Culture Club

Culture Club: The Curious History of the Boston Athenaeum

Katherine Wolff
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Culture Club
    Book Description:

    Founded in 1807, the successor to a literary club called the Anthology Society, the Boston Athenaeum occupies an important place in the early history of American intellectual life. At first a repository for books, to which works of art were later added, the Athenaeum attracted over time a following that included such literary luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James. Yet from the outset, Katherine Wolff shows, the Boston Athenaeum was more than a library; it was also a breeding ground for evolving notions of cultural authority and American identity. Though governed by the Boston elite, who promoted it as a way of strengthening their own clout in the city, the early Athenaeum reflected conflicting and at times contradictory aims and motives on the part of its membership. On the one hand, by drawing on European aesthetic models to reinforce an exalted sense of mission, Athenaeum leaders sought to establish themselves as guardians of a nascent American culture. On the other, they struggled to balance their goals with their concerns about an increasingly democratic urban populace. As the Boston Athenaeum opened its doors to women as well as men outside its inner circle, it eventually began to define itself against a more accessible literary institution, the Boston Public Library. Told through a series of provocative episodes and generously illustrated, Culture Club offers a more complete picture than previously available of the cultural politics behind the making of a quintessentially American institution.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-177-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Boston’s Conflicted Elite
    (pp. 1-12)

    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 with respect to the general citizenry. Books smelled of leather and sometimes even of surf; most were imported from London on cargo boats and retrieved by dealers who met the ships in harbor. Well-traveled symbols of cosmopolitanism, books represented erudition. They reinforced...

  7. Part One: Enterprise
    • CHAPTER ONE The Collector
      (pp. 15-34)

      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 so much of his early life, been recorded faithfully in letters to his college friend Arthur Maynard Walter. In the recent election, Vice President Thomas Jefferson had campaigned against President Adams. Now the votes were cast, and young Shaw, deeply troubled, used his...

    • CHAPTER TWO Sweet Are the Fruits of Letters
      (pp. 35-60)

      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 official 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 fruit in an idyllic orchard, with the mottoliterarum fructus dulces(“sweet are the fruits of letters”) festooning the scene (fig. 2.1).¹ To state that an institution’s emblem is...

  8. Part Two: Identity
    • CHAPTER THREE A Woman Framed
      (pp. 63-80)

      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 present-day Athenaeum, Miss Adams (1755–1831) looks as though she could have been a servant or a house keeper (fig. 3.1). Never married, she is elderly and plain—paradoxically, both delicate and durable. In this painting, she is all goodness....

    • CHAPTER FOUR Ornament for the City
      (pp. 81-106)

      During the Summer of 1823 the painter 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 floor, for they succeeded each other so rapidly there was no time to frame and hang them,” wrote a family friend to one of the artist’s ten children.¹ Indeed, “Harding fever,” as fellow artist Gilbert Stuart would call it, raged in...

  9. Part Three: Conscience
    • CHAPTER FIVE The Color of Gentility
      (pp. 109-129)

      A type of household merchandise, briefly 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 and sayings designed to keep the problem of slavery before the public eye, “and by every innocent expedient to promote perpetual discussion,” according to the influential abolitionist newspaperThe Liberator. Shoes with trample not the oppressed printed on their soles were sold alongside banners that read slavery abolished in...

    • CHAPTER SIX Pamphlet War
      (pp. 130-147)

      Any Bostonian who happened to browse in the city’sDaily Advertiseron 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 being made in the local papers. City leaders were launching a public library, and many people considered the Boston Athenaeum the obvious site for this new civic...

  10. CONCLUSION: Ex Libris
    (pp. 148-152)

    InThe 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.”¹ These brief observations occur in the larger context ofThe American Scene, where James bemoans the direction of his native country. What he longs for is almost ineffable. He misses...

    (pp. 153-154)
    (pp. 155-160)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 161-196)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 197-204)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-205)