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A rare collection of American literature will be auctioned off at Christie's


As a kid growing up in Vermont, Bruce Lisman could spend days thumbing through the pages of old books.

BRUCE LISMAN: My family - immediate family - were a bunch of readers. I mistakenly said to a friend, we're a bunch of bookies. And he said, you're kidding. No, no, no - not that kind of bookie.


Now, Leila mentioned old books. Mr. Lisman says his father was especially fond of American writing from the 1800s and earlier.

LISMAN: He really believed the best literature available had ended by the time the 20th century began.

FADEL: And Lisman took that to heart. As an adult, while working as an executive on Wall Street, he amassed rare treasures from what he describes as the dawn of American literature.

LISMAN: It started with barely a trickle in the 18th century. But by the mid-19th century, Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Stowe and hundreds of others just emerged.

INSKEEP: Lisman acquired early editions of 18th-century poems by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American writer ever published. He picked up a first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And his most prized acquisition is an original galley - that's a proof copy from before publication, a kind of beta test - an original galley of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 work, "The Scarlet Letter."

FADEL: That's, of course, about a woman shamed for bearing a child out of wedlock. Lisman says if you haven't read the book since high school, read it again.

LISMAN: In "Scarlet Letter," they've ostracized a woman, and through her dignity and strength and inner strength, you know, who wins at the end of the book? Well, I think she does.

INSKEEP: Now, Lisman, who ran as a Republican in Vermont's 2016 governor's race, believes "The Scarlet Letter" is relevant today, regardless of your politics.

LISMAN: The notion of ostracizing another person for what they say or what they do within the realm of what's legal and acceptable, the value of quiet dignity in response to that.

FADEL: Lisman says now he's mostly done collecting foundational American fiction, and this week, he's putting it all up for auction.

INSKEEP: So grab your wallet. The Bruce M. Lisman Collection of Important American Literature is valued at between 3 and $5 million. He says the old writings bear important lessons for a modern-day audience.

LISMAN: You know, we struggle sometimes with our history. We think we know who we are as people or as a country. And, you know, our history says otherwise sometimes.

FADEL: Christie's begins auctioning off Lisman's collection on June 15. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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