Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Amy Lowell, Book Collector

The Friends of the Fisher Library were very kind and let me (a friend in spirit though not in funds) attend a presentation at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library last week. As part of their regular lecture series, they invited Leslie Morris, a curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library to speak about poet Amy Lowell and her book collecting habits (Lowell's collection was gifted to Houghton in 1925, after her death). Lowell was born to a wealthy family who featured prominently in Massachusetts history - the town of Lowell was named for a relative and her brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell was a president at Harvard University. But the aim of Ms. Morris's presentation was to demonstrate that Lowell's immeasurably useful book collection was the result of decisive personal vision rather than mere entitlement or wealth.

Lowell grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts in a large estate named Sevenels for the seven Lowells who inhabited it. She was an avid reader as a child and collecting was always linked to the joy she took from books. Her first substantial purchase was a complete set of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels that her brother helped her buy from a bookseller in Boston when she was seventeen years old. They negotiated the price to accord with the amount she had to spend - Christmas money she'd been given to put toward books. (She would go on to be regarded as someone who drove a hard bargain and a forceful personality in general.) Lowell eventually inherited Sevenels and oversaw an expensive lifestyle, with a stable of gardeners to tend the estate grounds and frequent, elaborate trips overseas. But she had nowhere near the amounts of money available to collecting contemporaries like Henry E. Huntington and J.P. Morgan. Her books weren't purchased with disposable funds so much as with money that was carefully earmarked for what she believed were essential acquisitions. The late nineteenth to early twentieth century is considered the golden age of American book collecting. Assembling an impressive library was regarded as proof of intelligence and achievement, so captains of industry bought competitively with prestige and legacy in mind. Amy Lowell operated in this climate but her taste and mandate ran a different course. Her purchases were extensions of her individuality and meant to gratify herself. They were also, equally, tributes to the literature she championed.

My previous awareness of Lowell stems from my love of the Brontes. While conducting research for an essay I wrote about their early years, I learned that nine of the many tiny books they made in childhood had been given to Lowell by notable book collector and forger Thomas James Wise (a fascinating person in his own right). Lowell cherished the Brontes too and had several astonishing items in her collection. She owned a bible given to Emily Bronte by her father when she was nine years old, a special document since so few remain that memorialize her life and contribution to literature. Morris's lecture introduced me to the practice of selling duplicates in order to fund and improve collections. She detailed a dubious decision made at Houghton before her tenure. British bookseller Quaritch knew of Lowell's interest in the Brontes and offered her the opportunity to buy Patrick Bronte's copies of John James Audubon's The Birds of America, books peppered with his own inscriptions. Bronte acolytes are well aware of the influence of these books on the children. Still, since Houghton already owned copies of the Audubon set they improvidently sold this important piece of Bronte history.

As Lowell gained more experience, she developed clear parameters for her collection. She focused on literature and literary figures and prioritized autographs and "association books," of which Emily Bronte's bible and Patrick Bronte's The Birds of America are prime examples. "Association books" are typically volumes that belonged to or were annotated by someone of note, or passed between significant figures. For example, Lowell had a manuscript copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh that had been proofed and annotated by Robert Browning. Lowell was especially attracted to books that outlined an author's work or their relationship with publishers. She owned a document constituting a detailed plan of George Eliot's eventual Middlemarch in which the author listed chapters and the projected actions and characters they would include. Lowell also purchased the copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin that Harriet Beecher Stowe gave to George Eliot, including a letter Stowe wrote to Eliot, one author to another, outlining copyright issues pertaining to her novel's publication.

Since Lowell was a writer herself, it's perhaps the case that possessing works by esteemed colleagues enabled her to place herself in their lineage, to acknowledge a kinship to those who came before and illuminated her life and work. This effort was expressed most clearly in the case of John Keats, a poet Lowell had admired since her teenage years. Lowell identified herself as an Imagist upon reading work by contemporary poet H.D. She became an enthusiastic proponent of this school of poetry and part of her advocacy resulted in an exhaustive, two-volume biography of John Keats whom she claimed as a proto-Imagist. Lowell researched her account of his life by using her own thorough collection of letters and manuscripts (including a rare first edition of Lamia inscribed "to F.B. from J.K."). Her collection of Keatsiana is one of the best groupings ever assembled and has played an important role in Keats scholarship, generally. Morris allowed that there's something profoundly moving about handling a personal document issued from a great mind, such as a tender letter from Keats to Fanny Brawne. Lowell afforded herself this kind of immediacy by gathering items connected to artists she valued and installing them in her home library. Combing the details of how creative people express themselves brings their work closer. It humanizes their exceptionality by revealing that impressive works of art are a series of stages and brought about by everyday events like living in a particular place and being in loving contact with people. If you sit on the ground floor of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as I did, its stacks rise up above you for five levels encircling an open shaft of space. The starkly bright atmosphere typical of libraries is forsaken in favour of dimmer lights that protect books. As such, it feels hallowed. The walls lined with shelves house a prodigious output of documents covering centuries of human history. It conveys breadth of time but nearness too. After all, few activities are more intimate than holding a book in your hands, looking closely at its printed pages, and moving your fingers through its leaves.

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