A footnote on a paper Irving Leif was writing for his doctoral dissertation at Temple University peaked his interest in 19th century author Horatio Alger.
While studying at the free library of Philadelphia on the project, Leif came across a meeting for the local Horatio Alger Society and attended a meeting of people interested in the works of the author, which mainly focused on class stratification and social climbing.
“This was pre-Internet and I was in this small group of people and someone offered two first-edition copies of Horatio Alger’s work,” Leif said. “I began collecting Alger and I started studying book collecting.”
Flash forward 43 years and Leif has made book collecting his life’s focus. It’s more than a hobby — Leif calls it his “avocation.”
“I feel happiest when I’m with my books,” Leif said.
Indeed Leif’s collection is valuable and unique. It also is not worth the trouble of someone trying steal it.
“It’s well documented what pieces I have in my collection and the pieces are so rare that if they were stolen, anyone who would have interest in buying them would know that they were stolen,” Leif said. “It’s something for which there would not be a way to get someone to fence it and get a return for the stolen merchandise.”
And the safety of the collection is important to Leif not for his own sentimental reasons. What he has is an American treasure.
Leif has what is considered to be the largest private collection of the works of Alger, Jack Kerouac, Emma Goldman, Larry Eiger and other well-known American authors. He also has collections of rare books, including children’s books printed before 1821.
Leif, 69, was born in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in Long Island. He’s a Eagle Scout, who attended the national Jamboree in 1964 and earned all three of his Eagle Scout palms.
He traveled while getting a college education, earning his bachelor’s degree from Bethel College in Tennessee, his master’s degree from Purdue University and his PhD from Temple. He has five degrees in total, with post doctoral work done at the New School University in New York.
When he was serving as an assistant professor and living in Evansville, Ind., he became interested in the work of poet Larry Eigner.
“Eigner was well-known among poets,” Leif said. “I picked up his work and read him. He wasn’t super well-known in the public at the time, but I thought, ‘Maybe I should collect him.’ At the time there was no definitive listing of him.”
In 1977, Leif came in contact with Eigner and the two developed a friendship. Eigner asked Leif if he could drive to visit from Evansville, Ind., to St. Louis, Mo. Leif made the trip and met Eigner’s family.
“I came to understand that he and his family were sizing me up,” Leif said. “I came with legal pads and pens ready to write down bibliographical information. It was then that he gave me transcripts of his original written works including his corrections. At that point he gave me his entire personal archive. Obviously I was stunned. After that he insisted when he was done with a personal letter or work, that it be sent to me. I wrote a book of his life. It was an amazing thing.”
Leif’s collection began to grow as he collected Keroac and Goldman. His collection branched to works by Charles Darwin, including original photographs that went into some of Darwin’s groundbreaking works. There are many authors in Leif’s collection, including Charles Borrow and George Orwell.
Leif explains that his collections include much more than complete written works. He has collected articles, periodicals, letters — any item that the author had written or publication in which the author was published. He has also focused some of his collection on the history of computing.
Leif did a considerable amount of work before the Internet made compiling bibliographies so much easier.
“Now almost all of the work is done over the Internet,” Leif said. “I can provide people with bibliographical references so much easier if they’re interested in citing a source of which I may have the only known copy.”
Despite the rare nature of Leif’s collection, he says he loves all books, whether they are rare or not. He likes good stories — stories that make people feel good about themselves. The reason he was so inspired by Eigner was that the author overcame birth defects that made it physically difficult from him to write.
Also, the theme of most of Alger’s works focuses on personal growth beyond what may be considered attainable.
Leif still collects books, although he’s not in a financial situation to purchase the most valuable of works. Still, his ability to understand what is valuable has led him to expand his collection for little money. He recently purchased about 15 periodicals that included works by Emma Goldman. This increased his total collection of the rare periodical in question to 27. Universities which have tried to put together archives of Goldman’s work may have only five-to-seven copies of what Leif has nearly 30 first-edition copies.
Leif said his first love is working on analytical bibliographies and he has spent a lot of time helping others track down pieces of information. He’s always interested in talking about books and if any local resident has a piece of written history that they want to know more about, he’s more than happy to share his knowledge free of charge.
“I’ve had people give me a call asking me what they’ve got in a book that has been handed down in their family or left to them by a relative,” Leif said. “I’m always interested in taking a look and talking about books.”
And when the time comes for his collection to move on with his passing, he has already designated where its pieces should go — including to other collections and universities.
“While I’ve invested in this I’ve also felt like I’ve been chosen as a caretaker of these works,” Leif said. “I’ve been respectful with what has been entrusted to me.
“To have the personal archive of a poet like Eigner, who others such as Allen Ginsburg and Charles Bukoski held in such high regard, considering him the best poet of their age, means so much,” Leif said. “I’m honored.”