Eliot Book Room Exhibits Treasures

About 40 students got a rare peek at even rarer letters and books Sunday afternoon as Eliot House celebrated the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the F.O. Matthiessen Room.

The historic room, also known as Eliot C-11, served as the office of Professor of History and Literature Francis Otto Matthiessen until his 1950 suicide—and now houses the Matthiessen Memorial Library’s 1,600 volumes, which constituted Matthiessen’s working library.

Most of Harvard’s more valuable manuscript holdings reside not in residential Houses but in Houghton Library and the University Archives.

Since the room’s dedication, guests of the University—including visiting professors and Matthiessen’s biographer—have used the library, even sleeping on the room’s fold-out couch, but there have been few public exhibitions of the room in the past few years.

Kevin P. Van Anglen, the keeper of the Matthiessen Room, said he hopes to make the room more available to students and hold more public openings in the future.

Currently, supervised entry to the room is possible through the Eliot House Office.

“I definitely think people should go to the Matthiessen Room when they have a chance,” said James A. Gray ’04, who attended the opening Sunday. “It only takes 10 minutes or so, and there’s a lot of historical and literary knowledge to be gained.”

The room contains a small portion of Matthiessen’s voluminous correspondence and copies of the works of his contemporaries—many of which are stored at Yale, where Matthiessen received his bachelor’s degree.

Newspaper articles, drafts of speeches and signed, typewritten letters supplement the books on display.

Many scholars credit Matthiessen with first establishing American literature as an individuated art form in his seminal 1941 study The American Renaissance, which focuses on 19th-century authors including Whitman and Melville. While some modern critics find its focus on white male New England writers too narrow, Van Anglen said it remains influential.

After receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1927, Matthiessen became the first senior tutor of Eliot House and the chair of the board of tutors in history and literature. In 1942, he joined the Faculty as a full professor.

One letter to Matthiessen from T. S. Eliot, Class of 1910, is a reply to a dinner invitation. Matthiessen knew Eliot when he was Norton professor of poetry—and an Eliot House resident—in 1932-3 and in 1935 Matthiessen wrote the first critical book on Eliot.

Also on display were first editions of Eliot’s The Dry Salvages (1941) and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) as well as a lecture Eliot gave on Milton.

The oldest possession on display was a 17th-century edition of Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives given to Matthiessen.

Shakespeare, who used this translation as a source for his plays, ranked among Matthiessen’s academic interests.

A draft of Matthiessen’s speech to second the 1948 presidential nomination of Progressive candidate Henry Wallace—with his own edits in blue pen—hangs on the wall.

On April 1, 1950, Matthiessen jumped from the 12th story of a Boston hotel.

According to Van Anglen, Matthiessen’s political disappointments and the death of his partner Russell Cheney were likely factors that prompted his suicide.