- In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society
When I stepped into the Grolier Club in New York City to see In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society for the first time, a number of questions came to mind: what was the nature of this vision? How had the AAS chosen roughly two hundred objects from its more than four-million-item catalogue to represent itself to the public? And what public did it have in mind for the exhibit? Was it a broad lay audience interested in US history? An audience of book and print historians? Of librarians? Or of early-Americanist scholars like me, many of whom have been deeply influenced by the AAS, and who increasingly understand America in hemispheric, culturally fragmented, and linguistically complex terms? An audience, in other words, for whom “America” has gradually been untethered from the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century nation-building impulses that led to the founding of societies like the AAS, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, among many others—impulses that shaped the field and had purchase over it for most of the twentieth century.
These were the wrong questions to ask for several reasons, not the least of which being, as the exhibit makes abundantly clear, that these audiences overlap in elegant, sometimes obvious, and often startling ways. Indeed, even as the academic profession has shifted its gaze over the past two decades, this shift would have been unthinkable without the continued engagement of archivists and librarians at institutions like the AAS, who have been equal partners in reconfiguring the field of study. One gets a glimpse [End Page 527] of this partnership within moments of setting foot in the spacious ground-floor exhibit room at the Grolier. There, in the upper-left-hand corner of the first display case, overshadowing the items around it, and the most readily legible from a distance, is not a work of William Bradford’s or John Winthrop’s, not a representative piece by one of the Mathers, and not a Revolutionary tract, but a 1770 broadside whose title proclaims “Phillis’s Poem” in bold type. There is no question about who Phillis is in this instance, though one must step a little closer to see that the remainder of the title, printed in noticeably smaller font, is “On the Death of Mr. White-field.” And yet the specific poem is almost secondary to the jolt of seeing Wheatley’s name displayed so prominently. A jolt, not because she isn’t a prominent figure in early-American studies, but because of how thoroughly that prominence has now been institutionalized. To be sure, the poem is only the third document in the exhibit catalogue, listed after two earlier pieces set in type by AAS founder Isaiah Thomas (the first of which when he was six), but in drawing our eyes to Wheatley as a starting point celebrating the society’s two-century vision, the exhibit curators send an unmistakable signal about the complex and multiple trajectories of both the AAS and early-American literary history.
I take it as one of the exhibit’s great strengths that getting at the precise nature of its vision—or visions—is no easy thing. One might begin, for example, by stating that this is emphatically not an exhibit that focuses primarily on literary or print history, though the materials on display offer important reflections about both fields—often through unexpected, if not uncanny, juxtapositions. In Pursuit of a Vision is, rather, a self-conscious celebration of the “generosity and farsightedness of the selected collectors, book dealers and librarians” who made the AAS what it has been for the past two centuries, and what it will be in the future. In this vein, the clearest articulation of the AAS’s vision is provided by Thomas, who wrote to members of the society that “we cannot...