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Over Half a Century Later, A Library of Rare Books Comes Home to Rutgers

September 7, 2016
Joseph and Fulton with book

Michael Joseph, left, and Thomas Fulton, right, with a book from the J. Milton French Library.

J. Milton French

Portrait of J. Milton French by David French, via RUcore.

Paradise Lost

This third edition copy of Paradise Lost is on display now at Alexander Library alongside other materials from J. Milton French's collection.

If ever there lived an aptly named individual, that individual was Joseph Milton French.

French—or “Milton,” as he was commonly known—was an internationally acclaimed scholar of John Milton and an early president of the Milton Society of America, which named him honored scholar of the year in 1956. His magnum opus was the Life Records of John Milton, published in five volumes by Rutgers University Press from 1949 to 1958.

Throughout his 20-year tenure as an English professor at Rutgers, French spearheaded the university’s efforts to acquire rare or original editions of the Eikonoklastes, divorce tracts, and other works, as well as companion materials such as fine facsimiles of Milton’s manuscripts. By the time he retired in 1960, he had successfully laid the foundation of Rutgers’ Milton collection, in part through donations of his own personal items. Today, it is regarded as among the top five such collections in a public academic library.

However, when French passed away in 1962, a large portion of his legacy as a collector—his extensive private library of rare books, which he had begun assembling in 1928 and which was built upon after his death by his son David—was to remain sequestered from the world for more than 50 years.

But now, at long last, this library has come home to Rutgers.

Earlier this summer, thanks to the collaborative efforts of French’s grandchildren, Sarah and Robert, and through the diligence of professor Thomas Fulton of the English Department, the majority of French’s personal library was donated to the university. Comprising over 200 volumes published mostly between 1600 and 1800 in addition to 17th-century manuscripts by Milton’s contemporaries, it features a veritable who’s who of writers from the period—Ben Jonson, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, and of course John Milton, to name just a few.

Many of the 30 Milton titles published during the 16th and 17th centuries are titles that were not previously held by Rutgers. “Even the duplicates are wonderful in that they give bibliographers and book historians the opportunity to study edition copies side by side to check for state changes,” said Michael Joseph, rare book librarian at Rutgers. “This donation unites two parts of the J. Milton French library and thus gives a fuller picture of a 20th-century early modern scholar’s library and collecting interests.”

The gift also helps strengthen Rutgers’ already impressive holdings of English literary material and 17th- and 18th-century books. The 1637 poems by Michael Drayton supplement the university’s collection of Elizabethan poets, which includes Shakespeare’s second folio and a second quarto of Merchant of Venice, as well as Jonson’s first and second folios. The six books by John Dryden, a pivotal Miltonian poet, include three titles new to Rutgers, while the several dictionaries will be welcome additions to the Edward J. Bloustein Dictionary Collection.

The breadth and depth of the collection make it invaluable to anyone at Rutgers with a scholarly interest in the history of the book. “Handling and studying these books will enable students of today and the future to gain a deeper, more meaningful sense of the mechanisms by which people found and expressed value in the human experience for the last 500 years,” said Joseph.

The books will be housed in the rare book collections at Alexander Library and given special cataloging by a rare book cataloger. It’s a particularly involved process as each record must include notes on a book’s binding, illustration, and provenance in addition to the usual identifying information.

“A few books have 17th-century armorial bookplates, and one, a 16th-century text, has an armorial binding, which is a real rarity in our collection. Some have interesting edge treatments—gilt, speckled, and even marbled edges,” explained Joseph. “All of these details have to be recorded because the artifact may be as historically valuable as the text it contains. Contemporary bindings on books by Jonson and Milton, for example, tell us about the reception of these works and the cultural frameworks in which they were read and interpreted.”

Before being made available to users, a conservator will ensure that every volume receives appropriate care and that acid-free wrappers and enclosures are constructed for fragile or damaged volumes.

The gift is being celebrated first by way of Homecoming! Some Highlights from the Library of J. Milton French, a case exhibit on display now at Alexander Library.