The Curious History of the Boston Athenaeum
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: University of Massachusetts Press
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Table of Contents
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List of Illustrations
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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...
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Introduction: Boston’s Confl icted Elite
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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
Chapter One: The Collector
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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 ...
Chapter Two: Sweet Are the Fruits of Letters
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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
Chapter Three: A Woman Framed
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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...
Chapter Four: Ornament for the City
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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
Chapter Five: The Color of Gentility
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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...
Chapter Six: Pamphlet War
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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...
Conclusion: Ex Libris
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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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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...
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Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 28 illus.
Publication Year: 2009