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After months of financial belt-tightening, Harvard College Library (HCL) announced last Friday that a major donation of rare 18th-century books, paintings and artifacts has checked in to Houghton Library.
The bulk of the gift, given to Harvard by the estate of celebrated book collector Mary Hyde Eccles, contains original letters, drafts and manuscripts written by Samuel Johnson, the writer and scholar widely known for creating the first modern English dictionary in 1755.
Johnson, a massively inspirational literary force, produced a diverse body of work that includes political journalism, poetry, essays, fiction, fairytales and drama.
According to Gurney Professor of English Literature James Engell, the newly acquired materials will be a resource for students and faculty.
“I was delighted to hear the news,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for Harvard University, and it’s a wonderful thing for the scholarly world as a whole. That material now simply belongs to the world of letters, and you know that it’s going to be preserved.”
In accordance with Hyde Eccles’ will, Harvard received her entire 18th-century literary collection, which, in addition to the Johnson writings, includes materials by his colleagues and friends.
“What’s always exciting about it is to introduce a group of juniors who are working on their thesis,” HCL Curator of Manuscripts Leslie Morris said of the acquisition. “They may have read the Penguin edition of Boswell’s Life of [Samuel] Johnson, but to show the corrected proof of the book brings the process of creation and the history of literature much closer.”
The collection will be housed in Houghton’s Donald Hyde Memorial Room and will be made available to students and faculty after two years of cataloguing.
Engell, Harvard’s resident expert on Johnson, says that he is eager to incorporate the Hyde collection into his English courses as soon as it becomes available.
“I think it’s invaluable as a teaching aid. It brings it to life in a way a modern printed version never does,” Engell said.
According to Engell, the collection at Harvard will attract scholars from all over the world in a way that Hyde Eccles’ private library never could, despite its open-door policy.
Morris said that under Hyde Eccles’ ownership, anyone who demonstrated a legitimate research interest could access the collection.
“They didn’t try to keep it secret,” she said. “They had a very nice library in their home in New Jersey, and all of the noted Johnson scholars have worked there over the past two generations.”
Engell has spent his share of time in the Hyde Eccles’ private collection, examining handwritten poetry and studying Johnson’s composition style through marginal notes and corrections.
Fearrington Librarian of the Houghton Library William P. Stoneman said the collection will serve as a portal into the scholarly dialogue among Johnson’s friends and colleagues.
“This is a kind of intellectual community. They’re not only inscribing books to one another, but they’re writing notes in the margins, and making corrections and annotations,” he said. “These people really come alive in the pages of these manuscripts and books.”
Hyde Eccles, who died last August, began her collection in the 1940s in collaboration with her first husband, Donald Hyde, a Harvard Law School graduate. According to Morris, Hyde was an equally enthusiastic collector, and soon after their marriage the pair became acquainted with Arthur Houghton ’29, Houghton library’s original benefactor and librarian.
Soon, the Hydes had broken into the circle of American collectors.
Hyde died suddenly in 1966, but his wife continued expanding their library, which according to HCL has swelled to some 5,500 letters and manuscripts; 5,000 prints, drawings and objects; and 4,000 volumes. Although Johnson’s writing are at its center, the collection also includes a multitude of other works, such as a Hamlet quarto and an extensive body of Oscar Wilde materials.
As she expanded the library, Hyde Eccles’ ties to Harvard also strengthened. For 25 years, she served as an active member on several Harvard Board of Overseers’ Committees.
In 1983, she became honorary curator of Eighteenth-Century English literature in the Harvard University Library.
Morris said that Hyde Eccles made her first donation to the University in 1968 when she and Houghton established the Donald Hyde Memorial Room on the second floor of the rare books library.
Hyde Eccles had always intended for the area to house the Johnson collection, said Morris.
“Clearly her plan from the day her husband died was for the collection to come to Harvard, and she followed through with her plan,” Stoneman said.
Much of the remaining Hyde collection was distributed to institutions like the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery and New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library.
Certain items, however, will go to the auction block on April 14 at Christie’s. The proceeds will go to a number of institutions, including HCL.
—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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