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Hunting the elusive Dickens: A tale of one collector

Pickwick Papers Pen and Ink Drawing

The adventure of a lifetime began quietly for Stephen Weeks. After purchasing a coveted edition of The Pickwick Papers from a rare books dealer, Weeks settled in at the tea shop next door to read it.

"I was thrilled to have it," he recalls, "but I was also frightened by it – what would I do with it, where would it take me?"

The first novel of Charles Dickens would lead the retired entrepreneur on a 20-year treasure hunt and inspire a deep devotion to the writer, whose bicentenary was observed February 7.

Weeks, a member of the SMU Libraries Executive Board, spoke about his impressive assemblage – and the art of collecting – during a program hosted by DeGolyer Library and the Friends of the SMU Libraries January 19. DeGolyer Director Russell Martin '78, '86 moderated the panel discussion, which included Steven V. Daniels, Professor Emeritus of English, and Beth Newman, Associate Professor of English and Director of Women's and Gender Studies in Dedman College.

The event was held in conjunction with the opening of "Charles Dickens: The First 200 Years. An Exhibition from the Stephen Weeks Collection," which continues through May 12 at DeGolyer. The exhibition of more than 200 items from the vast Weeks archive showcases all of Dickens' major works in original editions, as well as prints, drawings, letters, later editions, piracies, translations, adaptations and advertising ephemera. Materials are arranged to create a Dickens "story" in each display case.

Stephen Weeks and family; Dean Gillian M. McCombs
Collector Stephen Weeks (right) with Gillian M. McCombs (left), Dean and Director of Central University Libraries; his daughter, Jennifer, an SMU senior; and his wife, Cyndi. Selections from Weeks’ extensive collection of The Pickwick Papers are now on exhibit at DeGolyer Library.

Weeks admits the excitement of the unknown – "going into an old bookstore and finding a rare volume tucked behind another book" – prevents him from using the Internet to augment his holdings. "It's too easy," he says. "It lacks the thrill of finding the piece that maybe only you and the seller know about."

Martin says the Weeks collection "is remarkable both for its depth and breadth: over 700 volumes of first editions and 'parts' editions, that is, those monthly installments favored by Dickens and other 19th-century writers."

Charles Dickens, engraving by Edward Finden.
Charles Dickens, engraving by Edward Finden. Part of the Mary Ellen Fisher and Harold Wilson Fisher Collection, DeGolyer Library.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the collection is the iconography: over 2,000 pieces, including prints and drawings by Hablot K. Browne, Joseph C. Clarke, F.W. Pailthorpe, George Cruikshank and other famous artists of the day.

Weeks and his wife, Cyndi, flew in from Los Angeles for the event and were joined by daughter Jennifer, a senior marketing major in SMU's Cox School of Business.

"Russell and the staff did a tremendous job on the displays. I'm truly impressed," Weeks says. "I was lucky enough to be here when the first student toured the exhibit. To me, making the collection available to students is the real thrill."


An exhibit catalog is available for $24.95 from DeGolyer Library. More information about the exhibit is available online at smu.edu/cul/degolyer/exhibits.htm or by calling 214-768-2253.