She wrote, “Posh library. Sanctuary for eminent Bostonians. Brahmin enclave. There has always been a mystique surrounding the Athenæum“.
Yet when, as young woman, Katherine Wolff discovered the Boston Athenæum’s fortress-like door, she wasn’t intimidated. Curious, she entered. I asked if coming from the state of New Jersey, so far from the compass of Beacon Hill’s shadow, had much to do with her being undaunted by the Athenæum’s stately façade or, more importantly, its exclusive reputation.
“No,” she told me “I’ve always been a trespasser.”
Scholarship often requires trespassing in areas of thought which people have portioned off, re-examining institutionalized understandings, and delving into private lives. Wolff does this and opens the door for the curious in Culture Club: the Curious History of the Boston Athenæum, recently published by University of Massachusetts Press.
Educated Bostonians being some of the most textually self-referential people ever, the Boston Athenæum has already been written about, repeatedly and at length. Wolfe turns this into an advantage, as the time is right for someone to write not only a new history of the Athenæum, but also a fresh histiography as well. Wolff has some fascinating things to say about what has already been said, elucidating points by putting them in the context of her own theories.
Class-based interpretations of the Boston Athenæum dominate scholarly analysis. But Wolfe believes that prominent scholars have been distracted by rigid ideas of high and low culture. She also calls the emphasis on separating high culture from popular entertainment “a particularly American preoccupation.” So, rather than focusing her discussion on class, Wolff concentrates on culture. She examines the role the Athenæum played (or failed to play) in shaping the evolving identity of the young United States. She looks at “the vexing relationship between democracy and culture.” In these things, she places emphasis on the “emotional history” of matters personal, aesthetic, and political.
The author describes how certain early Americans looked to the lowest ranks of English aristocracy for a genteel, yet seemingly-meritocratic, model to follow. Her description of the Athenæum’s origins in “the attempt of a worried and self-conscious group of anglophilic readers to ennoble their nation through a purposeful institution” doesn’t necessarily contradict what she calls “the founding myths,” but it’s more candid, better contextualized, and easier to grasp emotionally.
While sharing a sense of stewardship, members haven’t always agreed who and what they are stewarding. Opposing personalities and contradictory ideas have resulted in conflict. The principle of accessibility versus the benefits of separation is a matter of perennial concern. Some of the most interesting pages of this book explore these various tensions.
Adding to the curious history of the Athenæum are colorful characters, some with well-known names or pedigrees that add interest. In seeking to illuminate the emotional lives of these people, Wolff poured over intimate letters exchanged between its 19th century founders, a process she likens to “going back in time only to eavesdrop.”
When Katherine Wolf lectured at the Athenæum last month, her main subject was the correspondence between William Smith Shaw and his intimate friend Arthur Maynard Walter. Shaw, formerly a private secretary for his uncle John Adams, was a bibliomaniac collector of all things written. While his relationship with the younger Walter may have not been physical, their emotion-charged messages had the tropoi of love letters.
Wolff’s revelation that Walter died at age 26 brought gasps from the audience. She opined how the Athenæum then became, in effect, Shaw’s “new lover.” She mentioned how a contemporary even kidded Shaw by referring to it as “your Grecian wife.”
Though her book is appropriately objective, Wolff is under the Athenæum’s spell as well. Standing before a truly gigantic painting of one of the Perkinses, facing a rapt audience seated between a Gilbert Stuart and busts from Jefferson’s breakfast room, she describes the Athenaeum as a “perfect space.” It does have many endearing old charms.
The building holds an art collection of unimaginable value, and galleries feature new exhibits, but it’s not really a museum. The author, who admits to being a “library addict,” reminds us that the Athenæum was and is, firstly, a library. In this, it’s very much a living place. It’s even a welcoming place, and the ranks of its membership are permeable.
Wolfe points out the sort of lectures and reading groups increasing seen in public libraries is similar to what the Athenæum has been doing all along. It’s true, but the Athenæum retains a refined and idiosyncratic character that keeps it distinct. Photography is forbidden past the threshold, but one may enter with a well-behaved dog. In the reading room, the air is disturbed only by the perfume of fresh floral arrangements–the pitterpat of laptop use is not allowed.
Shaw’s “Grecian wife” is so fetching, one might overlook that serious research takes place here. The Athenæum has important resources for inquiry into local, American, and English history. As Wolff mentions, most of the interior is reserved for paid members and researchers with proper credentials. While the annual membership fee is more than a token sum, it’s not exorbitant. Easily, one could spend as much on just a few hours of diversion (dinner and a show, a sporting event) rather than a year’s access to one of the city’s most pleasant and fascinating places.
Katherine Wolff, who received her doctorate in American literature and history from Boston University, began formal analysis of Boston Athenæum history while she was still a student. When asked what she would work on next, she laughed and said “maybe a children’s book” before hinting that she had ideas for more grown-up books as well.
Culture Club: the Curious History of the Boston Athenæum is engagingly and written and full of intelligent analysis. If your personal library has well-worn texts by Thomas H. O’Connor, this book deserves a place alongside them. It could be an appropriate text for courses in Boston history, post-colonial identity, and various topics in American Studies.
Editor’s Note: The Boston Athenæum offers heavily discounted memberships to those under 41 and does open up its doors to the public for art exhibitions and some of its lectures. Those with more interest might be interested in this 1851 history or this 1907 one (both now in the public domain and thus downloadable) as well as this video on the Brahmin accent,
featuring two old blue bloods in, I’m pretty sure, the Athenæum.