Written Relics: Autographs from the Talbot Collection
One of the undisputed stars among Georgetown's special collections is the collection of autographs of Catholic saints, beati, and outstanding historical figures named for Francis X. Talbot, S.J. (1889-1953), who served for 13 years as literary editor of the Jesuit magazine America and followed that up with another eight (1936-1944) as its editor-in-chief. Talbot's own papers are at Georgetown, a rich mine of literary correspondence from a variety of authors. So, too, are the surviving papers of America itself, a potentially rich resource for research in a variety of fields.
Ironically, it was Talbot's leaving America to take up the post of regional director for the Institute of Social Order that provided the impetus for the formation of the collection, which was assembled over a period of years by Mary Benjamin, long the dean of American autograph dealers. Since Talbot's new job meant his leaving New York City, the collection formed to honor him was initially meant to have a New York address; a further irony springs from the selection of Georgetown as the collection's permanent home.
The collection was first publicly displayed, however, in New York in 1944, at a testimonial dinner given for Talbot at the Hotel Commodore on September 26, the Feast of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America. The date was selected to reflect perhaps the best-known of Talbot's books, Saint among Savages, a biography of Saint Isaac Jogues. And so, while the company partook in a pre-dinner "informal reception to Father Talbot" in the West Ballroom, it also had the first chance to view the nascent collection. Of the five items singled out for description in the commemorative brochure for the dinner, only two remain in the collection as it stands today, but one of them is undoubtedly the highest in a collection of "high spots," the document signed by Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1551 and later adorned with a fragment of bone from his skeleton.
That the Ignatian autograph is at the heart of the collection is no surprise. While the surviving correspondence is scanty, it seems that Walter R. Benjamin, Mary Benjamin's father and predecessor as a dealer, loaned the document to Father Talbot in 1928 in hopes of finding out more about it; queried as to where he himself had got it, he could reply only "I must have owned it 20 years or more,--and have no idea where I got it. Probably at some auction. Much stuff is sent over here by Europe, for auction, as prices run higher here." Talbot in turn sent the document to Father Timothy Barrett, S.J., at Woodstock College. It was Barrett who tracked down what little is known of the document's previous history: that it was owned in 1657, when it was copied for the Jesuit archives, by a Herr Hermann Mylius of Cologne, who stated that his father obtained it by trade from a Lutheran family in that city in return for a letter written by Luther himself. The letter remained at Woodstock until 1935, upon the death of Father Barrett, who had had it framed and hung over his bed. From there, after some little difficulty, it was recovered by Talbot.
From the time the collection came to Georgetown until the death of Father Talbot it was continually growing and changing. Miss Benjamin made quite clear in her correspondence with Father Yates and others at Georgetown that she wanted the collection to contain only "the cream." Thus a number of documents and letters in the original collection were returned to be replaced by yet better examples, and at the same time new names were represented. With the exception of a final gift made in 1972, an autograph letter written by St. Euphrasie Pelletier, the last item to join the collection is one of its greatest treasures: the manuscript of the sonnet by St. Philip Neri, presented to the collection on the occasion of Father Talbot's death.
The exhibit, which will continue into 1998, is intended in some measure to recognize the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Exercitia spiritualia of St. Ignatius; obviously, too, it honors the generosity of its donor, Miss Mary Benjamin, and the memory of Father Talbot, for whom it is named. It could not have been mounted without the assistance of a number of people, including virtually every member of the staff of the Special Collections Division, but most especially Professor Roberto Severino of Georgetown's Department of Italian and Rev. Joseph A. Tylenda, S.J., librarian of the Woodstock Theological Center Library.