The Collector

How do you break writer's block? Fly to Tierra del Fuego, of course

Published in 2005 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2005

From a kid collecting postage stamps in his old Cleveland neighborhood to a world traveler speaking on his rare books at the Library of Congress is not such a leap, in attorney Robert H. Jackson’s world view. For Jackson, all his collections — from yesterday’s stamps through today’s rare books, manuscripts, prints and ceremonial swords — form one long continuum in his journey to make sense of the world.
 
Besides his many collections, Bob Jackson plays many roles: He is a senior partner at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz in Cleveland, where he specializes in mergers, acquisitions, leveraged buy-outs, workouts and public offerings. He is also a private equity investor, as well as an officer or trustee of museums and other nonprofits.
 
In his late 60s now, he acquired the first book in what was to become his collection as he was crossing the threshold into his 40s. The Trees by Conrad Richter cost only $10. Jackson bought it because inside the book he found a letter from Alfred Knopf, founder of the publishing house. Knopf, writing on the day Jackson was born, talked about meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. The lover of good books and great writing was captured.
 
He describes the experience as “nostalgic,” but there is no sentimental haze around the word. For Jackson, nostalgia forms a bond with the past that compels present action.
 
One example: His collections include the work of the early-to-mid-20th-century artist, illustrator and writer Rockwell Kent. Jackson takes pleasure in acquiring knowledge along with objects, knowledge he is frequently asked to share. But dreaded writer’s block struck in 1988 when he was preparing a presentation on Kent for the Rowfant Club in Cleveland. Instead of loosening his brain by walking around the block as another writer might have, Jackson packed his bags and flew to the island of Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America so he could “stand where [Kent] stood and see what he saw.” The drastic change of environment and the island’s primitive landscape helped his pen flow again.
 
Undaunted, he and his wife, Donna Jackson, have traveled to more than 100 countries, “collecting experiences,” she says, as well as art objects and ceremonial armaments. “We have been robbed in Afghanistan, shot at in Yemen, and we dined with cannibals in New Guinea,” he writes in an article.
 
His book collections roam in a variety of fields unrelated to each other. His William S. Burroughs archive includes an original manuscript of the 1959 surrealist portrait of drug addiction, Naked Lunch.
 
He collects modern literature, Victorian literature and pre-1850 American fiction (he donated parts of that collection to the Library of Congress). He honored the birth of his first grandchild by donating part of his Southeast Asian manuscript collection to the University of Chicago. She is, he believes, the only living person to have a collection there named after her. And she hasn’t even seen it. She was 5 in August, and may need a few more years before she can appreciate it.
 
When he’s tired and needs a pleasurable read, Jackson turns to science fiction or the Victorians. Dickens, he points out, was a massmarket author. His books, like those of Thackeray, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Elliot and Anthony Trollope, were published in small paperback “serials.” For a shilling in London or twelve cents in New York, readers could immerse themselves in Nicholas Nickleby’s latest adventure, just as we might tune in regularly to find out what was happening with our Friends.
 
In the mid-1990s, a complete serialized copy of David Copperfield sold for $34,000 at Christie’s in New York. Fifty such serialized books from Jackson’s collection of several hundred were exhibited at the Grolier Club in New York in 1996 and reviewed in the New York Times.
 
Jackson won’t discuss the value of his collections. He keeps a few things in safe deposit boxes, but mostly the books, art objects and artifacts fill his home and office. “You can’t have a collection where you don’t have access to it,” he says. “If you do, you’re not a collector, you’re just a curator.”
 
He says of the African ceremonial swords, “We acquired them individually … as the opportunity presented itself. As each new blade arrived I placed it in my office, usually on a long windowsill so that they formed a group silhouetted against the indirect light of the northwestern sky.”
 
“Traveling, collecting, and writing are my ways of attempting to make sense of the world,” Jackson has written. “They bring order to my relationship with the universe, and provide a sense of calm.”

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