Our book today is a bit of a specialty item, I readily admit: it’s the sturdy volume commissioned and printed in order to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the venerable Boston Atheneum, Boston’s great private library, and right away we’re on squishy ground, since the long and torturous history of the Atheneum could admit of half a dozen founding moments.
The date chosen by this present volume, The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum, is 1807, the year the Atheneum was formally incorporated in the spring in Scollay’s Buildings, roughly were Scollay Square would develop a century later (and which was unconscionably bulldozed and paved over in 1962 to make way for the monstrosity that is the current Boston City Hall). It was in the spring of 1807 that the Atheneum’s five trustees, William Emerson, John Thornton Kirkland, Peter Oxenbridge Thatcher, William Smith Shaw, and Arthur Maynard Walter, took over what had been the dear old Anthology Society and made what had been a rambling and ad hoc affair into something regular and official.
The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum takes that 1807 date as the essential birthday (disregarding the half-dozen earlier premises and collections, a disturbing number of which met their end in blazing infernos), and in 1907 its authors could write very stirringly (if ornately, in the orotund style of the day) of its special character:
It is in no sense a private place, yet it has qualities of privacy as fine as those houses where the very fact of your reception is in itself a subtle pleasure. It is not a public place, where the whole world may jostle you until you wonder whether in some better world than this you may find yourself, if you are good here, among angels without elbows; yet it has the impersonal generosity of such publicity as makes your presence in its halls and alcoves a cordial matter of course.
I’ve been a member of the Atheneum for a very long time, and although there’ve been whole years where I hardly darkened its doorstep once in twelve long months’ time, there’ve been other years when I could honestly say I needed the place, needed its tasteful Edwardian splendor, needed its respectful proximity to the Old Granary Burying Ground (watching cold winter rain fall on the grave of Samuel Adams), needed most of all the sacrosanct peace and quiet of its fifth floor.
And it’s fair to say that the time most closely chronicled in this volume – from roughly 1870 to 1900 or so – was the heyday of the place, “the most memorable centre of intellectual activity yet developed in English speaking America.” This wonderful old volume rattles off the famous names – most now forgotten – who helped to bolster the reputation of the place: dear old Hannah Adams in her bonnet, George Barrell Emerson, Francis Crowninshield, Nathaniel Bowditch, Thomas Wren Ward, Charles Eliot Norton, Francis Parkman, Lemuel Shaw, Edward Lowell, Samuel Gridley Howe, joyless Charles Francis Adams, handsome, generous young George Bemis (whose special connection, donated to the library, is detailed in these pages, although that bare listing can’t do much to suggest the bright light of the boy, the joy of knowing him), William Hickling Prescott, caustic Josiah Quincy (whose wicked humor glimmers in the portrait done of him by Gilbert Stuart that now hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, ignored by visitors even when it’s pointed out to them), and all the others, hundreds of scholars great and small making their way to 10 ½ Beacon Street with what Barrett Wendell here perfectly describes as “eager catholicity of taste.”
He sums it up nicely:
The Atheneum has never taught us to be critical; yet it has never suffered us to be smugly content. There is ineffable charm in the outlook from its quiet windows, on the old burying-ground where the Boston generation which Copley painted lies secure. Their gray stones – particularly in the warmth of summer when the grass springs about them and the trees grow rich with shade – bring us fantastic intimations that this world of ours springs from a root deep in ancestral New England soil. And we turn from this assurance of our fellowship with our fathers to the persistent voices of elder ages and of younger, whispering from the friendly array of books here within our very reach.
It’s an older and somewhat vanished Atheneum featured and celebrated in these pages – the hallmark of which was the grand, reverie-inducing Sumner staircase, which is long gone now (in fact, it’s depressing to realize, by now everybody who ever climbed those stairs is long gone as well). But the building is still there, and the tall windows of the upper floors still look down on the peace of the old burying-ground (and across now at an immense new Suffolk Law Library) – and there’s peace for the living, too, especially when they most need it.