October 16, 2015

New Poetic Associations exhibit highlights rare poetry from 1800s

In the hallway between Regenstein and Mansueto Libraries, those who pass by find a window into the past. Poetic Associations is an exhibition featuring 104 of the items the University has acquired this year from the 19th-century English poetry collection of Dr. Gerald N. Wachs (1937–2013).

Wachs, who collected everything from lapel pins to tropical fish, amassed nearly 900 books for his poetry collection with Stephen Weissman, a rare books bookseller. The two friends spent 40 years, starting in 1970, procuring as many of the 19th-century poetry books listed in The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (CBEL) as possible. According to Catherine Uecker, UChicago’s Rare Books Librarian, “[the CBEL] was the basis of creating the Wachs collection.”

More than 600 items have now been donated to the University by the Wachs family, largely thanks to Dr. Wachs’ son, Joel Wachs (A.B. ’92). “In the years before he passed away, he [my father] worked with library leadership and staff on ways that he could make his collection available for academic research,” Joel said. “I have worked hard to help fulfill my father's hopes."

Regarding the significance of the donation on a personal level, Joel reflected on his time as a student here. “The libraries were central to my experience at the University,” he said. “Supporting them has been a way of making sure that these resources are available for generations to come.”

The collection features the first books published by well-known romantic poets, such as John Keats and William Wordsworth. Yet it is also marked by its diversity. One of the early poems Wachs collected is “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery” by John Clare, a working-class poet. The exhibition also features Anglo-Indian poetry volumes published by Shoshee Chunder Dutt, an Indian poet. Although 19th-century poets were mostly male, female poets such as Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley also have a place in Wachs’ collection.

The collection also includes “Wise Forgeries,” works procured by Thomas James Wise (1859–1937) that were later discovered to be expensive fakes. Nonetheless, the forgeries are important to the era. As Uecker says, “Thomas Wise and his forgeries are a part of the history of Victorian printing. […] He was a very prominent bibliographer of his time.”

Wachs constantly sought to refine his collection; for example, Wachs No. 268 is a finer edition of Wachs No. 1, “Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies.” The collection is also quite personal, as the annotations (and, in some cases, doodles) from the original owners remain in the margins of certain books.

The exhibition will remain open to the public until December 31.

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