The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens

History of the Archive

A Literary Backdrop

In 1913, Chapman and Hall of London published John C. Eckel’s landmark bibliography, The First Editions of the Writings of Charles Dickens and Their Values.  Eckel’s work succeeded, for the first time, in providing notable advances in the Dickens scholastic canon, including detailed collations of Dickens’s first editions; photographic reproductions of variant issue “points”; and a fascinating chapter devoted to Dickens presentation copies and their values.  As Eckel says in his introduction,

          “… Dickens essentially is a collector’s author, for the reason that his books in their original state make an irresistible appeal.”

Eckel dedicated his Bibliography, which remains today a standard reference for Dickens collectors, “To Those Collectors of Fine and Rare Books Who Include Charles Dickens Among Their Favorite Authors.”

One of those collectors was Judge John M. Patterson of Philadelphia.  The noted collector and author of The Greatest Book in the World, A. Edward Newton, describes a convivial meeting between Eckel, Patterson, collector William Elkins, and himself: 

          “… it would be fatiguing to refer to the items in Mr. Elkins’s collection; let me say, in a word, that he has what is generally regarded as the finest Dickens collection in the world.  There was, too, Judge John M. Patterson, President of the Dickens Fellowship, whose knowledge of first editions is exceeded only by that of another of the group, Mr. John C. Eckel, the author of a Bibliography of Dickens, as readable as it is accurate.  There was also the writer of this paper, resembling in appearance, it is said, Mr. Pickwick himself, badly distanced in the race as a collector by these other men either longer of purse or fleeter of foot than he.”

The Object of Newton’s Praise

John M. Patterson was born in Philadelphia in 1874.  As a graduate of the public school system, Patterson at the age of 14 took a position in a stockbroker’s office earning $2.50 a week.  He then worked for his father, and subsequently clerked for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Deciding to study law, Patterson attended Brown Prep School and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Class of 1896.

After serving in the National Guard of Pennsylvania, Patterson’s law career advanced rapidly.  In 1904 he was appointed Assistant District Attorney and in 1913 was elected to the Common Pleas Bench of Philadelphia County. 

Patterson served as Trustee of Temple University, Garretson Hospital, and Samaritan Hospital.  He was also Director of Maternity Hospital. 

In 1920, the cornerstone for the John M. Patterson School was set; this school continues to serve elementary grade children of Philadelphia today.

Patterson and Dickens

By 1914, Patterson’s enthusiasm for Dickens and his friendships with fellow collectors, book dealers and scholars, were well advanced.  On April 29, 1914, in an effort to aid the Samaritan, Children’s Homeopathic, St. Agnes and Mt. Sinai Hospitals, he participated at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in a stage performance, the “Mock Trial of John Jasper for the Murder of Edwin Drood.” 

John C. Eckel, collector William Elkins, the booksellers Dr. Rosenbach and Charles Sessler, and many others performed with Patterson as actors in the mock trial.  The resulting limited edition publication of the trial performance, edited by Patterson, is one of the works sought by Dickens collectors as an early sequel to Edwin Drood.  Interestingly enough, and counter to the conclusions drawn by the majority of sequels addressing the Drood murder case, Jasper was acquitted at the end of this performance. 

John Patterson’s Passion

At some point shortly after the 1913 publication of his friend John Eckel’s Bibliography, Patterson resolved to undertake a most extraordinary and ambitious project: the assembly of a remarkable archive of material that would extra-illustrate Eckel’s work.

Extra-illustration was a frequent--even commonplace--undertaking for enthusiastic collectors and bibliophiles in the early 20th century.  But, Patterson must have decided early on that his effort would be unique, and would culminate in the production of a group of volumes superior to any other extra-illustrated work that had yet been assembled. 

To this end, he chose to assemble manuscript material, principally in the form of original letters, written by the authors, illustrators, publishers, and theatrical performers mentioned in the pages of the Eckel Bibliography.  Patterson, in his enthusiasm for original printed material that would show off the details of variant issues, added to the archive many examples of these points from original editions of Dickens. 

Patterson also assembled portraits of the many associates of Dickens mentioned by Eckel; numerous original cover sheets for the serial appearances of Dickens’s works; examples of the plates that illustrated Dickens first editions, and rare related ephemeral material. 

Patterson also added contemporary advertising and newspaper material announcing the 1913 publication of the Bibliography.

In all, Patterson gathered together over 400 individual items, including 90 original manuscript pieces, all of which were presumably to be included in extra-illustrated volumes.

Provenance of the Archive

Patterson must have known that in order to assemble a collection of material that would meet his ambitious objectives, he would need help to find source material, as well as access to informed colleagues who could provide scholarly advice.

Patterson found that help and access at Charles Sessler’s bookshop in Philadelphia.  A prominent dealer, Sessler specialized in Dickens, as well as in illustrated books.  Sessler was also instrumental in founding the Philadelphia branch of the Dickens Fellowship.  A. Edward Newton said of him:

“[He] had some unexpectedly fine things from time to time.  He goes abroad every year with his pocket full of money, and comes back with a lot of things that quickly empty ours.  Dickens is one of his specialties… Sessler studies his customer’s weaknesses – that’s where his strength lies.”

From the standpoint of being able to locate his extra-illustration content, Sessler’s bookshop was the perfect locale.  Sessler had in stock, or could (and did) obtain, multiple, disbound, broken, and incomplete copies of Dickens’s works.  Patterson undoubtedly identified items from this extensive inventory.  While it would be anathema to modern day collectors, the practice of gathering extra-illustration material in this manner was nonetheless common practice in the early 20th century.

Mabel Zahn, the manager of the rare book department at Sessler’s, partly corroborated Patterson’s activities: she remembered in 1963 that Patterson worked directly out of the shop in an attempt to complete a Dickens project.  Strangely, while also a Dickens enthusiast and expert, she had no more specific knowledge of what Patterson was trying to achieve.  Patterson had nonetheless come remarkably close to achieving his goal: he had reached the point of carefully mounting all of his material on thick paper, selected in part to be compatible with the size of the sheets used in printing the large-paper edition of the Dickens Bibliography

Patterson died unexpectedly in 1925, at the age of 51, without the opportunity to realize his dream.  Elected to the Grolier Club in 1921, he shared membership with John C. Eckel and several other individuals thanked for their support by Eckel in his introduction: Ernest Maggs of Maggs bookshop in London; Harry B. Smith; and Walter Gillis, a member of the Grolier from 1884 to his death in 1925.

After Patterson died, the material remained with Sessler's in a cardboard box, undisturbed, until 1963.  A scholarly collector, who had purchased some rare books from Ms. Zahn at Sessler’s and who was an enthusiastic Dickensian, was offered the Patterson archive for a nominal fee while on an East Coast business trip.  He accepted.

Disorganized as it was, the archive defied interpretation.  But, in the process of sorting out and organizing the material, this collector discovered that Patterson’s penciled numberings on each individual leaf corresponded to pages of the Eckel Bibliography!  Each archive item illustrated a specific mention on an Eckel page.  The archive's code had been broken.

A Further Description of the Archive

Eighty years after Patterson’s work was left uncompleted, it is impossible to know the exact nature of his ambition.  We can speculate.

He may have wanted to produce a very beautiful and unique book.  He may have wanted to add in a definitive way to the legacies of Dickens and Eckel, and perhaps memorialize himself in the effort.  He may have used his project to prove his own resourcefulness, tenacity and scholarship.  Patterson may have been inspired by the Grolier Dickens Exhibition in 1913, where bibliographical issue points and variants were displayed together, some for the first time.  He may have operated with a simple obsession: to obtain an item that corresponded to every significant mention by Eckel, in the Bibliography, of a person, place name or issue point.

Irrespective of his motivations, Patterson did achieve one end through his selection of material: he created a rich picture of Dickens’s relationships with family members, friends, professional associates, and with the London public that figures so prominently in his work.  Seen through the archive are Dickens’s tempestuous relationships with his publishers; his dramatic and emotional devotion to Mary Hogarth, the younger sister of his wife Catherine; and his rejection of the religious tenets of the Church of England (under which he was raised) in favor of Unitarian principles.  The archive illuminates how Dickens managed his own fame and fortune through associations with influential politicians, fellow authors, and illustrators.

The discerning visitor to this website will notice that the archive contains substantive groups of items related to the Pickwick Papers (relatively interesting from a bibliographic point of view) and to the five Christmas books (with a focus on the life and work of their illustrators).  Due in part to the structure of the Eckel Bibliography, substantial material in the archive pertains to the many stage productions in which Dickens participated as author, director, producer, and/or actor, and to his involvement with various literary periodicals such as “All the Year Round”, “Household Words”, and “The Gads Hill Gazette.”

Copyright © 2004 Bruce J. Crawford. All rights reserved.
Revised: 12/05/05