Collecting the Poetry of R.S. Thomas
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of 'going home again' so to speak. Drew University Library in Madison, New Jersey, has been holding a series of conversations on collecting. Drew is where I did my graduate work in book history, and where I stayed on to work in the library's archives for several years. This past fall, the library held a talk on collecting Byron and Whitman with collector Norman B. Tomlinson, and another on collecting political ephemera with Dr. James Fraser. This past week, collector and Rev. John McEllhenney, whose particular interests are Methodism, Robert Frost, and Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, gave a wonderful talk that he titled "Evolution of a Bookish Magpie."
McEllhenney recalled a childhood love of books, but credited Fred Maser, a major collector of prayer books, with really sparking his interest in collecting in the 1950s and 60s. When a parishioner gave him a signed copy of Frost's A Further Range, he was well on the path to bibliomania, but he felt that a real collection of Frost might be beyond his pocket. His advice to collectors, particularly those without an inheritance: "Find something to collect that you think will grow in value." Then, in 1974, he read a review of R.S. Thomas' Selected Poems, bought it, and enjoyed it so much, he decided that Thomas, also a fellow clergyman, would be the focus of his collecting activity.
Not only did McEllhenney voraciously collect Thomas in all forms, he made several trips to Wales to meet him during the 1990s (the poet died in 2000). He had the pleasure—unknown to most collectors—of conversing with, exchanging letters with, even touring the countryside with the object of his collecting life. It is a heartwarming story for any bibliophile.
McEllhenney has given much of his R.S. Thomas collection—including more than 200 books, 100 periodicals, essays, articles, reviews, typescripts, sound recordings, and ephemera—to Drew, as well as his Frost holdings. He surprised the audience this past week by handing over two more Thomas books, signed by the author to his wife with an elegant cross for a signature.