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William A. Speck collection of Goetheana : manuscripts

Call Number: YCGL MSS 6

Scope and Contents

The major strength of the Speck Collection is its documentation of Goethe's literary reception in England and America in the nineteenth century. The literary manuscript component of the Collection, listed in detail in this finding aid, includes correspondence, documents, playscripts, and other writings. Among the better-known items to be mentioned in this connection are the full draft of Bayard Taylor's translation of Faust (folder 716), translations by George Borrow (folders 225-227), and John Greenleaf Whittier's manuscript for his translation of the poem "Erlkoenig" (folder 249). Translations, criticism, and correspondence about theater productions and the publication of Goethe's works, especially in Great Britain, include letters and manuscripts by such figures as Sarah Austin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Margaret Fuller, Richard Graves, Anna Jameson, Charles Kean, and Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.

The manuscripts are arranged alphabetically by author or by title, if the author is unknown. Authors represented prominently include Goethe himself, Thomas Carlyle, Frank Claudy, the Faust collector Georg Ehrhardt, Walther Wolfgang von Goethe, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, University of Illinois professor Julius Goebel, Anna Jameson, Johann Caspar Lavater, Friedrich von Mueller, Henry Crabb Robinson, Friedrich Schiller, Carl Frederick Schreiber, Horatio Robinson Storer, Bayard Taylor, Marie (Hansen) Taylor, Karl August Ludwig Philipp Varnhagen von Ense, and Albert Wuensch. The Rilke manuscripts, chiefly letters to F. A. Huenich (folder 565) and Clotilde Sacharoff (folders 567-568), came into the collection by historical accident and are unrelated to Goethe.

Despite his persistence and the financial resources provided by Yale, Speck could not gather a large number of Goethe autographs, which were already in the great collections at Weimar and Frankfurt and in the Kippenberg Collection. The Speck Collection does, however, include some 25 letters and manuscripts in Goethe's hand, among them the poem "Den funfzehn englischen Freunden" (folder 254), sent in thanks to the group of British writers who, at the suggestion of Thomas Carlyle, had presented Goethe with a gold and enamel seal for his 81st birthday. Goethe's fair copy of the scene "Offene Gegend" from the second part of Faust is another treasure (folder 224). There are in addition many letters to Goethe, and letters from Goethe in secretarial hands. Among the other, related correspondence in the collection are many letters to Johann Peter Eckermann, including seven from Thomas Carlyle (folders 50-56).

The manuscript collection (both literary and music) is particularly strong in Faust-related materials, including two eighteenth-century Hoellenzwang manuscripts, bound, (folders 797-798) and a number of late nineteenth century handwritten copies of Faust puppet plays. There are also several manuscripts by the Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater, a branch of whose family migrated to Connecticut and became Yale benefactors.


  • 1542 - 1967
  • Majority of material found within 1770 - 1900


Language of Materials

Chiefly in German; some letters in English.

Physical Description

Other Storage Formats: 41 Bound Volumes, Oversize

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana: Manuscripts is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of William A. Speck, 1913, and augmented by several other gifts and purchases.

Associated Materials

Printed works from the Speck Collection are cataloged separately. Two groups of manuscript material, which traditionally have been considered part of the Speck manuscript collection, also are cataloged separately: the William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana: Music (YCGL MSS 9), and the papers of Alice Raphael, Goethe translator, author, and a personal friend of William Speck.


14.22 Linear Feet ((20 boxes) + 41 volumes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection, a part of the William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana, consists of correspondence, documents, playscripts, and other writings by or relating to Goethe and his work. The major strength of the manuscript collection is its documentation of Goethe's literary reception in England and America in the nineteenth century. There are 25 letters and manuscripts in Goethe's hand, and several Faust-related items. Authors represented prominently besides Goethe include Thomas Carlyle, Frank Claudy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Faust collector Georg Ehrhardt, Walther Wolfgang von Goethe, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, University of Illinois professor Julius Goebel, Anna Jameson, Johann Caspar Lavater, Friederich von Müller, Henry Crabb Robinson, Friedrich Schiller, Carl Frederick Schreiber, Horatio Robinson Storer, Bayard Taylor, Marie (Hansen) Taylor, Karl August Ludwig Philipp Varnhagen von Ense, and Albert Wünsch.


The son of German immigrants, William A. Speck began life in New York City in 1864. His father, Otto Speck, owned an apothecary shop, first in the City, then in Haverstraw, New York, a small community on the Hudson. As a boy, Speck attended Hoboken Academy, a school run largely by Germans, and afterwards earned a degree in chemistry from the Pharmaceutical College of the City of New York. For the next thirty years, Speck conscientiously worked as a druggist in the family business, despite the fact that his real interest lay elsewhere.

Life as a Haverstraw pharmacist allowed Speck ample time to pursue his true passion: Goethe. The New York City antiquarian bookshops were only a day's trip away, and Speck was able to make two European journeys during these years. The destination was, of course, Weimar, where Speck went from door to door, up and down the streets, looking for Goethe relics, buying pictures from inn-keepers, and often gaining access to private collections.

After more than two decades of collecting, Speck saw that his books belonged in an academic setting. Personal ties suggested Columbia as the recipient of the collection; but it was Yale, having heard of the marvelous Goethe museum on the banks of the Hudson, that sent a delegation to visit Speck in 1912. In March, 1913, the Yale Corporation announced that the Goethe Collection, which then numbered about 6,000 items, had been deposited in New Haven, and that Speck had been appointed its curator.

Between the time of Speck's appointment and his death in 1928, the Collection, benefitting from University support, trebled in size. While World War I cut off the source of acquisitions for a time, the 1920s saw the purchase of two major private collections, as well as a steady stream of smaller purchases from dealers around the world. During the last years of his life, Speck was appointed lecturer in the Yale Graduate School, where he offered a course called "Goethe's Personality and Personal Appearance." Publishing relatively little, Speck devoted himself instead to assiduous collecting, firm in his belief that Goethe was "one of the corner-stones ... of our moral world."

The William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana, now the largest Goethe collection outside Germany, contains over 10,000 printed volumes and as many pamphlets, scores, programs, broadsides, prints, art works, and Goethe-related ephemera, as well as the extensive holdings of literary manuscripts, which are described in depth in this finding aid, and of manuscript music, listed and classified separately as YCGL MSS 9.

For a fuller description of the contents and collecting history of the Speck Collection, consult the Guide to the Beinecke collections (New Haven, 1974 and 1994).

Related manuscript sources in the Yale Collection of German Literature include the papers of Karl Gottfried Theodor Winkler (Theodor Hell), Dresden theater director and journalist, who corresponded with many literary figures of Goethe's time. The George Eliot Papers in the Beinecke Library's General Collection of Rare Books and Manuscripts contain much material by and relating to Goethe's biographer George Henry Lewes; some of this material was originally part of the Speck Collection.

Processing Information

This finding aid was produced from a previously existing card set in the Manuscript Catalog, or from anther inventory. All pertinent bibliographical information has been retained. "Speck numbers" formerly used to classify material in this collection have been replaced by standard box and folder references. This finding aid is updated periodically to account for new materials that have been added to the collection. The date of the most recent update is noted on the title page. For information on material that may have been acquired for the collection since the last update, please consult the Public Service Desk.

Guide to the William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana: Manuscripts
by Beinecke Staff
November 1995
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • 2010-02-10: Transformed with yale.addEadidUrl.xsl. Adds @url with handle for finding aid. Overwrites @url if already present.
  • 2007-08-13: beinecke.speckmss.xml converted for compliance with Yale EAD Best Practice Guidelines with brbl-migrate-01.xsl (mr2007-08-13).
  • 2007-03-08: PUBLIC "-//Yale University::Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library//TEXT (US::CtYBR::::[WILLIAM A. SPECK COLLECTION OF GOETHEANA: MANUSCRIPTS ])//EN" "speckmss.xml" converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02.xsl (sy2003-10-15).

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Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.