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Collecting Dante from Tuscany: The Formation of The Fiske Dante Collection at Cornell University
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Collecting Dante from Tuscany:
The Formation of The Fiske Dante Collection at Cornell University

Daniel Willard Fiske (1831–1904) was a man of assorted ambitions and odd occupations. Indeed, the disparate facts that might constitute a biographical sketch would hardly seem to concern the same man: he was a nationally ranked chess player and the founder of American Chess Monthly; he worked as a clerk in a post office in Syracuse, New York, where he also wrote for the local newspaper; during his sophomore year at Hamilton College he was suspended for stealing firewood from the chapel supply; in the space of an hour after hearing the news of Lincoln’s assassination, he crafted a stirring editorial that was reprinted for years afterwards in dozens of newspapers and magazines; for the space of a year, he was married to a woman who died of tuberculosis and made him rich; he spent several years promoting the Romanization of modern Egyptian Arabic; he mastered perhaps forty languages; his favorite country was Iceland, though he visited only once; he spent almost a third of his life living in splendid villas around Tuscany.

Yet this series of facts—remarkable though it might seem—communicates little of Fiske’s actual biography and principal pursuits, which comprised serving as a professor of northern European languages at Cornell University and its first librarian, and distinguishing himself above all as a collector of books pertaining to his eclectic passions, including, notably, the subject of this essay: Dante.

I became interested in Fiske in 2000, when curiosity led me to research the origins of a collection of Dante books gathered by Rev. John Augustine Zahm, [End Page 185] C.S.C., at the University of Notre Dame, where I was then curator for special collections. I soon discovered that the little-known historic Dante library was third in size and completeness after the Dante collections at Harvard and Cornell. 1 Interested as to how and why these collections were formed at such diverse institutions all during the final decades of the nineteenth century, I embarked on an investigation of the surviving clues, whether they lay in library catalogs and reports, files of bookseller receipts and correspondence, or in the books themselves.

Thus, I initially encountered Fiske as a rival to Zahm, though I quickly learned how much greater a collector he was and how prominent in Cornell’s institutional history. Over the course of several extended visits to Cornell, I examined carefully most of the evidence that pertains to Fiske’s Dante collecting. There was much to sort through: nearly four hundred items of correspondence alone. From this investigation, I have tried to piece together not only the “how” of Fiske’s collecting, but also the “why” of it: why Dante, why Cornell—why then, why at all? What did it matter at the time that Fiske managed to assemble the largest collection of works in America by and about the author of the Divine Comedy, and what did his actions gain for those who came after?

To understand how and why Fiske assembled his Dante library, it will be helpful first to retrace the rough outlines of his biography in order to bring the sundry particulars cited above into a more coherent picture of his multifaceted character and career.2

Fiske was born in Ellisburg, a small town in northern New York, on 11 November 1831. When he was sixteen, the family moved slightly south to Cazenovia and later to Syracuse. On his father’s side, he was related to General Clinton B. Fisk (1828–90), for whom Fisk University was named, and Harvard historian [End Page 186]

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Figure 1.

Portrait of Willard Fiske, ca. 1900. Platinum print photograph by Michele Schemboche. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library (Daniel Willard Fiske Papers 13/1/348, Box 19; image ID: REX007_0006).

and philosopher John Fiske (1842–1901).3 From his mother’s side, he could claim two Harvard presidents and two Harvard librarians as ancestors. Nevertheless, [End Page 187] his immediate family being of humble station (his mother had to supplement the...