A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Morrisian Interview Series, #2: John J. Walsdorf

John J. Walsdorf, the talented Portland-based collector and author, has been collecting William Morris and Kelmscott Press related books and ephemera for almost fifty years, while also working on other collections. He is currently the Vice President of the William Morris Society, and serves on the board of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

Among his many publications are a complete bibliography of the work of author Julian Symons; a book on the American printer Elbert Hubbard; and a memoir about his experiences, entitled "On Collecting William Morris," which was brought out in a fittingly beautiful, limited edition volume by The Printery. Happily, there are also records of all his impressive Morris collections, even those which have been sold on. The first collection can be found in his 1983 book William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books by and About William Morris; the second lives on in his 1994 volume, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press; and two years later, the third was preserved in Kelmscott Press: William Morris & His Circle.

I met up with him this January at the Modern Language Association conference in Boston, and it was on a cold, sunny day that we convened to the marble-floored lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. There, perched on some Queen Anne furniture in a corner dominated by a big, jungly potted plant, we began our wide-ranging chat, touching on Morris, the future of the book, and the surprises that can hide in bookstores (or even in your own collection, if it's large enough).

Your collecting career can be broken into distinct stages—might you be able to talk us through that progression a bit? How did it start?

Well, first of all, I would say that I am a life-long collector. When I was really young, 6-12, I was serious about stamp collecting, and I still have those collections. In high school, I didn’t do any formal collecting, but I did a tremendous amount of reading.

When I did my undergraduate work—and I was an English major—I started collecting books, but reading copies only. Especially American and English literature: I really liked Maugham, Hardy, Dreiser, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I really got into collecting, and I started collecting fine press books and fine printing on a very, very modest budget.

I would haunt the local used bookstores, especially one in downtown Madison called Paul’s Book Store, and I would go in there and I would just spend my time looking for beautifully printed books and interesting books. It was also at graduate school that a professor of mine at the school of library science, Rachel K. Shenck, introduced me to Kelmscott Press books. She actually owned two Kelmscott Press books, and she brought them to the class, and she passed them around. And she let us handle and look at them, and I simply fell in love with the printing of the Kelmscott Press books.

And really, after that introduction, I knew I wanted to find a way to go to England. And I was lucky enough to get a job, on a library exchange position program two years after graduating from U.W. Madison: I got an exchange at the Oxford City Library.

It must have been wonderful to work in the library of such a literary city.

Yes: the wonder of Oxford was not just the buildings, nor the bookshops, nor the city of Oxford itself, but also the people.  Which leads me to my most famous encounter, and for the truth in the saying: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

One of the patrons at the City Library was J.R.R. Tolkien, and one day I remarked to some of my colleagues at the library that I was going to send him a copy of The Hobbit to inscribe.  They thought that that was simply an unbelievable idea, the thought of sending him a copy of my book to inscribe was unheard of, at least to them.  Nevertheless I did it, and a number of weeks passed, without the return of my book.