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Texas House investigates purchase of rare books

By Harry Ransom Center

In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Ransom Center has published Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center, a richly illustrated chronicle of its history, which is available in the ONLINE STORE.  The following is an excerpt from Collecting the Imagination.

On April 19, 1943, the Texas House of Representatives voted 99 to 17 to order an investigation into the 1939 purchase of nine rare books by The University of Texas.  The resolution, submitted by C. S. McLellan of Eagle Lake, charged that money appropriated by the legislature for cataloging and maintaining the Stark Library was used not for this purpose but to fund the book purchases.  An investigative committee was asked to determine how the money was spent and whether any portion of it went toward “obscene” literature or books on atheism.

Lord Byron’s Fugitive Pieces, one of the books under investigation by the Texas Legislature in 1943
Lord Byron’s Fugitive Pieces, one of the books under investigation by the Texas Legislature in 1943

The nine books under investigation were purchased at auction from the renowned collection of John Alden Spoor, a friendly rival of collector John Henry Wrenn, whose library formed the foundation of the University’s Rare Books Collection.  Two books were under particular scrutiny: a 15-page volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism, one of two known perfect copies (purchased for $9,300), and an edition of Lord Byron’s Fugitive Pieces, notated in Byron’s hand and one of only three perfect copies (purchased for $3,100).  McLellan was especially incensed by what he deemed to be an exorbitant expenditure for a “lewd” and “suppressed edition by Lord Byron which is not fit to be read by any person within or without the university.” Furthermore, McLellan objected to the University’s display of the Shelley book on atheism, for the display offered no explanation as to whether the University approved of the book—or its title.

McLellan appeared to object to the very philosophy of purchasing rare editions for research and scholarship.  He said, “From a collector’s standpoint, spending $9,000 for one book may be justifiable.  But I think the same material is available in a 10-cent edition.”  He argued that taxpayers’ money ought not be spent on rare books for the University, though he did not object to the donation of rare editions from “public-spirited” individuals.

In spite of McLellan’s objections, the Stark Library survived the investigation.  The books in question remain in the collection, available for the edification of researchers, students, and scholars to this day.

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