westmoreland, contains one of the most authoritative versions of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Paradoxes, and other works of prose and poetry, and is written in the hand of his close friend Rowland Woodward. Spanning the Age of Johnson, the Romantics, and the early Victorians are the papers of the novelist, diarist, and dramatist Frances (“Fanny”) Burney (1752–1840). The Romantics are represented by numerous manuscript materials (such as, poems, notebooks, and correspondence) of Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Leigh Hunt, and Robert Southey, and less numerous but no less noteworthy, manuscripts and letters by Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

But the Berg’s most extensive manuscript holdings date from the period 1820–1970. Of the British and Irish, a short list would include Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens (including the 1867 diary of his second tour of America, most of his periodical contributions, and several collections of drawings and plates by his illustrators), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Gissing, George Moore, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, A. E. (George William Russell), Sean O’Casey (comprising the remnants of his fire-ravaged papers), James Stephens, H. G. Wells, Sir Edward Marsh, John Masefield, Hugh Walpole, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Vita Sackville-West, Robert Graves, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. The Berg also contains the world’s largest manuscript holdings of Virginia Woolf and W. H. Auden.

American authors represented by significant and/or extensive manuscript holdings include Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, James Russell Lowell, Henry James, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot (including the typescript/manuscript of The Waste Land, with Pound’s emendations), Randall Jarrell, Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Julia Alvarez, Clark Coolidge. Also present are the archives of Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, May Sarton, Laura Riding Jackson, Alfred Kazin, Kenneth Koch, Paul Auster, Philip Levine, Terry Southern, and Bruce Jay Friedman.

Institutional papers found in the Berg include those of the Abbey Theatre, the publishers A. P. Watt & Son and James B. Pinker & Son, The Dial, and the Gotham Book Mart.

Of printed books, the Berg contains comprehensive collections of first and rare editions of nearly all of the canonical 19th- and early 20th-century authors, and extensive holdings from earlier centuries. A short list of English highlights includes the first edition of Thomas More's Utopia, in Latin (1516); the first edition of Spenser's Colin Clouts Comes Home Again (1595); the first edition, first issue, of The Faerie Queene (1590–1596); Chapman's Homer (1616); the first four Shakespeare folios and Shakespeare's 1640 Poems; a first edition of Milton's Comus (1637), and Alexander Pope's signed copy of Milton's first edition of the Poems (1645), containing Pope's autograph transcription of Milton's Latin verse; five books written and printed by William Blake (four of which he hand-colored), including the Songs of Innocence (1789); a 1713 edition of Tasso's Orlando Furioso, whose final, unprinted page contains Samuel Taylor Coleridge's hand-written comments, in Italian, on the work; the first edition, first issue, of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768); and a perfect copy, gatherings unopened, of the Kilmarnock 1786 edition of Burns's Poems; the copy of Endymion (1818) inscribed by Keats to Leigh Hunt; the first edition, first issue, of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (Bristol, 1798), bound in muslin by Robert Southey, and the first edition, third issue, of the same work (London, 1798), with emendations in Coleridge's hand; six of Dickens's novels as they were first issued—in parts, as well as in their first separate editions (also present are all of Thackeray's and George Eliot's first separate editions, as well as several of their books-in-parts); the copy of Vanity Fair (1848) inscribed by Thackeray to Dickens, as well as the copy extra-illustrated with five of his watercolor sketches and inscribed to George Cruikshank; George Meredith's Poems (1851), with the text emended in his hand and interleaved with his autograph poems and notes; Alice Liddell's copy of the withdrawn first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866); Rudyard Kipling's The Smith Administration (Allahabad, 1891), one of six known copies, with a letter from Kipling and two from his wife laid-in; the  copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) inscribed by Oscar Wilde to Major James Ormond Nelson, Reading's Governor; and Auden's Poems (1928), published by Stephen Spender at Oxford.

An equally abbreviated list of American printed highlights includes James Fenimore Cooper's copy of his novel The Spy (1827), interleaved with his manuscript emendations; two copies of Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane (1827), one of which is bound in its original wrappers; five copies of Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), inscribed by the author to, respectively, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, Ellery Channing, James Anthony Froude, and Nathaniel Hawthorne; nine copies of the first edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) and eleven copies of the first edition of The House of the Seven Gables (1851); Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), inscribed with affectionate sentiments to his brother-in-law, and The Piazza Tales (1856), inscribed by Melville with a presentation statement from his mother to his uncle, and later signed by his brother and annotated by Melville's wife; Walt Whitman's Franklin Evans, or, The Inebriate, in one of four surviving copies of its first publication in the November 1842 supplement to the journal The New World; Robert Frost's A Boy's Will (1913), in the first binding of bronze cloth; T. S. Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), and the first edition of The Waste Land (Hogarth Press, 1920); William Faulkner's The Marble Faun (1924); and Eugene O'Neill's signed copy ofThe Emperor Jones (1928).

Among the literary movements and circles that can be studied in depth at the Berg, using both manuscript and printed materials, are the Age of Johnson; Romanticism; American Transcendentalism; the various facets of Victorian literature, especially the Medieval Revival and Aestheticism; the Irish Literary Renaissance; Georgian poetry; British poets of the First World War; early and late Modernism; Bloomsbury; the Black Mountain poets; the Beats; the confessional poets; the New York School; and the counter-cultural poets of New York’s Lower East Side (1960 to 1980).

History of the Berg Collection

The establishment of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, on October 11, 1940, was made possible by the avid book-collecting and generosity of the brothers Henry W. Berg (1858–1938) and Albert A. Berg (1872–1950). Henry was born in Hungary and immigrated to America with his parents in 1862; Albert was born fourteen years later in New York City. Six other siblings completed the family—three sisters and three brothers. Both Henry and Albert attended City College and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. After graduation, Henry joined the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital, where he specialized in the treatment of infectious diseases; shortly thereafter, he was appointed to the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Albert, too, joined Mount Sinai, gaining nation-wide renown as an innovator in the field of abdominal surgery. The two bachelors lived together for most of their later lives in a town house on East 73rd Street, off of Fifth Avenue, which they filled with their rare editions of English and American literature.

In 1937, the Bergs approached The New York Public Library's Board of Trustees to propose donating their collection to the Library. They found a warmly receptive audience—but in 1938, Henry died, leaving Albert to conclude the negotiations. In February 1940 Albert donated and endowed the collection in his brother's memory. The opening celebration, attended by Mayor LaGuardia, was held in the Berg reading room in October. The collection of literary rarities comprised some 3,500 works, mostly printed books and pamphlets, representing more than 100 authors, though the collection also contained groups of prints and drawings, a few manuscripts, and about two dozen letters (including nine from John Ruskin to Fred Harris). The most heavily represented authors were Dickens (104 items, counting as single items the books-in-parts, and several collections of individual prints and drawings), who had been Albert's favorite since his days as a page in the stacks of the Cooper Union library; Thackeray (31 items), Henry's favorite; and Sir Walter Scott (27 items), beloved by both.

Though the works of important American authors were well represented, the collection was heavily weighted toward the English (including 60 of the Grolier Club's One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature, 1902)—a numerical bias too severe to be explained solely by the relatively short history of American literature. The English authors most prominently represented (aside from the triumvirate of Dickens, Thackeray, and Scott) were Oliver Goldsmith, Byron, and Robert Louis Stevenson, each with 19 items; Kipling (17); John Dryden (12); Charles Lamb (12); and Oscar Wilde (12). Among the Americans, the favorites were Nathaniel Hawthorne (14), Poe (13), Longfellow (12), and Washington Irving (10). 

A truism of book collecting is that author-annotated and otherwise extraordinary copies of rare editions usually bear a distinguished provenance. Accordingly, former owners of the brothers' books included many bibliophilic luminaries, such as Beverly Chew, John A. Spoor, John L. Clawson, Jerome Kern, Winston H. Hagen, and Walter Thomas Wallace. But the two collectors whose holdings would have the greatest impact on the Berg, transforming it into a scholarly resource of international stature, were W.T. H. Howe (1874–1939), the President of the American Book Company (Cincinnati), and Owen D. Young (1874–1962), a presidential adviser, the founder and Chairman of RCA, the Chairman of General Electric, and Time's 1929 Man of the Year. They held the two most extensive and important collections of English and American literature in private American hands. In September 1940, one month before the donation of the Berg Collection to the Library, Dr. Berg purchased Howe's collection of some 16,000 books and manuscripts. Among its highlights was a copy of Poe's Tamerlane (1827) and the copy of The Raven (1845) that Poe had inscribed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her letter of thanks tipped-in; the first edition, first issue, of Thomas Gray's An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751); the manuscript of Charles Lamb's The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple (from Essays of Elia); a watercolor by Charlotte Brontë; Dickens's prompt copies for eleven of his novels, several of which were emended extensively in his hand; and the manuscript of George Gissing's Demos. Perhaps the most important feature of Howe's collection was that it was as rich in manuscripts as in printed materials.

Dr. Berg next set his sights on Owen D. Young's collection of some 15,000 books and manuscripts. He proposed that he pay Young only half of the collection's value, an arrangement that would make Young a co-donor of the collection to the Library. Young generously agreed to the proposal, and on May 8, 1941, his collection was incorporated into the Berg. Among its highlights was one of only three known copies of Bacon's Essaies (1598); most of the papers of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novelist and diarist Fanny Burney; Keats's last letter to Fanny Brawne; a copy of Poe's Tamerlane with the wrappers (unlike Howe's copy); and numerous manuscripts by Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, as well as by modernists, such as Joseph Conrad. Reflecting Young's eclecticism (much influenced by his wife), the collection also contained rare editions of nineteenth-century French, Italian, and Spanish literature, as well as several important incunabula (including first editions of Homer, Euclid, Kempis's Imitatio Christi, and Chaucer), historic documents (many reflecting early United States history), and even a letter by Martin Luther's protégé Philipp Melanchthon. Like Howe's collection, Young's was as strong in manuscripts and correspondence as it was in printed material.

With the acquisition of the Howe and Young collections, the Berg metamorphosed from a somewhat old-fashioned, printed-book collection characterized by high-spot conservatism (with the exception of its great depth in Dickens and Thackeray), into one of the world's richest manuscript repositories of English and American literature, supporting bibliographical and textual scholarship, and the production of numerous scholarly editions. The Berg's acquisition of Howe's and Young's combined holdings of 500 letters by Dickens and 200 by Thackeray was exploited with great success by the scholars and critics who led the post-War movement to rehabilitate the reputations of these novelists. Though the Berg has absorbed the archives of contemporary writers, and will continue to do so, the contours imparted to it by the Howe and Young collections will remain prominent. 

Selected readings on the history of the Berg Collection:

"Gift of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection," Bulletin of the New York Public Library, vol. 44, no. 882 (December 1940).

Lucy Gordan. "The Berg Collection to Turn Sixty," Antiquarian Book Monthly, February 2000.

Lola L. Szladits. Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. New York: The New York Public Library, 1985.

Owen D. Young, Book Collector. With an Introduction by Josephine Young Case [exhibition catalog]. [New York]: The New York Public  Library, 1974.