University gifted rare original works by Shakespeare precursor and Faulkner

A copy of Ben Jonson’s Folio (1616) and a complete set of the works of William Faulkner in first editions have been given to the University of Sydney by two separate donors.

Ben Jonson's Folio.
Ben Jonson’s Folio. Credit: Sarah Lorien.

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.

The second, several novels and short stories of William Faulkner in first editions, were donated by Dr Harry Melkonian, a long-standing member of the United States Studies Centre community.

While little-known to the layperson, Ben Jonson’s Folio is “one of the most important books published in England,” said Dr Huw Griffiths, Chair of the Department of English.

“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 Liam Semler

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.

The ‘extraordinary’ Faulkner gift

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

Associate Professor Sarah Gleeson-White

A first edition of 'Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner
A first edition of ‘Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner.

Sarah Gleeson-White, Associate Professor in American Literature from the Department of English – and an internationally-renown Faulkner expert – emphasised the “extraordinary” nature of the gift.

“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.