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Anthony Stillman Bliss
In Memoriam

Anthony Stillman Bliss

Curator of Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts

UC Berkeley
Anthony Stillman Bliss died after a brief illness April 1, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. He was Curator of Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts at The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, for 32 years. Born in Pasadena on September 6, 1946, Tony was the only child of Carey Bliss, Curator of Rare Books at the Huntington Library, and the grandson of Leslie Bliss, private librarian to railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington. Tony used to say that he was born with book dust in his veins.

By the age of 16 Bliss was already employed at the Huntington as a page, retrieving books for patrons. He received his B.A. in French from Williams College (Mass.) in 1968 after having spent his junior year studying French literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at Sorbonne University (University of Paris). He was hired as a research assistant in the Huntington’s Rare Book Department while working on an M.A. in French at UC Los Angeles (UCLA). After receiving that degree in 1970 he stayed on at the Huntington for a year before combining his love of French, of France, and of rare books with two years in Paris as the assistant to the director of the antiquarian bookshop Aux Amateurs de Livres. It was there that he met the love of his life, Marie-Noëlle Mottez, a fellow employee.

He returned to the U.S. in 1973 and earned an M.L.S. (1974) in the UCLA School of Library and Information Science. He also worked at Dawson’s Book Shop, one of the leading rare book dealers. He moved on to an appointment as head of the Rare Book Department in the library of Northern Illinois University (DeKalb, Ill.) in 1975. He held that position until 1980, when he was appointed at Bancroft, where he remained until his retirement in 2012.

Tony Bliss was multilingual, with beautifully inflected French, and was proficient in other European languages, but he was also an expert in the specialized languages of librarians, booksellers, collectors, printers, and bibliographers. He was influenced by H. Richard Archer at the Chapin Library of Williams College, a family friend; Saul Marks and Ward Ritchie, eminent fine printers in Los Angeles; Andrew Horn at UCLA; Glen, Muir, Ellen, and Agnes Dawson of Dawson’s Book Shop, as well as the bookselling community in Paris.

At The Bancroft Library he methodically worked his way through the major literary collections, sadly neglected before the merger of the Rare Books Room with Bancroft just nine years before Tony arrived. He gave particular attention to our significant collections of medieval manuscripts and early European printed works, but he did not neglect more modern European and North American work, building to the strengths of those collections. He strengthened, among many others, Bancroft’s holdings of romances of chivalry, early modern chronicles, Humanism, editions of Horace and Euclid, classic French literature, scholar printers of the Renaissance, fine printing from the eighteenth century to the present, theater, and travel literature, including Baedeker travel guides.

With such strength in early modern Europe, it might have seemed that Tony would neglect such things as the modern Beat movement, but that area flourished under his leadership, with the acquisition of papers from such authors as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, William Everson, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Ruth Weiss, Ted Joans, and David Meltzer. He worked comfortably and well with living poets such as Robert Duncan, Josephine Miles, and Thom Gunn. He was on easy conversational terms with Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, and other prominent authors whom Bancroft collects.

He was also on easy conversational terms with major book collectors. He used to say that no library had the staff expertise and time necessary to develop monographic collections, so it was incumbent upon curators to cultivate collectors and donors. He got on so well with Norman Strouse, a collector who had given Bancroft an extensive collection of works from the English printer and binder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (Doves Press), that Norman invited him to serve on the board of directors of the Vailima Foundation that supported the Strouse collection of Robert Louis Stevenson in St. Helena, California.

Tony was fully aware of California’s ethnic and racial diversity and sought to ensure that Bancroft’s collections reflected that diversity, with a particular focus on the African American Writers Collection. He was responsible for the acquisition of Eldridge Cleaver’s papers and especially of the manuscript of Soul on Ice, rescued from a storage locker in San Jose, and of the papers of African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

Within the academy, Tony’s understanding of research and how the collections could support faculty, students, and other scholars continually informed his efforts. Faculty sought him out for help in their own research, but also to engage their students in the delightful and varied uses to which the collections could be put. Frequently he would bring in leading Bay Area booksellers, like Peter Howard of Serendipity Books, to offer seminars on rare books and literary manuscripts.

In building his academic and social networks, Tony worked closely with such scholars as Charles Faulhaber long before Professor Faulhaber became the first James D. Hart Director of The Bancroft Library (who brought to Tony’s notice the phenomenal manuscript library of the Dukes of Fernán-Núñez), and with Elaine Tennant, long before she became the second James D. Hart Director (who encouraged him to expand Bancroft’s collection of early German printing and track down remarkable examples of Teuerdank, the fictionalized account of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian’s real 1477 bridal quest ). Tony collected with vision, quietly building the research potential of the Berkeley collections decades or even lifetimes ahead of the future scholars who will eventually discover the gems he acquired for them.

He often bought “interesting” artifacts instead of books that were simply rare or sought-after. Though he acquired some of those for Bancroft too, his principle was not to buy showy books unless they had additional features that made them distinctive. An interesting book by Tony’s definition was one that implied a cultural context, evoked a story beyond its covers, or posed a problem. It might be a second rather than a first edition, a pirated rather than an authorized one; it might be incomplete rather than perfect. He once described the acquisitions part of his job as “laying down track for the engines to run on.” Many a thesis and scholarly article has been produced at Bancroft based on materials that Tony had the foresight to buy. He looked for items to complement existing Bancroft collections and support curricular emphases, sometimes also with the research directions of individual scholars in mind.

One of Tony’s greatest accomplishments was revitalizing the University of California’s collection of more than 26,000 papyri from the ancient Egyptian town of Tebtunis. Excavated during a dig funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst and led by Oxford papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt in 1899-1900, the collection remained in England until the 1930s. It sat on Bancroft’s shelves, unstudied, from then until the 1990s when Tony began to systematically promote it. He arranged for a young Dutch papyrologist, Arthur Verhoogt, to survey the collection; and it was at Tony’s urging that Bancroft created a curatorial position for the collection and co-sponsored, with the Department of Classics, a new Center for the Tebtunis Papyri in 2009.

When visitors walk toward the Center, they see a sculpture Tony commissioned of the Egyptian scribe Menches, whose family is documented in the collection, by artist and sculptor Amy McClure, the wife of Beat poet, playwright, and novelist Michael McClure—one more example of Tony’s networking skills.

Visitors can also marvel at two brilliant illuminated manuscripts that Tony was instrumental in adding to the Bancroft’s collection: the Heller Book of Hours (which Tony named for Edward Hellman Heller, the husband of its donor, Elinor Raas Heller); and an illuminated French book of hours that includes some finely-detailed sketches among the completed illuminated illustrations. The manuscript is a phenomenal teaching tool, since it shows the successive stages the illuminator completed in making the paintings for this miniature masterpiece. Tony also added a remarkable number of medieval text manuscripts, just as important—and far less expensive—than illuminated ones.

Tony’s expansion of the collection into early modern European history—fifteenth- and sixteenth- century German and eighteenth-century French, including an emphasis on popular literature (e.g., the Bibliothèque Bleue). This was a major initiative, as were his efforts to document pro- and anti-feminist polemics, the growing importance of women authors from the sixteenth century to the present, and, increasingly, the role of women in modern fine printing and book production, focusing particularly on California’s feminist presses.

Tony also expanded Bancroft’s extensive Book Artifacts Collection, which documents the history of writing technology from Babylonian clay tablets to the present. Two of his latest acquisitions were an early Apple II computer and an unused box of carbon paper. He used to say that a hundred years from now it would be needed in order to explain to future generations why “cc” is added at the foot of letters. In 1999 he published an updated Guide to the Book Artifacts Collection.

The Book Artifacts Collection was designed for use as well as study. Soon after his arrival at Bancroft, Tony became a strong supporter of young letterpress printer Wesley Tanner, who became the first instructor of Bancroft’s course on the history and practice of handpress printing; he also printed Tony’s remarkable exhibition catalogue, The Legacy of James D. Hart at The Bancroft Library. The handpress printing courses continue today under Santa Rosa printer Les Ferriss, who was also recruited by Tony.

Tony had a gift for popularizing Bancroft’s collections and activities. He edited more than a dozen Keepsakes for the Friends of the Bancroft Library, highlighting collections in limited edition publications. He also served as editor of Bancroftiana, the library’s newsletter, for more than a decade and wrote more than 40 articles for it. Many of these articles concerned the 20 major exhibitions that Tony curated, from First Books by Notable Authors in 1982 to Ancient Lives: The Tebtunis Papyri in Context in 1999. Virtually all of Bancroft’s exhibitions during this period reflected Tony’s behind-the-scenes collaboration with other curators and his keen design sensibility.

Many of Tony’s most important contributions to Bancroft came from his unsung administrative work on such standing committees as the curatorial group, management advisory group, or publications committee, but especially on ad hoc committees designed to address specific problems, such as the Collection Policy or the Technical Services Review Task Force. Tony also served as Bancroft’s security officer and space planning officer, and in those capacities led the effort to redesign the Doe Annex, Bancroft’s home, during its seismic renovation (2005-2008). One of his key contributions, when Bancroft staff were puzzling over how to increase security, was to cut the Gordian knot by suggesting that the reading room and administrative offices be moved from the ground floor so that one security checkpoint could protect the whole library.

Tony is survived by his wife Marie-Noëlle, their children Edward and Adrienne, and Edward’s children Sebastian and Sophie.

Peter E. Hanff
Charles B. Faulhaber
Elaine C. Tennant