William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Biographical and Historical Notes

William A. Oliver, Jr. (1926-2005)

American scientist William A. Oliver, Jr. (1926-2005) was an avid collector and bibliographer of Victorian authors, particularly Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Oliver grew up in Champaign, Illinois, where his father was a faculty member in the civil engineering department at the University of Illinois. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Oliver returned to the University of Illinois to earn a B.S. in 1948. He continued his education at Cornell University, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. in geology in 1950 and 1952, respectively. After spending several years as a professor at Brown University, he joined the United States Geological Survey and the Paleobiology Department at the Smithsonian Institute where he worked until his retirement in 1993. Oliver continued his research as a scientist emeritus at the Smithsonian. Oliver specialized in ancient coral reefs and published his work in many academic journals, was a member of a number of scientific professional associations, and served as an editor for the Journal of Paleontology.

In addition to a productive professional life, Oliver was an active bibliophile and bibliographer, acquiring an extensive collection of rare books and critical material related to the authors he collected. Documentation within the present collection suggests that Oliver's father first purchased collectible books for him during his childhood. Oliver's personal library of nearly 500 volumes, including many first editions, and accompanying research material, is now housed in the University of Delaware Library. Oliver's collecting focused on the works of Victorian novelists, particularly Thomas Love Peacock and Charles Dickens, as well as illustrated editions of Edward FitzGerald's (1809-1883) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Richard Doddridge Blackmore's Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor. Oliver showed particular interest in Dickens's last and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

Oliver was a member of both the London and Philadelphia chapters of the Dickens Fellowship. He traveled both within the United States and to England to attend Fellowship meetings and other Dickens events. He also visited sites throughout England that appeared in or inspired Dickens's novels. As a known expert in Droodiana, Oliver was a resource to scholars in their research.


"William A. Oliver, Jr." U.S. Geological Survey. Last modified January 28, 1999. http://geology.er.usgs.gov/paleo/woliver.shtml.

"William A. Oliver, Jr." The Washington Post.October 16, 2005.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens's final novel, which was left unfinished when he died of a stroke in June 1870. Only the first three parts of the story had been published at the time of the author's death, and drafts for the next three numbers existed; however, Dickens left neither a clear indication of how the plot would proceed in numbers six through twelve, nor the resolution of the mystery. The three primary questions that arise from the plot's cliffhanger are: whether Edwin Drood is truly dead; whether Drood's uncle John Jasper murdered him; and which character masqueraded as Dick Datchery. In addition to the many articles and books published on the novel, the Dickens Fellowship of London organized a theatrical mock trial in 1914 to present the arguments for and against Jasper's guilt for a public audience; among the main attractions of the trial were authors George Bernard Shaw as the foreman of the jury and G.K. Chesterton as the judge. While widespread fascination has waned, there continue to be articles and books published about Dickens's unfinished novel and new theories presented about its ending.

Scope and Content Note

The William A. Oliver, Jr. collection related to The Mystery of Edwin Drood comprises 10.5 linear feet plus oversize material dating from 1844 to 2005 and includes extensive bibliographic information relating to Charles Dickens and specifically to the author's final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), which was unfinished at the time of his death. The collection, which illuminates Oliver's activities as a collector and bibliographer, includes publications that printed original versions of the storyline, as well as various derivative works based on the novel; extensive bibliographies of editions of Dickens's works and scholarly work on Dickensiana, with a focus on Edwin Drood ; and travel information and souvenirs from Dickens-related landmarks and events.

This collection documents Oliver's research interest in Charles Dickens and Dickens's final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in particular. The variety of material from original creative works to scarce secondary sources provides a wealth of information on Dickens's most enigmatic work. Material compiled by Oliver and former officers of the Dickens Fellowship also document some of the activities of the organization, particularly the mock trials of John Jasper staged in 1914 by the London and Philadelphia chapters. The collection also demonstrates Oliver's collecting pursuits, including such material as extensive bibliographies, acquisition and purchase records, and souvenirs from Dickens-related excursions.

The collection is arranged into four series: I. Droodiana; II. Dickensiana ; III. Victoriana; and IV. Oliver miscellaneous. Originally included with the collection was Oliver's library related to Dickens and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has been cataloged separately with imprints in Special Collections and can be found by searching "William A. Oliver, Jr. Collection" in the Notes field in DELCAT.

Series I. comprises material relating to Charles Dickens’s novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and includes bibliographies and book catalogs; publications of the original work and adaptations; scrapbooks and clippings documenting activities of the London and Philadelphia chapters of the Dickens Society; and material concerning the popular coverage and scholarly study of the novel and potential endings, including manuscripts and printed articles from books, journals, and magazines, as well as research material compiled by noted Dickensian scholars J. Cuming Walters and William Robertson Nicoll. Throughout the series, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is abbreviated as "ED" or "MED," as originally noted by William Oliver. The series is divided into six subseries: I.A. Bibliographies; I.B. Edwin Drood serialization; I.C. Adaptations and derivatives; I.D. Critical works; I.E. Media; and I.F. Miscellaneous clippings.

Series II. comprises material related to Dickens's life and works, but does not include information specifically pertaining to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which can be found in Series I. This series is arranged into eight subseries: II.A. Correspondence; II.B. Bibliographies; II.C. Critical work; II.D. Dickens societies; II.E. Theater and film; II.F. Travel; II.G. Artwork, photographs and ephemera; and II.H. Realia. The series includes correspondence pertaining to Oliver's activities as a collector and his expertise in Dickensiana; extensive bibliographies; material pertaining to the activities of the Dickens Fellowship; Dickens-specific literary tourism; critical works relating to Dickens’s works and adaptations of those works; and realia.

Series III. comprises materials related to other Victorian-era authors who were acquaintances of and/or influences of or on Dickens, including Anthony Trollope, Emily Brontë, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Love Peacock, and artist J.M.W. (Joseph Mallard William) Turner. Also included are Oliver's notes on Turner paintings on view at the Tate Gallery in London; Turner and Dickens were cordial acquaintances. The largest number of items in the series pertain to Peacock, another collecting interest of Oliver's, which includes several critical articles on Peacock, an exhibition catalog, and a list of rare books for sale.

Series IV. consists of items that are not related to Oliver's interest in Dickens or general Victoriana and include clippings, correspondence, business cards, postcards, and other printed matter. Some of the items relate to Oliver's profession as a paleobiologist, including postcards and business cards from colleagues.