University of Virginia Library


The chest of drawers on which the Gump bowl sits is a late nineteenth-or early twentieth-century piece of mahogany or dark cherry, about a foot and a half wide and three and a half feet high, with six small drawers, inset fluted-column corners, and club feet. It had belonged to Gordon Ray's parents in Indiana and was in his New York apartment (25 Sutton Place South, five blocks from where I live) at the time of his death on December 15, 1986, three months after his seventy-first birthday. (It


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served as the telephone stand in the room where he sat to read books and to go over dealers' catalogues.) Gordon was one of the great twentieth-century book collectors and a leading scholar of Victorian literature (author of the standard biography of Thackeray); and as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation from 1963 to 1985, as well as a ubiquitous member of boards of nonprofit institutions, he was a respected force in the cultural world. He had a major impact on my life by telephoning me on December 6, 1977, to offer me the vice presidency of the Foundation. That moment is naturally one that I will not forget: I was standing at the telephone in the front hall of my parents' house in Lebanon, Indiana. (I was on leave from the University of Wisconsin, on a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was there between trips.) I knew that I would ultimately accept his offer, though I did not do so on the phone (nor did he expect me to). It was indicative of Gordon's self-assurance and decisiveness that he would simply offer me the job rather than ask me to come for an interview. He would not have done so, of course, if we had not already known each other: I had met him at the Grolier Club in the 1960s but did not know him well until I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in the spring of 1969. From then on, I generally saw him on my visits to New York.

Shortly after his phone call, I went (on December 20th) to New York to "interview" the Foundation (rather than the other way round), and I accepted the position by phone on the 29th. When I was back in New York for "Bibliography Week" in late January, I had another conversation with Gordon to settle some of the details and began searching for an apartment; Gordon's formal letter of appointment was dated January 30th. The job began on the first of August 1978, and I never regretted my decision. Although I had not been unhappy in Madison, I knew that Manhattan was where I wanted to be—and especially when I had the opportunity to be there as part of an illustrious institution that I admired. In addition, Gordon's presence at the Foundation established it in my mind as a place with a scholarly atmosphere that I would find appealing. Working with Gordon was indeed a pleasure for me, as I knew it would be, since we had much in common—such as a Midwestern background, a love of book collecting, good restaurants, and scholarly bibliography (possibly in that descending order), and an impatience (not to say anger) when confronted with pettiness. To some, he appeared stern and austere, with his physical weight making him seem even more formidable; but, bemused by human foibles, he possessed a fine sense of humor and had a genius for social conversation, which was always incisive and laced with literary allusions (for he seemingly never forgot a detail from the many Victorian novels he had read). His combination of geniality and assertiveness was on display at the many lunches and dinners I had with him (not


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to mention Foundation meetings, theater evenings, and baseball games), and my memory of him in action remains vivid and satisfying.

He named me his literary executor and the co-executor of his estate, and that is how I came to have this chest of drawers—which now contains, along with other things, part of my collection of his published writings. (That collection includes "The Count's" Adventures, the 1945 hardcover "offprint" from the first volume of his edition of Thackeray's letters; the prospectus for his 1947 facsimile edition of Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring; an offprint of his 1953 article "The Bentley Papers" inscribed to John Gordan; his annotated copy of his famous 1965 essay "The Changing World of Rare Books," with sources of the quotations identified; and his 1968 Christmas card, printed at the Spiral Press, reproducing a Thackeray drawing with commentary.) The Pierpont Morgan Library, his beneficiary, had no use for the furnishings of his apartment, and I saw to it that his oriental rugs went to the Grolier Club, where they still line the fifth-floor hallway. Another of the pieces that came to me was a canterbury, now standing beside a chair near the kitchen door, filled with the Times Literary Supplement (which I have subscribed to for over fifty years and cannot imagine being without) and the New York Review of Books (which I have read faithfully since its inception in 1963, during the New York printers' strike). (The four Hogarth prints that Gordon had given to me are hanging in my bedroom, not the living room, but I mention them to illustrate the evocative significance of every detail of physical objects: the labels on the backs show that the framing was done by the H. Lieber Company of Indianapolis, perhaps during Gordon's undergraduate years at Indiana University; and his name with a Harvard address, 16 Conant Hall, shows that he took the prints with him to graduate school. The Lieber firm is a name I know from my childhood, because our family often went there for cameras and film, as well as framing.)

My debt to Gordon for his momentous telephone call could not be adequately repaid. But I made an attempt to do so after his death by writing an account of his life and by editing two volumes of his writings: a gathering of his essays on book collecting, and his Lyell Lectures on the Art Deco book in France. My favorite passage in his work comes from the title essay of the former volume, "Books as a Way of Life." I have quoted it in print several times before, and here it is again:

book-educated people of the sort I have been describing are rarely dogmatic. They tend instead to regard the world from what George Eliot in Daniel Deronda whimsically calls "a liberal-menagerie point of view." This state of mind infuriates the fierce partisan, but it enlivens social intercourse, and it holds out hope for the glorious day when mankind will cure itself of the plague of politics. The "literature of power" is above politics, having understanding as its aim rather than victory, and the books that embody it are thus a potentially unifying force in a divided world.


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There is no better way than reading this paragraph to get a sense of what Gordon was like.