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Culture Club

The Curious History of the Boston Athenaeum

Katherine Wolff

Publication Year: 2009

Founded in 1807, the successor to a literary club called the Anthology Society, the Boston Athenaeum occupies an important place in the early history of American intellectual life. At first a repository for books, to which works of art were later added, the Athenaeum attracted over time a following that included such literary luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James. Yet from the outset, Katherine Wolff shows, the Boston Athenaeum was more than a library; it was also a breeding ground for evolving notions of cultural authority and American identity. Though governed by the Boston elite, who promoted it as a way of strengthening their own clout in the city, the early Athenaeum reflected conflicting and at times contradictory aims and motives on the part of its membership. On the one hand, by drawing on European aesthetic models to reinforce an exalted sense of mission, Athenaeum leaders sought to establish themselves as guardians of a nascent American culture. On the other, they struggled to balance their goals with their concerns about an increasingly democratic urban populace. As the Boston Athenaeum opened its doors to women as well as men outside its inner circle, it eventually began to define itself against a more accessible literary institution, the Boston Public Library. Told through a series of provocative episodes and generously illustrated, Culture Club offers a more complete picture than previously available of the cultural politics behind the making of a quintessentially American institution.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv

Dedication

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p. v-v

Table of Contents

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p. vii-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Preface

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pp. xi-xvi

Posh library. Sanctuary for eminent Bostonians. Brahmin enclave. There has always been a mystique surrounding the Boston Athenaeum. For the academic, especially, the place poses a challenge. Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum raises issues about the mood of a young nation and the promise of American cultural institutions. My initial research questions sounded simple enough. How did the Boston...

Chronology

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pp. xvii-xviii

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Introduction: Boston’s Confl icted Elite

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pp. 1-12

When the United States was two centuries younger than it is now, all books were considered precious. Book collections grew slowly and required wealth as well as great effort. Those who cared about books were always among the most privileged members of a community, and those who gathered to read together sensed a responsibility, an expectation of leadership...

Part One: Enterprise

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Chapter One: The Collector

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pp. 15-34

In the raw days of December 1800, twenty-two-year-old William Smith Shaw watched his uncle, President John Adams, relinquish leadership of the United States. Shaw had been serving as his uncle’s private secretary for the previous two years— his first position after graduating from Harvard—and his impressions of Philadelphia and the new capital of Washington had, like ...

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Chapter Two: Sweet Are the Fruits of Letters

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pp. 35-59

The Boston Athenaeum was invented by men who understood the power of symbols. In nineteenth- century America it was customary for a new institution to choose an emblem, a seal or “device,” for offi cial purposes. By the spring of 1812, five years after incorporating, Athenaeum members had begun to entertain various designs. A few ideas were passed back and forth before trustees approved the final prototype: an image of three putti harvesting...

Part Two: Identity

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Chapter Three: A Woman Framed

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pp. 63-80

From a half- length portrait on a wall of the Trustees’ Room in the Boston Athenaeum, the author Hannah Adams halts her reading momentarily and stares into the middle distance. Her painted image provides clues about the workings of cultural capital, the way status can be acquired through the display of distinct taste. Unlike most portrait subjects on exhibit at the...

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Chapter Four: Ornament for the City

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pp. 81-106

During the Summer of 1823 the paint er Chester Harding was riding, as he put it, “the top wave of fortune.” His studio on Beacon Street, near the site of the present Athenaeum, was cluttered with the faces of Boston’s most powerful citizens. Pictures leaned here and there throughout the largest room. “I can see the portraits ranged on the fl oor, for they succeeded each other so rapidly there was no time to frame and hang them,” wrote a family friend to...

Part Three: Conscience

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Chapter Five: The Color of Gentility

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pp. 109-129

A type of house hold merchandise, briefl y in vogue in antebellum Boston, celebrated both abolition and British superiority: curiously decorated thimbles, pitchers, crib quilts, bookmarks, pens, watchcases, and cups (fig. 5.1) were distributed at annual bazaars organized by the women of the Boston Female Anti- Slavery Society. These items often boasted abolitionist insignia...

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Chapter Six: Pamphlet War

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pp. 130-147

Any Bostonian who happened to browse in the city’s Daily Advertiser on March 24, 1853, would have encountered an angry article in defense of the Athenaeum. Perhaps the newspaper reader, indifferent to elite infighting, would have passed over the piece. But perhaps he or she would have proceeded with interest, curious about the fate of this important institution, as well as the future of an embryonic city library about which much fuss was...

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Conclusion: Ex Libris

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pp. 148-151

In The American Scene, Henry James noted, with heartbreak, how “snubbed” the Boston Athenaeum had looked to him upon returning to Beacon Street in 1904. Its facade overshadowed by taller buildings, the poor Athenaeum showed James “how much one’s own sense of the small city of the earlier time had been dependent on that institution.” Beside the “brute ugliness” of newer buildings, the Athenaeum looked “hopelessly down in the world.”...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 152-154

Libraries are extraordinary places. They are central to the experience of reading, to the satisfaction of literary curiosity and appetite. And, as I now know, libraries point to assumptions about culture: definitions of identity (class, race, gender), hierarchies of disciplines and genres, establishment of professions, and shifting boundaries between edification and plea sure. I first became interested in the history...

Biographies

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pp. 155-160

Notes

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pp. 161-195

Index

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pp. 197-204

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761779
E-ISBN-10: 1613761775
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497139
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497137

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 28 illus.
Publication Year: 2009