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The A.H. Whittaker-Charles Dickens Collection

Notes from the Children of the Collector

Our father Alfred Heacock Whittaker began reading the works of Charles Dickens in 1913 while recuperating from a childhood illness in Roswell, New Mexico. Dickens’ novels made such a strong impression upon young Alfred Whittaker’s values and goals that later, as an industrial surgeon in Detroit, Michigan, he focused his attention and medical practice upon the plight of the working man, public education, social reform, and the health of prisoners.

A lifelong collector of Dickens’ works and related materials, Dr. Whittaker was interested in Dickens’ dual literary goals: to entertain and at same time inform readers about the need for social change in Victorian England. Our father was a social commentator who put into action a philosophy that was inspired by the nineteenth century novelist’s work. He authored several books, treatises, and essays on industrial medicine and medical history; headed numerous national and local community, medical, historical, and literary organizations; served as a Governor of Wayne State University; and was an indefatigable community servant.

Charles Dickens was immensely troubled and pained by the social scourges that marked his age. He worked tirelessly to expose and eradicate such injustices as the treatment of children, women, prisoners, the poor, and the ill. Many of his novels describe the problems of English society, including Little Dorrit in which he exposes the ineffective reality of debtors’ prisons and Martin Chuzzlewit in which he presents a sad commentary on nursing practices through his character Sairy Gamp. Off the page, Dickens supported the efforts of people who attempted to change society including Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, a well known Victorian philanthropist who opened homes to alleviate the plight of young prostitutes in 19th century London. Together, Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts established a home for fallen women in Shepherd’s Bush.

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As our father transitioned from book reader to book collector, he was struck by the way Dickens’ writings were illustrated and published, and how this contributed to their success. He found that it was essential to understand the illustration and publication process when collecting Dickens’ works.

The Dickens novel reader cannot help but develop an interest in the author’s life and the influences that motivated his writings. As one learns more about Dickens’ personal and professional life, he is led to various published editions and contributions made by illustrators of his stories, notably George Cruikshank, Hablot K. Browne (“Phiz”), and J. Clayton Clark (“Kyd”). Their methods of drawing and etching their illustrations are a study unto themselves. By bringing together the various editions and illustrations of Dickens’ novels and writings, the collector gains a greater appreciation of them and for Victorian life and times.

Dr. Whittaker began by collecting English and American first editions of Dickens’ major and minor works. Later he acquired the chair Dickens used as editor of the Daily News in 1846 as well as original sets of illustrations by Phiz and other illustrators. He acquired many items at Parke-Bernet estate auctions in New York City. Books and illustrations came from the estate of Lewis A. Bird, George Barr McCutcheon, and other prominent Dickens collectors. Henry Schumann, a respected antiquarian book dealer in New York City, worked closely with Dr. Whittaker to add items that would provide depth to the collection. The family remembers several colorful visits from Schumann who flew over from New York to show us portfolios, volumes, letters, and other Dickensiana.

To further expand his understanding of Dickens novels, our father acquired books analyzing Dickens’ works: historical books describing Victorian England, biographical material detailing his life, oil portraits, musical scores, playbills, readings, dramatizations, speeches, book sets, letters, and other items related to Dickens’ great popularity as a social icon. The accumulation of these peripherals, in addition to Dickens’ writings, is a sign not only to Dr. Whittaker’s fascination with Charles Dickens’ stories, but of his greater appreciation of the writer’s themes and literary statements about Victorian England.

Dr. and Mrs. Whittaker’s five children grew up in a home where the concepts of community service, respect for individual rights, and the value of education were paramount. All of us have pursued personal careers in these fields and have had the privilege of enjoying the expanding collection. Eldest daughter Hilary remembers childhood afternoons cutting out Dickens paper dolls, fitting them to little wood standards, and recreating scenes from David Copperfield in a shiny green beaverboard proscenium. Perhaps this led her toward majoring in Drama at Vassar (class of ’52). She and youngest sister Jeanne also savored rainy afternoons in Dad’s big wing chair in the Dickens room at the top of the hall stairs by a crackling fire with the rain pit-patting on the metal turret roof above. Middle sister Joyce, who taught nursing, often cited Sairey Gamp’s despicable practices as the antithesis of contemporary nursing standards in her student discussions.

After Dr. Whittaker passed away in 1983, his son James expanded the collection to more than 800 volumes and related materials. He added more American and English First Editions, literature related to Victorian London, additional biographical material, and even more critical literature. The Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles, Tavistock Books in Alameda, and other antiquarian book dealers in California, Washington, DC and, New York provided more editions. The Heritage Bindery bound and repaired books as needed, and the International Antiquarian Book Fairs in Los Angeles and San Francisco offered more opportunities to locate difficult items and have interesting conversations with other Dickens collectors. The family has met many others who appreciate Dickens’ works while attending book fairs, the Dickens Universe seminars at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Dickens Festival in Riverside, California, and meetings of the Dickens Fellowship. These associations perpetuate the tireless messages that Charles Dickens so aptly offers succeeding generations.

Now in 2008, we appreciate that what began as our father’s youthful interest in the works of Charles Dickens ninety-five years ago has developed into a fine book collection to be used by Vassar students and faculty for generations to come. Undoubtedly, Dad would be gratified to learn that Charles Dickens and his “friends” have found a suitable home at Vassar where the collection will be used as he intended. It will enable researchers to explore not only a fine set of literature, but also the social aspects of an important historical era.