The University of Sydney is now literarily richer thanks to two extraordinary donations. The first, a 1616 first edition of Ben Jonson's Folio – the original theatre book in the English language, and the precursor to Shakespeare’s First Folio, was donated by former Executive General Manager of APRA, Charles Littrell, and his partner, Dr Kimberly Cartwright.
“It marks the first time that a living author made a concerted effort to present his writing as a distinct and coherent body of work.”
Comprised of three kinds of literary texts: plays; poems and epigraphs; and the texts of his Masques (court entertainments), the Folio served as a model for Shakespeare’s first collected works, his ‘First Folio’ (1623).
...this book helped contribute to the emerging idea of modern plays as worthy of some elevated status
Professor of Early Modern Literature, Liam Semler, added that Jonson’s addition of plays to the book was ground-breaking. “Various people at the time expressed surprise and derision at the fact that a mere 'play' could be declared a 'work', and so this book helped contribute to the emerging idea of modern plays as worthy of some elevated status.
Donor Mr Littrell, who gave the gift to commemorate the tenure and achievements of the University’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence AC, prior to his departure in December 2020, said: “400-year-old books really should be in conserved collections.”
Dr Griffiths said the book will be used for research as well as for teaching students about early books and how literary value is established.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an English poet and playwright, best known for popularising the dramatic comedy genre, ‘comedy of humours’. As a dramatist, he is generally regarded as second only to Shakespeare.
In addition to Jonson's Folio, Mr Littrell donated the Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (Shakespeare), a sixteen-volume set curated by Edmond Malone, originally published in 1790.
Due to Dr Melkonian’s generosity, works by William Faulkner, one of the most heralded American, and indeed, English language fiction writers, will be stored alongside Jonson’s Folio.
“I believe that these 36 Faulkner volumes will have value to serious American literature scholars as text varies from first editions to later revisions,” said Dr Melkonian.
“The first editions are carefully kept in archival boxes and are wrapped with acid-free paper to prevent deterioration. Some of the volumes are extremely valuable because the first edition was very small for his earlier works.”
Dr Melkonian has also donated around 70 volumes of literary criticism relating to Faulkner.
Faulkner is one of the most important writers of the 20th century
“Faulkner is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He's widely taught in the English Department here, and attracts something of a student following,” she said.
“I can readily imagine incorporating these first editions into my teaching. And 70 volumes of Faulkner criticism – another boon!”
“The Library was delighted when Harry Melkonian offered to gift his William Faulkner first editions and related works,” said Librarian, Julie Price. “The physical collection provides our students and researchers with an opportunity to connect with and develop an appreciation of Faulkner and American literature.”
Faulkner (1897-1962), a Nobel and multiple Pulitzer prize laureate, is mostly known for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he lived most of his life. His best-known works include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
The Jonson and Faulkner books will be maintained by Rare Books & Special Collections and may be consulted in the reading room by appointment.
Hero image: credit Sarah Lorien.