Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1996 Volume 34 Number 4, Pages 141–150

"Bibliophile Extraordinaire"

G. Edward Buck

Page 141

[Author's note: The following biographical sketch has been cast in the form of an assumed interview with Mr. A. Edward Newton conducted by this reporter at his OAK KNOLL residence in Daylesford, Pennsylvania. The interview was arranged with the assistance of Professor Charles Osgood of Princeton University and Mr. Christopher Morley, poet, novelist and columnist. Both of these gentlemen were very close friends of Mr. Newton, who was America's first bibliophile and owner of this country's greatest collection of first editions. Mr. Newton died at 4 p.m. on September 29, 1940 in Philadelphia as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The responses to interview questions are based on comments, opinions and conversations found in the writings of, or about, Mr. Newton which are appended in the references provided for the reader.]

Daylesford, Pa., May 19, 1931 --I arrived at the Daylesford station on the local commuter train 15 minutes before my appointment with Mr. Newton. As I walked down the steps from the station, I turned left and went through the underpass and crossed the Lincoln Highway to the entrance of OAK KNOLL, the country residence of A. Edward Newton.

I could see the house sitting on a slight rise amid a cluster of oak trees as I walked up the motoring path to the front door. I was very nervous even though I had prepared for the interview by reading several of the books, pamphlets and articles authored by this world-renowned writer, literary critic, and book collector living quietly in our community on the Main Line outside Philadelphia.

Page 142

Walking up to the house, I could see across the lawn that several additions had been added to the originally planned small cottage. At the rear of the property, away from the main house, three smaller structures had been built. These out-buildings looked like cottages but, as I would later learn, were the stables, a kennel, and the servant's sleeping quarters.

I knocked on the door and waited. When what I took to be the maid answered, I handed her my card and told her of my appointment.

"Please come in. Mr. Newton is expecting you," she replied.

I entered the house, following the maid through the entryway and down a long narrow hall. As we passed the formal dining room on our right, I could not help but notice the fine table and chairs sitting upon a large patterned oriental carpet, encompassed by mahogany paneling, with large mirrors suspended and reflecting oblique images. She led me a little further down the hallway and to the library entrance on our left.

"Mr. Newton will be with you shortly," she said.

As I waited, I looked about the room. Books were everywhere, from floor to ceiling on shelves encircling the library walls, the only exception being the recessed area where a painted portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson was mounted directly behind his desk.

"Good morning, young man. You must be the reporter Chris Morley and Charles Osgood convinced me to see. Or I should say, strongly urged me to see. You must be a good friend of these gentlemen."

As nervous as I was, I almost laughed. Mr. Newton had walked into the room dressed in the black and white checkered suit he was noted for wearing in town. A friend of his said that his dress was deliberate, a literary tour-de-force which no one relished more than Newton himself. He wasn't a tall man. I had read that he looked like Winston Churchill in the face and Mr. Pickwick of Dickens fame in figure, slightly on the rotund side, and it was true. He wore a bow tie with his white shirt and starched collar, along with a vest and a suit topped off with a white handkerchief in his breast pocket.

"Professor Osgood was my advisor at Princeton."

"Oh! I see now, the old Tiger connection. Well, let's get started. I understand you want to interview me for an article in the local newspaper."

Page 143

"Yes sir. I've read several of your books, reviews and dedications, and I am very much aware of your reputation as a bibliophile, as you have demonstrated in the strong opinions you've expressed in The Atlantic Monthly."

"Well then you should know that I am always prepared and happy to talk about books. In fact, it's my opinion that a man or a woman is the most interesting thing in the world, and next is a book."

"Mr. Newton, in the past you have been interviewed by the leading newspapers in this country and in Europe. And, in most cases, the interviews have been very extensive covering almost every aspect related to your book collection and personal opinions on the leading English authors. Therefore, with your permission, I would like to focus my questions more on the human side, the personal side, of A. Edward Newton."

"I think you will find this so called personal side of my life quite boring. After all, nine-tenths of my life has been hard work... the rest has been spent in my library."

He settled back in his chair, his arms raised with the fingers of both hands coming together to form a steeple, and gave me a look that seemed to say, "Osgood, he's wasting my time!" I was very much aware that Mr. Newton had a reputation of not being very out-going when he met new people, or a good mixer unless the person or subject was books, and this added to my mounting anxiety.

"Mr. Newton, you were born in Philadelphia in 1863. Did you receive your early schooling in the city before going off to the University?"

"Well, I have said that I have always been misunderstood. I never had any education, whereas it is commonly supposed that I have sat, or at least stood, at the knee of some great scholar. The fact is that kindly disposed relatives took me in hand at an early age and sent me from one school to another, according to the views of the one who had me in charge for the time being."

As I sat listening, I realized that what I had heard was true. Newton was self-educated to a degree, and a self-made man who was quick to respond, and if challenged, could be very opinionated, dogmatic and out-spoken, as he had just demonstrated. I quickly decided to change the direction of the interview.

"Mr. Newton, have you always been interested in English literature?"

"I would phrase the question differently. Books have always interested me enormously, they are the best of friends, gray or gay as your humor is - and you can shut them up when you want to -- and next to food... a patch of clothing ... / have always cared for books more than anything."

Page 144

"When did you start collecting?"

"I purchased my first 'collector-type' book when I was eighteen years old. At the time I was working at the Public Ledger... addressing envelopes. After this success I moved on and worked as a clerk in a bank, I was not very good or happy at this position. When I left I joined Porter and Coates old Philadelphia book store that also published leading authors of the day... before the international copyright laws went into effect. They had me selling stationary... probably sensing that I would have difficulty in selling a book when I would rather keep it."

'"I understand that you later joined the Cutter Company and rose to become President of this firm that manufactured electric circuit breakers."

"True, and that work provided for my family, my books, and enabled me to retire this year."

"Were you happy in business?"

"Happy... if my early training was correct, we were not designed to be happy in this world. We were simply placed here to be tried, and doubtless we are ... it's a trying place. But, back to your question. I never really cared for business in spite of being successful."

"You have been described as an indefatiguable writer, a brilliant conversationalist with an inexhaustable fund of short witty sayings. Would you care to comment?"

"Well, perhaps I see myself differently. I do have a terrible memory for people's names ... I seem to remember only the names of my domestic animals. I have no sense of smell... and the twittering of all birds sound alike."

Mrs. Newton entered the room before I could acknowledge that he had obviously made me the recipient of his his well-known wit.

"Ned, would you and your guest like tea?"

"That would be nice, Babette."

Mrs. Newton was known as a warm and witty hostess herself, and equal to the task of keeping up with her husband, even when serving as his 'comic foil' for one of the numerous stories he would tell at a dinner party.

Page 145

I thought I would change the subject while we awaited Mrs. Newton to return with the refreshments,

"When did you move from Philadelphia out to the country?" I asked him.

"Mrs. Newton and I were married in 1890 and living in Philadelphia when my son was born four years later. As you probably are not aware, in those days, in the summer months, the city could be a miserable place to live. So, we started looking for a place in the country where we could build a little cottage that would also be convenient for my daily commute into the city. And, we have been at OAK KNOLL since 1900."

"I assume you were very successful in business during this time?"

"Young man, a friend of mine once said, 'the most terrible thing in the world is the serious talk of an ignorant man.'"

Fortunately for me, Mrs. Newton returned and began serving iced tea before any further comments could be made by him.

"Did you enjoy your ride out on the train this morning?" she asked me.

"Yes ma'am, I seldom come out this far to the country."

She finished serving the tea and a small slice of a lemon flavored pound cake. Then, asking Mr. Newton if there was anything else we needed, she said goodbye to me, turned and walked out of the library. We continued the interview as we enjoyed the refreshments.

"You were speaking about your move to OAK KNOLL in 1900," I said.

"Ah yes. Financially we were not in the position that we are today. And, being a practical fellow, I sold my small collection of 246 items in 1896. In return, I received the $2500 that I used to build OAK KNOLL."

"Have you enjoyed living in the country?"

"Life in our little hamlet is not unduly stimulating, such local happenings as occasionally find their way into the newspapers are generally about a motor accident. There is a sharp and dangerous curve and turn in the much traveled Lancaster Pike ... now taking the grander name of Lincoln Highway. This road plunging under the railroad bridge just at the Daylesford station is not as wide as it apparently seems to the drivers entering or exiting from the underpass, causing the automobile drivers to become confused as to who has the right-away. Yes, it is usually quiet in and around our community."

Page 146

"Was commuting to the office daily an inconvenience?"

"No ... living in the country, and going into town everyday, I spent much time on the trains, and I had to have something to read besides the newspapers --who was it who said that reading newspapers is a nervous habit? Regardless, I usually carried a few book catalogues that I marked industriously, thus presenting a fine imitation of a busy man."

Life was not boring for the Newtons and their children, Edward Swift and Caroline, at OAK KNOLL. The family was known as good neighbors in Daylesford and the nearby town of Berwyn. Babette could be seen walking the quarter mile to Berwyn daily, if the weather permitted, to see friends and to shop.

And on many evenings over the years, friends and guests couid be seen making their way from the train station or by motoring cars to the front door of OAK KNOLL for an evening of enjoyment. Charles Osgood and Christopher Morley were frequent guests along with Thomas Mann, Amy Lowell, and other literary notables of the day.

Christmas time may have been a special time at OAK KNOLL. The family looked forward to the Christmas holidays, with the singing of traditional carols by the strolling groups of friends and neighbors. Hosting the neighborhood children at their annual Christmas party with puppet shows, candies and small gifts was always a special family event.

I remembered reading where Newton was quoted as saying, "The Christmas Carol by Dickens is the greatest little book in the world."

"Mr. Newton, I know you were a great admirer of Charles Dickens. Would you care to comment on him and The Christmas Carol?"

"Dickens, in my opinion, next to Shakespeare, is the greatest light in our literary heavens. When Dickens made his first trip to America, and he was engaged upon the study of selfishness, it occurred to him to write a story which was to make the world better and happier at Christmas time. The result was the little Carol' as he affectionately called it. Yes, the 'little Carol' has done more good than the pulpits in Christendom. Dickens gave Christmas a new meaning. I always keep extra copies for emergencies."

"What would you call an emergency?"

Page 147

"Well, if I were to meet a man at Christmas time who had not read the book, I should consider that an emergency requiring immediate action."

"Would you go so far as to give him a copy?"

"No, but I'd lend him one and not expect to get it back. It comes to the same thing."

"When did you first start writing professionally?"

"You mean receiving a small token of appreciation from the publisher?"

"Yes," I said.

"As a result of much reading - and very little thinking, for like Charles Lamb, books do my thinking for me - / became moved to write a paper on the pleasure of buying and owning books; and, much to my delight, not only was it accepted by a well-known editor, paid for, and published [in The Atlantic Monthly], but people read it and asked for more. It was the first step qui coute, as the French so eloquently say. After the acceptance of my first article, my ascent was easy."

"Your first book, 'The Amenities of Book Collecting', was first published in 1918 by The Atlantic Monthly Press."

"Yes, and as Thomas Gray said, 'any fool may write a valuable book by chance, if he will only tell us what he heard and what he saw, with veracity.' My initial aim was to take several of the papers I had written at the time, on the subject of book collecting, and combine them into a volume for printing and later distribution to my friends."

'The book was very successful, and by 1924 the Fifth Edition had been printed, isn't that true?

"Yes, and a surprise to me. Byron once said about writing, that 'the end of all scribblement is to amuse.' And, for some years I have been possessed of an itch for 'scribblement.'"

Mr. Newton had failed to mention what Dr. Johnson had said; that "the biographical part of literature is what Ilove most." And, Mr. Newton's books and "scribblements" have satisfied both my itch to be amused, as well as, provided a look at the man himself.

Page 148

"You have written extensively about the English and in particular the city of London."

"I have always loved London since I first went to visit in 1884 - with its wealth of literary and historic association, its countless miles of streets lined with unessential shops overflowing with things I don't want -- and its old book-shops overflowing with the things I do want,"

"Would you say that your interest in collecting English literature was greatly influenced by these visits?"

"Yes. In part, to walk the streets where Dr. Johnson, Boswell, Dickens, Byron and many others walked probably influenced me greatly, and led me to where I am today. My enjoyment of books began, and will end, with Boswell's 'Life of Johnson."'

"Mr. Newton, now that you are retired, what are your plans?"

"The question of leisure is a difficult one, most of us have not been trained for it, and most of us do not take kindly to it."

"Well, now you can take advantage of living in the country, with long walks, fresh air, and time to enjoy yourself."

"I am of Joe Chamberlain's opinion, 'to walk downstairs in the morning and upstairs at night is enough exercise for any gentleman.' In fact, I was the President of the Tredyffrin Country Club ... at the time it was discovered that I didn't know the difference between a Foursome and a Brassie, and the 19th hole was the only one I could put a ball into ... I was then given a choice between resignation or expulsion, And besides, if I were to walk and exercise, I would have to give up my cigars like my Doctor is always reminding me. I have always smoked in moderation, never more than one at a time."

"Mr. Newton, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview. There are other subjects I would like to discuss, but perhaps it would be better to leave them for another day."

"That may be a good idea, young man. Give my best to Charles the next time you see him."

I left OAK KNOLL and its library containing part of Mr. Newton's collection of 10,000 books. I walked down the motoring path to the Daylesford station.

Page 149

As I rode the train back to town I was thinking of the interview and the man. There would be some things I would not include in the article. Lawrence Wroth in the New York Herald Tribune of October 20, 1940, wrote, "His letters, like his essays, were scintillating, even in his prejudice -- and he would have been the first to call it prejudice. His generosity was extraordinary, and its full extent will probably never be known."

As I have mentioned, Mr. Newton died in 1940. As the reader has seen, some of his comments, opinions and often cited quotes of his friends were "classic" and have endured the test of time. As when he wrote of lawyers, and quoted Charles Lamb, "Lawyers,I suppose, were children once," or Thomas Day, "A lawyer is more noxious to most people than a spider" Newton had his own opinions of lawyers, politicians and our country.

"Our lawyers are corrupt and contemptible, and from this class comes our politicians. Today, neither life or property is safe! And government, in the best sense of the word, has ceased to exist [while] there has been a steady deterioration in our public men. We in Pennsylvania have no use for a gentleman and a scholar [as politicians], and we don't get them. I wish we might pause and take stock of ourselves. I wish [as a country] that we might descend to a higher order of living. I wish that we not fell trees, burn all our coal, exhaust all our mines. Let us leave something for our children."

During the interview, Mr. Newton suggested that if the occasion arose, and I found myself near the Chapel in Valley Forge Park, he would appreciate it if I walked down the tree-lined path into the cemetery where he would be resting, and advise him, "You were right about that Whitman item [increasing in value]." "I shall be listening eagerly for the latest prices of rare books." I did visit my new friend.

We are the stuff as dreams are made on And our little life is rounded with a sleep. (Shakespeare)

Page 150



Goshorn, Robert M., When One of America's Leading Book Collectors Lived in Daylesford. (Berwyn: Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1,1969)

Newton, A. Edward, The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections. (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1918}

Newton, A. Edward, A Magnificant Farce, and Other Diversions of a Book-Collector. (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921)

Newton, A. Edward, The Greatest Book in the World. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1925)

Newton, A. Edward, End Papers. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1933)

New York Herald Tribune (October 20,1940)

New York Times (April 6, 1941)

Philadelphia Inquirer (August 7, 1930)

Philadelphia Inquirer (September 22, 1934)

Philadelphia Inquirer (September 30, 1940)

Book-plate of A. E. Newton c. 1909.


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