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February 2012, Volume 6, Issue 2


From the Director's Desk                                                                  

 Dear Members and Friends of the Boston Athenæum:
The odd thing about famous birthdays is that they occur without nearly the fanfare they are remembered with later. Who would have imagined, for example, that the two most revered American presidents would have both been born in February? Of course we are particularly devoted to Washington because of our collection of one-third his personal library.
February also includes an unusually rich selection of literary birthdays entirely worth remembering. Besides our own Amy Lowell, born February 9, 1874, in nearby Brookline, there are fellow poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, W.S. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Samuel Butler, Andre Breton, and James Dickey; playwrights Berthold Brecht and Christopher Marlowe; children's book authors Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume; pioneering science fiction writer Jules Verne; Victorian art critic John Ruskin; and novelists Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Victor Hugo, Boris Pasternak, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Muriel Spark, William S. Burroughs, and Alice Walker.
Gertrude Stein, who more or less openly defies classification as a writer, was born on February 3 in a western Pennsylvania city that, she was pleased to report later, no longer exists. At the age of four, she moved with her family to Oakland, California, of which she famously said: "There is no there there." It is not known what she thought of the month of February.
The early Christian martyr we know as Saint Valentine, by the way, was buried on February 14 on the Via Flaminia north of Rome. He was born on April 16. Very little else is known about him and the Romantic traditions around his role as patron saint of lovers most probably dates only from the later Middle Ages. Valentine remains in the official list of saints of the Roman Catholic Church but, in light of the scarcity of known facts about him, was removed form the General Roman Calendar in 1969. But don't let that keep you from mailing out Valentines this month.
Events worth mentioning for February include our Winter Concerts, which continue through February and March. The February 14 concert features music for flute and piano with Orlando Cela and pianist Aaron Jackson, followed by a special Valentine's Day reception. The Winter series will feature, in particular, twentieth-century American piano music on our splendid Steinway, generously donated last year by Proprietor Katherine Duffy. All concerts are free and open to the public, so please bring your friends; reservations suggested but not required.
February is also the last full month to see "Artists' Books, Books by Artists," the Calderwood Gallery exhibition organized by Stanley Ellis Cushing, the Anne C. and David J. Bromer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. This wonderful show closes March 3, so, if you haven't seen it, be sure to stop by as soon as you can.
With all best wishes for the month of Valentines and Presidential Birthdays,

Paula D. Matthews
Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian
"For parted Joy, like Echo, kind,
Will leave her dulcet voice behind,
To tell, amidst the magic air,
How oft she smiled and lingered there."
"To My Father on His Birthday," Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Credit for image above: Sweetheart Mine, ca. 1907. Chromolithographic valentine. Collection of the Boston Athenaeum. Gift of Evelyn M. Coker, 1952.
Credit for bookplate: Proprietors' Fund, established in 1976, bookplate designed by Leo Wyatt of Will Carter.


Gantos Wins Newbery Medal


Congratulations are in order for Athenæum proprietor Jack Gantos, who has just won the 2012 John Newbery Medal for the best children's book, Dead End in Norvelt. The award was announced on January 23 by the American Library Association. Jack is a local author who can often be found at the Athenæum researching and writing.


Suzanne Terry

Children's Librarian

Washington's Encyclopedia

In the spring of 1848, a group of patriotic Bostonians, horrified that the largest surviving portion of George Washington's library from Mount Vernon might be sold to the British Museum, created a subscription fund, at $50 a share, to secure the collection for Boston. They succeeded. When the new Boston Athenæum building opened at 10 ½ Beacon Street just a few months later, the Washington Library became one of its principal and best-loved treasures. The Athenæum has been the collection's proud home ever since. You can see the collection today in the Trustees' Room on the fourth floor.


As you may already know, late last year the Athenæum was offered another important piece of Washington's library (and of American literary history): nineteen volumes of the president's personal copy of the first edition of America's first encyclopedia, Encyclopedia; or, a Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (Philadelphia, 1790-98 and 1802-1803). More than 163 years after that first subscription for Washington's library, the Athenæum established a second drive to secure George Washington's encyclopedia for Boston.


George Washington actually ordered two sets of this first American encyclopedia, to encourage others to support this patriotic publishing effort, the most challenging in the young country's history. This is the first set, used by Washington in the last seven years of his life and preserved by the family of his beloved aide and secretary, Colonel Tobias Lear, to whom Washington gave it just two and a half years before the president's death.

I'm delighted to say that a steadily growing group of generous contributors, under the leadership of Trustee David Ingram, has already brought us three-quarters of the way to the full purchase price by subscribing to one or more $1,000 "shares." So, beware: the chance to be part of this historic acquisition will soon vanish. The next time we mention the Encyclopedia will likely be to announce its reunion in your Athenæum, after more than two centuries, with the other books from this most important collection. If you want to become part of the Athenæum's history, you can contact me at (617) 720-7682 or


Robert Ashton

Director of Development


Credit for image:  Horry, Charles. A Five Minutes Answer to Paine's Letter to Genl. Washington. (London, Printed by L.F.J. Gransart, 1797). Author's presentation copy to Washington. Gift of the subscribers to the Washington's Library Fund, 1848.