University of Rochester Library Bulletin: New England Autographs in the Miner Collection

Volume I  · November 1945  ·  Number 1
New England Autographs in the Miner Collection

It is not generally known that there is in the Treasure Room vault of the Rush Rhees Library an interesting and sizable collection of manuscripts by the writers of the New England School. These pieces were formerly in the personal collection of Mr. Edward G. Miner, by whom they have been given to the University over a period of years. Because they arrived at various times, their existence as a collection has not been publicized; together with several similar items in the Charles A. Brown Collection and in the general autograph collection, they make an impressive array of New England pieces. Compared with other material which Mr. Miner has given to the University­his collection on yellow fever and cholera, the books on travel and transportation, and numerous items for the Local History Room - ­these manuscripts are but one of many notable donations from the same generous patron. Taken as a group, they show an impressive range of collecting interest, and an integration which is often lacking in institutional as well as private collections.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)

The cornerstone of any Lowell collection is the excessively rare Class Poem which Lowell wrote for the Harvard Commencement of 1838. Mr. Miner succeeded in securing for his library the pristine copy formerly in the Wakeman library -- the same pamphlet which Lowell inscribed, "Professor Pierce with the respects of the author."

The story behind the booklet is an amusing one. The position of Class Poet was an honored post at Harvard, and one morning in the spring of 1838 Lowell was elected to that position. He is rumored to have spent the balance of the day in "ambrosial jubilation"; full of good spirits and love for his fellow-men, he unwisely decided to attend the evening prayer service of the college. Wishing to make some public acknowledgment of the great honor he had received, he rose in his place and bowed ostentatiously to the assembled worshippers.

Harvard College was scandalized. Lowell's attendance at classes had been rather sporadic; there had been various light-hearted escapades; and this last breach of decorum was simply too much. The faculty met and voted that James Russell Lowell should spend the next few weeks in the home of the Rev. Barzillai Frost, of Concord, studying under the direction of that learned gentleman, and that Lowell must not return to Cambridge until the Saturday before Commencement.

This strict injunction meant that Lowell could not read his poem to the Class of 1838. Nothing daunted, he composed his piece in the quiet of Frost's home, and it was later printed in pamphlet form, at the author's expense, and distributed to classmates and other friends. The booklet does not bear the author's name, and it has become scandalously valuable.

The poem is the reflection of the aristocratic mind of the nineteen­year-old scion of the Lowells of Boston. The poet's later life denied many of his early lines; his innate conservatism changed somewhat under the influence of his wife and the pressure of the years. In the Class Poem he satirized Emerson, Carlyle, transcendentalism, women's rights, and vegetarianism; his fling at the abolition movement is the more curious in the light of other documents in the Miner Collection.

The "Professor Pierce" to whom the pamphlet is inscribed, and whose name is spelled incorrectly, was Benjamin Peirce. In 1838 Peirce was University Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy; in 1842 he became Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics, and was generally acknowledged to be the leader of his field in America. A man of wide learning and of many friendships, he commanded the love and respect of successive generations of Harvard men.

Perhaps the most striking Lowell material in the Miner Collection is contained in a bound volume of documents and pictures enclosed in a sumptuous solander case and labelled, "The Day of Small Things." These items were assembled in 1913 by Francis Jackson Garrison and are annotated by him in numerous places.

The principal manuscript is the famous poem now known under the title, "To William Lloyd Garrison," which occupies two sides of a quarto sheet. The story behind the poem is most interesting.

On October 2, 1848, the elderly politician, Harrison Gray Otis, addressed his last words to the country in a document entitled, "Letter to the People of Massachusetts." This address appeared in the Boston Atlas, and in it Otis upheld the candidacy of Zachary Taylor, which had been denounced by Webster. The old Federalist stalwart commented on the work of Garrison and the abolitionists: he had been Mayor of Boston in 1831, when The Liberator was founded, and had resisted all advice to suppress the publication. Otis wrote:

Sometime afterward, it was reported to me by the city officers, that they had ferreted out the paper and its editor; that his office was an obscure hole, his only visible auxiliary a negro boy, and his supporters a few very insignificant persons of all colors.

Lowell cut out this passage, pasted it at the top of a sheet of letter-paper, and wrote his now-famous address to William Lloyd Garrison, a forty-four line poem which begins:

In a small chamber, friendless and unseen,
Toiled o'er his types one poor, unlearned young man;
The place was dark, unfurnitured, and mean; 
Yet there the freedom of a race began.

The poem first appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on October 19, 1848. According to a note, the manuscript was preserved by the editor's family and was given to Francis Garrison (the son of the subject of the verses) in 1902.

Bound with this important item is the longer manuscript of the "Letter from Boston," a long, informal set of verses written to James Miller McKim, describing the participants in Boston's National Anti­Slavery Bazaar of 1846-47. McKim, who was related by marriage to Garrison, was editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, in which journal the piece first appeared, being reprinted shortly afterward in The Liberator. After another printing in 1859, the poem found a place in the third volume of the monumental life of Garrison prepared by his children; large-paper proof sheets of this appearance are bound in after the manuscript.

At Francis Garrison's insistence, Lowell included the "Letter from Boston" in the 1890 edition of his poems. Two notes, dated October 16, 1890, and October 21, 1890, written by Lowell to Garrison regarding a supposed error in the printing of the piece, are bound into the vol­umes, as is a letter which Lowell wrote to William Lloyd Garrison on December 29,1866. In this last letter Lowell sent a five-pound contribution from John Bright to the Garrison fund (a $30,000 testimonial for the reformer's work), and Bright's comment, "I know no nobler man than Wm. Lloyd Garrison, and no man more rejoices that he has lived to see the great day of freedom than I do."

This by no means completes the list of material contained in this important volume. A receipt for Garrison's contribution to the Anti-­Slavery Bazaar for 1846-47, and letters and portraits of all the persons mentioned in the "Letter from Boston" have been gathered together for their association interest. Items which bear on the abolition question were selected in all cases, and include letters from Maria Weston Chapman, Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, Edmund Quincy, Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury, Abby Kelley Foster, Stephen S. Foster, and William Lloyd Garrison himself. An essay could be written about each of these pieces, but lack of space prevents a more detailed account.

Still another Lowell item in the Miner Collection is a set of the first edition of The Poetical Works of James R. Lowell, published in Boston in 1858, in two volumes. One of the fly-leaves of the first volume is inscribed, "J. R. Lowell. Cambridge, 13th Novr. 1863. Written as an autograph for Miss Gertrude Colton."

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

In 1886, Houghton, Mifflin and Company published at the Riverside Press an elaborate edition of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, "The Last Leaf." Numerous illustrations were drawn for the work by George Wharton Edwards and Francis Hopkinson Smith. A large-paper edition of the book, signed by Holmes, the two artists, and the publishers, was issued in one hundred copies; copy No. 65 is in the Miner Collection.

The volume is interesting not only because of the format and the India-paper proofs of the etchings, but also because it contains a manuscript facsimile of the poem which Holmes wrote out especially for the edition.

Mr. Miner was not content to have the book alone. It has always been a challenge to him to supplement his books with letters and documents which illustrate the lives of the authors and subjects, as can be seen in this brief study of his collection. He also succeeded in acquiring the draft of "The Last Leaf," in Holmes' handwriting, which is reproduced in the volume. This is carefully written within ruled lines on three quarto sheets, and is dated from Beverly Farms, August 4, 1885. Another date shows that the poem was originally written in 1832, according to Holmes' recollection.

Another association piece is a note from Holmes to Smith, dated February 9, 1885, in which the poet makes an appointment to see the artist and talk with him about the book. Smith has endorsed the letter: "When I was illustrating 'The Last Leaf'."

Still another association item is laid into the book: it is a revenue certificate dated August 19,1816, concerning cargo of the brig "Orient," Marblehead. The sheet is signed by "Thomas Melvill, Naval Officer"  -- the original "last leaf" of Holmes' poem. The book and all three manuscripts are contained in a sturdy slip case, bound in brown morocco to match the other protective coverings of the Miner Collection.

Three Holmes letters are in the Miner Collection; the earliest of these is a four-page letter to Dr. Elisha Bartlett of Woonsocket, R. I.

This letter, dated October 6, 1853, links two great medical names of the period. Bartlett was a well-known authority on medical education, and was at the time Professor of Materia Medica and Medical Jurisprudence at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. He was prevented from actively filling this post by a lingering illness which resulted in his death in 1855, and Holmes' letter was written in an attempt to cheer his sick friend and give him the news of other acquaintances.

Holmes described his life at Pittsfield and went on to give the news of his cousin's engagement. This relative was Dr. J. B. S. Jackson, who was house physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Mention is also made of Dr. E. H. Clarke, whose work on Visions: a Study of False Sight, was issued posthumously in 1878 with an introductory memoir by Holmes.

Elisha Bartlett was a physician of wide learning and of broad views. His book on the fevers of the United States was long a standard work, and he had many common interests with Oliver Wendell Holmes. The letter shows Holmes in his role as the comforting friend, and is a splendid relic of one of America's best-loved physicians.

The other two letters are short notes written by Holmes in his later years. The one dated September 16, 1887, is mounted with a signed portrait to which it refers; and the second, dated September 18, 1894, acknowledges an appreciative letter and discusses the question of reconciling good and evil. In these pieces the courteous and obliging Boston gentleman appears, for Holmes was never-failing in his efforts to comply with all requests for his autograph and opinions.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Two fine Whittier manuscripts are in the Miner Collection. The better-known of these is "The Grave by the Lake," first published in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1865, and later incorporated into The Tent on the Beach (Boston, 1867).

The manuscript of this well-known poem is kept in a special folding case, and is in excellent condition. There are numerous corrections, and the text of the manuscript varies considerably from the poem as it appeared in the Atlantic. Of the 156 lines, no less than twenty-four have been altered; it would be interesting to have the galley proofs of the May, 1865, Atlantic to see how the poet actually revised his final version. The poem as it appears in The Tent on the Beach is the same text as the earlier printing.

Another manuscript by Whittier is encased in an elegant green morocco binding, with two original photographs of the poet. This is the rough draft of the poem, "My Double," which Whittier wrote at the age of eighty.

Whereas "The Grave by the Lake" reflects Whittier as nature-lover and philosopher, "My Double" shows him as a humorist and public figure: both poems reveal his antiquarian interests. "My Double," only two-thirds of which was completed in the rough draft in the Miner Collection, was read by Professor J. W. Churchill of Andover on July 4, 1888: the occasion was the unveiling in Amesbury of the statue of Josiah Bartlett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Whittier did not attend the ceremonies, but imagined himself to be there, and wrote a humorous poem describing the dignitaries present, the audience, and the statue itself. The poem was handed about to a small circle of friends, and was first printed in S. T. Pickard's Whittier-Land in 1904.

It should be borne in mind that these are but a few items which have come from Mr. Miner's library; they comprise a group of autograph material in which any library could take pride. It seems fitting that they should be chronicled in the first issue of this publication, another library venture in which Mr. Miner has played a large part.