Johnny Cash’s Shakespeare

Johnny Cash performing
Johnny Cash. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, September 29, 1977.
Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-U9-35188-B- 22A [P&P].
A rotating selection of items from The James L. Harner Collection of Miniature Books Pertaining to Shakespeare is on display in the Folger’s Founders’ Room through 2019.

Among the Folger’s smallest treasures are the wee books of the James L. Harner Collection of Miniature Books Pertaining to Shakespeare. The smallest book in Harner’s collection is a 14 millimeter printing of act IV, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. The collection also includes this miniature set of Shakespeare’s plays that belonged to country singer Johnny Cash.

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The set came to the Harner collection from Cash’s assistant Peggy Knight, who worked for the Cash family for 33 years. On a certificate of authenticity, Knight wrote:

This set of miniature books was owned by Johnny Cash for as long as I, Peggy Knight, can remember. I do not know where John originally came by the books but John had such a wide variety of interest in things that you never knew what he would come home with in their travels… John passed these on to me a few years before he passed away. John & June were very giving people and often gave staff members personal mementos and items through the years.

A letter of authentication from Peggy Knight, Cash's assistant of 30 years.
Letter of authentication from Peggy Knight, Cash’s assistant of 30 years.

Knight writes that the miniature bookshelf appears to have been built especially for the plays, but on closer inspection it seems to be a Regalia Especial cigar box adapted for Cash’s collection. The books themselves are from the “Ellen Terry Shakespeare,” a set of Shakespeare’s complete works published in 1904. Dame Ellen Terry was a famous Shakespearean actress who died in 1928. Each tiny volume is “Dedicated by special permission to Miss Ellen Terry,” but the use of her name wasn’t much more than a marketing ploy.

Apparently, the Man in Black was quite the bibliophile. In Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force’s My Ideal Bookshelf, Johnny Cash’s daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, recalls her father’s protective treatment of his 19th-century edition of the writings of Josephus: “My dad would get so anxious if anybody held it, if anybody touched it. He loved books more than anything. Whenever he traveled and he had time off, the first thing he would do was go to a used bookstore.”

Title page of a copy of Shakespeare's poems that belonged to poet Walt Whitman. His signature is scrawled in ink at the top of the page.
Walt Whitman’s copy of “The Poems of William Shakespeare.” PR2841 1847a Copy 1 Sh.Col.

Johnny Cash’s copies of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t the only books in the Folger’s collection that once belonged to notable figures. The collection also includes copies of Shakespeare’s works that belonged to actors David Garrick, John Philip Kemble, and Sir Laurence Olivier; writers George Eliot and Walt Whitman; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and others.