Leigh Hunt Online: The Letters – The Brewer-Leigh Hunt Collection at Iowa

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The Brewer-Leigh Hunt Collection at Iowa

The University of Iowa Libraries possesses the most complete Leigh Hunt collection in the world.  The core of the collection was originally assembled by Luther Brewer, an Iowa native who owned and operated The Torch Press in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Brewer began collecting Hunt’s work in 1920 and continued to supplement his collection for the remaining thirteen years of his life.  In an article about the collection, Frank Hanlin, then head of collections at The University of Iowa Libraries, notes that Brewer was lucky to have had little competition for Hunt materials:

It was fortunate, too, that at this time Mr. Brewer had few if any competitors, as his means were modest and he could scarcely have afforded to buy books or manuscripts by such writers as Byron, Shelley, Keats, Lamb, or any of the other literary giants of the time. But in Leigh Hunt he had one who knew them all–and intimately.

Brewer planned to publish a bibliography of his collection in three volumes, My Leigh Hunt Library.  However, only the first two were printed: My Leigh Hunt Library: The First Editions (1932) and My Leigh Hunt Library: The Holograph Letters (1933).  The third volume, My Leigh Hunt Library: Huntiana and Association Books, was in galleys at the time of Brewer’s death in 1933 and was destroyed by his printers, who thought the project had been abandoned.

The University of Iowa Libraries purchased the collection from the Brewer estate in 1934 for $20,000. It has since been enhanced whenever means and opportunity have allowed. The collection is nearly complete in first and subsequent editions of Hunt’s work, including Hunt’s periodicals and other journalistic contributions.  Original Hunt manuscripts number over 100, and more than 75 titles owned by Hunt, most with marginalia in his hand, are featured in the collection.  Additionally, Brewer collected critical works pertaining to Hunt and his circle, as well as some original manuscripts and works by Hunt’s literary friends. Hanlin observes:

Thus a copy of the very rare first edition of Shelley’s Cenci, dedicated to Leigh Hunt, is present, with a letter from Shelley to the Olliers laid in. Mr. Brewer obtained Dickens’ Bleak House in the original parts and in other early editions because of Dickens’ alleged caricature of Leigh Hunt in the character of Skimpole. And in addition there are in the collection six autograph letters from Charles Dickens to Leigh Hunt and two from Dickens to Thornton Hunt bearing upon the unfortunate incident which Mr. Brewer made the subject of his 1930 Christmas book, Leigh Hunt and Charles Dickens: the Skimpole Caricature.

The autograph letters between Dickens and Hunt mentioned here are but a fraction of the correspondence present in the collection.  With more than 800 autograph letters from Hunt alone, the correspondence collection has more than 700 additional autograph letters written to or about Hunt and his family.  

As mentioned, Hunt was an active correspondent, and wrote thousands of letters over his long lifetime. The Brewer-Hunt collection now has nearly 1600 autograph letters related to Hunt, including the recent addition of 70 letters that once comprised the Payson G. Gates collection.  These letters span Hunt’s entire lifetime: from the age of five to shortly after his death in 1859.  Correspondents represented in the collection at Iowa include Ainsworth, the Brownings, the Carlyles, the Cowden Clarkes, Cruikshank, Dickens, Forster, Godwin, Hallam, Haydon, Hogg, Horne, Lamb, Landor, James Russell Lowell, Macaulay, Vincent Novello, the Olliers, William Rossetti, Mary Shelley, Swinburne, and Thackeray, amongst others.

While several collections of Hunt letters have been published over the years, there has never been a complete edition of Hunt’s letters.  Thus, some of these letters have never been published, and most have only been published in part, given that the two main collections of Hunt letters, published by Thornton Hunt and Luther Brewer, often silently deleted significant portions.  Eleanor M. Gates’ recent work, Leigh Hunt: A Life in Letters (1998), reprints only some of the letters in the Brewer-Leigh Hunt Collection.

More information on the Brewer-Hunt collection, including manuscripts, ephemera, books, and related articles, can be found on the Brewer – Leigh Hunt resource page.