Back in the days before World War II, Harvard's burgeoning collection of rare books and manuscripts overflowed the confines of Widener's so-called Treasure Room, and began to encroach on the rest of the library's second floor. The University appropriated some of the then-vacant land to the east of Widener and, shortly before Pearl Harbor cut off the the supply of building materials, Houghton Library was opened. Today it houses one of the finest collections of its kind in the world.
The building itself, constructed through the generosity of Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr. '29, has six floors, two of which are entirely occupied by stacks, and now contains approximately 250,000 volumes--100,000 less than it is capable of holding. Any comprehensive description of Houghton's contents is rendered virtually impossible by the extent of the collection. The catalogue of acquisitions reads like a literary Who's Who, covering all the major periods of Western literature.
The great part of the Houghton collection lies in the vast, rambling stacks which run underneath the building, with an annex under Lamont, reached by a long echoing corridor. The stack area is air conditioned, with the air being washed, filtered, and run between electrically charged plates, to prevent disintegration of the books. The temperature is kept constant, and the walls are fireproof. In fact the library is so carefully constructed that the only possible danger is that at some time a water pipe might leak and inundate the stacks. To guard against this remote possibility, the library has a number of leak detectors, protruding from the walls, and troughs beneath the pipes to catch any excess water.
As one walks through the antiseptic stacks, along the rows of first editions and rare presentation copies, the varied titles are continually dazzling. In one section are first editions of Frost, Thoreau, Longfellow, Melville. The library considers New England authors its special province.)
In another are Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev (Houghton's collection of works of Russian authors is the strongest outside of the Soviet Union, and, says William H. Bond, Curator of Manuscripts, "May be the best in the world for all we know.")
In a small room deep in the stacks, the books from Longfellow's personal library line the shelves. The Longfellow papers have already been catalogued, and the letters written to him are now being arranged. The books on the walls are drab and faded; on the fly-leaf of a copy of one of Emerson's works, in splotched purple ink is the inscription "To H.W. Longfellow from the old granddaddy himself, R.W.E."
Eventually, as one walks along, the first edition volumes end, and rows of black boxes take their place. These are the manuscripts, original autograph first drafts of letters and various other works, from most of the great authors of the modern period. Even a partial list of the manuscripts obtained this year would include such names as Bayle, Montaigne, Lamb, Gray, Kierkegaard, Southey, Wordsworth, Swinburne, Zola, O'Neill, Synge, and Yeats.
One of the most important, and certainly the best known, of all the collections at Houghton is the William B. Wisdom collection of virtually all the literary remains of Thomas Wolfe. This collection occupies rows and rows of the black boxes, all fielled with manuscripts pencilled in Wolfe's illegible scrawl, or typed drafts with autograph corrections. In the boxes are the complete manuscripts of three of Wolfe's four published novels (Look Homeward, Angel is in ledger form), all the short stories, most of the letters, and the tremendous amount of unpublished miscellaneous material which he had written along the way. The library has restricted a large portion of the papers because of their reference to persons still alive, and it will be years before the entire collection is available for scrutiny.
The Wolfe collection came to Harvard largely by chance. Shortly before World War II, Aline Bernstein, Wolfe's onetime mistress, the Mrs. Jack of the later novels, sold the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel at a public auction, to raise funds for the relief of Jewish refugees (a bit of irony for Wolfe had an avowed tendency toward anti-Semitism.) The book was sold under the stipulation that it was to go to a university, and the buyer gave it to Houghton.
Later, Maxwell Perkins, the executor of Wolfe's estate, sold the massive collection of papers that Wolfe left at his death, to William Wisdom of New Orleans. Wisdom wanting to keep all the Wolfe papers together gave them to Harvard because of its possession of Look Homeward, Angel.
When the Wolfe papers arrived at Houghton, they came in eleven large packing cases, with an aggregate weight of two tons. It took the best part of a year to get them organized and catalouged, and now they remain in the black boxes on the stack shelf, a little yellowing around the corners, perhaps destined to be the raw material from which another great work may in time be carved.
Not far from the Wolfe papers, along another aisle, five massive editions of the Tibetan scipture, the Tripitaka, lie wrapped with yellow burlap covers. This great work is a sort of Tibetan wonder book, combining holy writ with popular ideas on political and natural science. On the outside of each volume in addition to the insciption in the inscrutable and original Tibetan, are a number of small swatches of brilliantly colored, oriental cloth, which carry some mystic meaning to the rare cognoscentus.
The oldest piece of literature in Houghton is a fragment of Egyptian hieroglyphic material which experts date somewhere between 1500 and 2000 B.C. Houghton does not own much really ancient material, but its collection of medieval work, much of it in the form of medieval manuscripts, is particularly strong.
In addition to the manuscripts, the library posesses a striking collection of that rare bibliophilic genre, incunabula. These volumes represent the earliest of printed books, dating from the invention of the printing press in the middle 15th Century until 1500.
The incunabula, visible behind its glass casing in the first floor display room, is one of the few collections which can be seen by the public. The Keats collection, in a lavishly furnished, oak-paneled room on the second floor is another. It is the finest collection of "Keatsiana" anywhere. Including manuscript copies of three major poems Lamia, St. Agnes Eve, and Ode to Autumn, the collection contains two-thirds of the bulk of Keats' surviving manuscripts. About one-half of the collection was given to Harvard by Amy Lowell, along with many rare books from her own library; an addition, equal in size to the original gift was given later by Amory Houghton who occasionally adds new material.
The only other portion of the library accessible to the casual visitor is a series of rooms displaying samples from Houghton's unmatched theater collection. "Playbills, posters, prints, photographs, pamphlets, broadsides, sheet music, letters, documents, clippings"--everything pertaining to the theater in any form fills the theater section of the Houghton stacks. Old poster and playbills of Kean and Booth, the playbill for the Ford theater on the night of Lincoln's assassination, are some notable examples. One piece, P.T. Barnum's first advertisement, tells of his original sideshow: "Joice Heth . . . born on the island of Madagascar on the coast of Africa in 1674 who has now arrived at the astronomical age of 161 years. . ."
The nerve center of the library, at least as far as the casual observer is concerned, is the reading room on the first floor. It is locked and can only be entered if the curator at the front pushes a button which electronically releases the latch. Anyone presumably--student, faculty member, or accredited and interested scholar-may use the library material, regardless of its rarity.
The Library, however, is basically a quiet sort of organization which is quite happy to see the scholar, but not particularly interested in seeing anyone else. And justifiably so, for its facilities are adequate, even superb, but only for the sort of literary aristocracy which has a need for primary material. If anyone has a particular interest in an author or work it may be possible for him to see it in manuscript form at Houghton, but not to use it, if it is at all possible for him to use a secondary work.
The reading room operates on the same principle as Widener's, only there is no such thing as a stack pass. The small coterie of Ph.D. candidates and other devotees comes day after day from nine to five, with appropriate breaks, and may pore over the same ancient volumes for days. Others come and go, but these few remain, working closely with the reading room staff, who call them the "permanent members."
The library, however, does not exist solely for these few or the many groups of these few which accumulate over the years. Scholars come to Houghton from all over the world to study the manuscripts and rare editions. Houghton represents a major center for rare books and ranks with the British Museum and similar organizations in the eyes of international book dealers. Though Houghton is perhaps the organ of the university most entirely devoted to the intellectual aristocracy, its function is essential, and its contents will continue to grow at the present swift rate throughout the coming years.