Honored relics

Hidden away at the hinge of New York where the behemoths of commerce give way to the residential area of Park Avenue, a small but finely proportioned building nestles inconspicuously. This is the Grolier Club, the habitat of book collectors, fine printers and (sometimes) lovers of literature. Recently between more recondite shows there has been displayed in the great exhibition hall a collection of seemingly odd and unrelated objects. Upon inquiry they turned out to have been the possessions of famous writers, gathered by bibliophiles and preserved against the hazards of time.

Here, for example, was Dr. Johnson's teapot. ''I suppose,'' said Boswell, the great man's biographer, ''no person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf.'' At least, the present-day observer concludes, he had an appropriately elegant vessel in which to brew the liquid. Here, too, is Dr. Johnson's door-knocker. It does not take too much imagination to see the object begin to move, to hear its healthy whack, and to see one of Johnson's friends - Garrick, for example, or Edmund Burke or Goldsmith - standing on the doorstep.

The writers most honored by the number of their material relics are Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Both were immensely loved, and their spell has been cast over far-off times. Dickens has been remembered in this exhibition by the tools of his trade - and what a prodigious master he was! We find his inkpot, pen wiper, quill sharpener, letter opener - and his snuffbox. Stevenson, ever the romantic, is recalled in vivid colors by a carved gourd, a grass mat from his home in Samoa, and a ring fashioned by the natives of the island which he wore as a good omen when he sat down to write.

Seeing such a collection of objects, one is fascinated by the way a whole man can be conjured up by some small possession. Of Burns there is at the Grolier Club but the showing of a single silver button - yet Burns suddenly comes strangely close to us. Of Housman we have only his eyeglasses and a pocket watch. Does one not discover in these the portrait of that incurable pedant - searching closely for the errors of his scholarly peers, keeping a stern gaze fixed upon mortal time. A pedant, yes: but subject to passions as overwhelming as ever afflicted a knight-at-arms. Other objects are as tellingly evocative. Emily Dickinson's small hourglass, Lewis Carroll's microscope, Henry James's cane - these are like so many images of the whole man or woman.

Single objects can bring to life more than an individual; they can restore an age. I like, for example, the briefcase of M. Voltaire. It was of sumptuous red leather, and the gold tooling was in a style one would expect to see upon great books. All the elegance of the eighteenth century, all its taste and refinement, resided in one material possession. One cannot say as much of George Bernard Shaw's purple socks or S.J. Perelman's well-traveled suitcase. But Jonathan Swift's two silver candlesticks tell much of the age for which he wrote his searing satires.

That men and their belongings get mysteriously intertwined, each influencing the other, has often been noted. Locke wrote that a man mixed his labor with the soil, thereby making it his own; and this, he thought, was what gave all private property a kind of sanctity. People feel less than themselves when robbed of their possessions. Their personality has been invaded, their uniqueness diminished. Yet the time comes in every life when one is ready to begin casting off the burden of things.

A lady of my acquaintance, now in her nineties, wrote the other day that she had begun giving away to members of the younger generation the precious belongings of a lifetime, the silver, the jewels, the bibelots. ''I cannot tell you,'' she said, ''how happy and how free I feel. I have guarded these things long enough. Now it is for someone else to do.'' And so it must be for our poets and men of letters - for Balzac who has gotten rid of his silver tobacco box, for Melville who has shed his small brass tray brought back from the South Seas. They are free; and we are the happy keepers of what they once possessed.

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