Literary legend Neil Baldwin says goodbye to incredible collection

Photo Courtesy of Neil Baldwin
Neil Baldwin, author and National Book Foundation executive, is cleaning out his extensive collection of literary memorabilia.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — On the third floor of a Washington Street home, the spring cleaning of a lifetime is underway.

Neil Baldwin, author and former founding executive director of the National Book Foundation, is cleaning out his collection of signed first editions, handmade publications, personal manuscripts, notes and ephemera collected over 50 years in the literary world.

Baldwin has written about various subjects, but most notably biographies including those on William Carlos Williams, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and published last year by Knopf Doubleday, “Martha Graham, When Dance Became Modern.”

Employed at the National Book Foundation, from 1989 to 2003, he oversaw the National Book Awards.
“It was an opportunity to collect books when I ran the awards,” he said recently at his home. “I got all the writers’ books signed, first editions, from 1989 to 2003. I mean, everybody; all the big books. I had quite a thing going there.”

Baldwin also created, in 1974, a small press publication, “The Niagara Magazine,” which he published until 1982.
“Every time I got into a new endeavor, I began collecting,” he said. “But my primary interest was poetry. I started meeting prominent American poets after I started ‘The Niagara Magazine.’ It was published in Buffalo and later in Brooklyn and was strictly a poetry magazine.”

One poet he published 50 years ago was Joyce Carol Oates. He has a signed copy of her “The Fabulous Beasts,” published in 1975. Another signed copy is Robert Bly’s “Sleepers Joining Hands,” published in 1973
On the third floor of his home, where the archive is located, he gestured toward a row of “The Niagara Magazine” publications on a folding table and picked one up.

Baldwin, 75, said he was deaccessioning now because he does not want to put the burden on anyone’s shoulders.
“This archive is valuable to me when I wake up in the morning,” he said
turning the pages of the pamphlet. “I knew a lot of these people personally. They’re still with me.”

Some of the small press books were made by the poets themselves, he said, and represent a history of bookmaking, possibly in its most personal form.
“Fifty years ago, every part of the process involved a single person,” he said. “But the tactile experience of making a book has changed. If you’re around long enough, you outlive some forms of technology. These books are almost a museum of words and in a sense, the history of language.”

There were other small press publications on the table, all carefully arranged as though on parade. Baldwin rented three tables to display his collection to potential buyers. To make room for the several thousand publications he hopes will find another loving home, he had to do some real heavy lifting by donating to Housing Works Thrift Shops, in NYC, about 5,000 publications he did not want.

“Some of these books will be offered for sale,” he said looking at his collection.
“I’m hoping this will go to a library with an interest in modern poetry, especially small publishers. Anyone interested in American poetry would be interested in this.”
He slid one small book from its shelf. It was poetry by Charles Olson, handmade by Olson and Robert Creeley, both significant American writers.

“There’s a market for some of these books, as rare books,” Baldwin said, turning the pages.
He opened a door to an unfinished room and uncovered a cardboard box stuffed with personal manuscripts, rewrites and notes. There was a cardboard box beneath it. In another unfinished room, it was the same thing.

“I’ve published about 15 books,” he said. “People see the final product. They don’t see what goes into it, the documentation, anecdotal works, the notebooks. You don’t get into that with a lot of people.”

Baldwin has a doctorate in modern American poetry and began writing poetry in the late ‘60s. American poets from the ‘20s to the late ‘60s are well-represented in his collection.

He said two rare book collectors, Steve Clay and Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, of Granary Books, NYC, were out to see what he had to offer and spent a few hours quietly assessing his archive while he waited downstairs. Baldwin said it has been an emotional couple of weeks for him. He also said that he thinks he will begin to write poetry again.