Go West for 'Hamlet'
| Los Angeles
Read the following closely: To be or not to be, I here's the point, To die, to sleep, is that all? I all: No, to sleep, to dreame, I mary there it goes, For in that dreame of death, when wee awake, And borne before an everlasting judge. . .
Not quite how you remember "Hamlet" from Senior English, is it? The mistakes are so obvious, you chortle at the idea that anyone would have thought it was Shakespeare and the book it's in could be a rare collector's item.
Henry E. Huntington bought the line and the book. Shakespeare, in fact, did write those lines, verbatim, and well before he penned the more familiar version: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing, end them? To die: to sleep; No more. . .
The two versions are to be found, one in the first and one in the second printing of Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Hamlet." Even Shakespeare didn't always get it right the first time.
Scholars who want to examine the original texts must go, not to some prestigious English university or an institution as imposing as the Bristish Museum, but to the Huntington Library, which owns the only known copies of these two printings. There in this discreet, if often smoggy, corner of Los Angeles they will find the largest collection of early Shakespeare editions -- sonnets, comedies, tragedies -- in the world.
In fact among its other art and literary treasures the Huntington Library can boast of one of the world's most impressive collections of English and American historical and literary manuscripts of all kinds. It owns Benjamin Franklin's handwritten autobiography, hundreds of thousands of letters, and items ranging from the report card of an 18th century English schoolboy to a dining car menu from a transcontinental train in the days of America's Old West.
Back around the turn of the century, Mr. Huntington, heir to the Southern Pacific Railroad fortune, decided to make his adopted city of Pasadena the cultural jewel of the West. The nearby 600-acre San Marino Ranch he bought in 1903 seemed the place to start.
Between 1911 and his passing in 1927, Mr. Huntington purchased a dozen complete libraries, most of them to his house at San Marino. He started an art collection that included Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and the Lawrence portrait "Pinkie" and became the most comprehensive collection of British art outside London. And it was during this time that he arranged for the planting of a large and varied botancal garden, which eventually covered 130 acres.
Some thought Mr. Huntington was polishing up the San Marino Ranch merely to make southern California more inviting for his wife, Arabella. She moved in the cultural circles of New York, London, and Paris, and since there was a conspicuous absence of cultural circles in Los Angeles at the time, the Huntingtons decided to create their own. They transformed their working ranch into the semblance of a rolling East Coast estate in a style only money can buy.
The Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens, as the place is properly called has become a mecca for scholars of Anglo-American civilization. Huntington's contemporaries thought spending large sums of money on the likes of property deeds was misguided. Few of them questioned his wisdom in plunking down Gutenberg Bible, but there was some misgivings over his plan to truck such a treasure off to "a bunch of orange groves in California, where no one would see (it)," says head librarian Daniel Woodward.
Today the library has roughly 600,000 books (about half of them rare) and something on the order of 5.5 million manuscripts, Dr. Woodward says. "We haven't counted them all, and, I might add, we're not about to. That would take forever."
Referring to the researcher who in 1968 discovered the changes between the first and second editions of "Hamlet," Dr. Woodward comments that "what he did was what most people don't bother to do. . .look at the early editions. . . This fellow was simply not content with a reprint, and, by George, he discovered something."
Even more than books, though, manuscripts provide a window on what life was like in the days when people had time to write endlessly about their thoughts and their lives. If it was worth saying, it was worth writing.
The Huntington's most spectacular example of this is the Stowe papers chronicling 500 years in the life of the Stowe family. Some half a million papers range from minor sales receipts to property deeds, personal letters, and diaries. None of them is staggeringly significant in itself, but together they give a glimpse of the life of a fairly typical, albeit aristocratic, English family.
A school notebook, for example, comments that a young Stowe lad was earning reasonably good grades but needed to study harder. The young daughter on the other hand had picked up a disturbing Irish brogue.
"By 1924," says Dr. Woodward, "Mr. Huntington had decided that he wanted more than a collection of treasures. He wanted a research institute. Here in the Stowe papers was a research collection."
The Huntington papers are by no means confined to English history. Frederick Jackson Turner and Max Farrand, two of America's foremost historians, left all their papers to the institution, and Dr. Woodward recently bought the papers of poets Wallace Stevens and Conrad Aiken, each collection containing about 4,000 items.
The library's senior research associate, American historian Ray Billington, splits his time between research at the Huntington and teaching at Northwestern University. His most recent book examines the way Europeans thought of the American frontier (crops grew instantly; land was practically free; wages were high; and ferocious alligators waited at every turn to devour the unsuspecting traveler). To write it he studied such firsthand sources as Huntington steamship advertisements, lettes between relatives separated by the Atlantic, diaries of people about to embark on the voyage to America.
"What one gets from these documents is a picture of society," comments Joel Hurstfield, an Englishman, Elizabethan scholar, and senior research associate here. He is working on a biography of Robert Cecil, Secretary of State for Queen Elizabeth I. "The hardest part of working with the 16th century is to get a view of the domestic conditions. . .One might already know the public views of a person like Cecil (he was accused of being corrupt), but one gets the whole picture by reading his thoughts on the matter in his letters to friends."
If visitors grow tired of reading about English aristocrats, they can saunter across the grounds to the art galiery to see what they looked like. As well as one of the most eminent collections of British portraiture in existence, the gallery boasts a prize collection of drawings and watercolors by British comic artist Thomas Rowlandson.
"Basically, we have a very specialized art collection," says curator Robert Wark. The whole building represents a total view of what would have been produced artistically in England during the 18th and 19th centuries."
The "building," as he calls it, is the palatical structure where the Huntingtons lived (actually, the estate served only as an occasional residence), and the paintings are hung the way they were meant to be, in a home, and a very wealthy one at that.
"The advantage of specializing lies in being able to build strength and establish national and international eminence," continues Mr. Wark. "It means special benefits for someone who wishes to use the collection on a more scholarly, serious, study basis. We have rich resources for somebody interested in British culture in the 18th and 19th centuries."
The art collection was recently "reinforced," as Mr. Wark puts it, by a bequest of 42 important paintings. They include a strong representation of French 18th-century art, several English works, and a portrait by Rembrandt and one by Van Dyck.
Impressive though they are, the art gallery and library are given a cursory once over by many of the Huntington's visitors. The grounds offer, without a doubt, the best "walk" in Los Angeles County. There are huge expanses of lush, green lawns with nary a "Keep off the Grass" sign. To maintain them in pristine condition, chief botanist Myron Kimnach presides over their destruction every October. The museum is closed that month, and the lawns ripped up and reseeded. "It's the only way we can keep them looking this way," he notes.
Ten different gardens -- with 9,000 plants and over 100,000 specimens -- are spread out over 130 acres. The 12acre Desert Garden contains the world's largest outdoor collection of cacti and succelents and over 2,000 species of desert plants. The Camellia Collection includes more than 1,500 different varieties. A profusion of rose beds traces that flower back 2,000 years. The Japanese Garden breathes its tranquility and serenity.
The Huntington's picture of tranquility is not quite complete, however. It has lately experienced some odd growing pains.
Some half a million people find their way to Huntington every year, and a lot of them were parking on the street, to the dismay of the residents of this very wealthy community.
The problem escalated when Huntington director James Thorpe embarked on an ambitious building expansion program. (This move also ruffled the feathers of a considerable segment of his staff, which feels the Huntington should be preserved as Mr. Huntington left it.) Unpleasantness surfaced at hearings for city approval of the building, and the problem now has settled into an uneasy solution.
The institution has paved over some 30 acres of its grounds for a 4,200-car parking lot. Since weekend crowds were the worst, San Marino officials now require that visitors secure parking tickets in advance. People who drive up to the gate without a ticket are turned back, regardless of whether or not the parking lot is empty. The system is so effective that the lot is seldom more than a quarter full on Sundays.
The Sunday "solution" and the gasoline crunch combined[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] lop about 100,000 off last year's attendance figures over the year before. The drop doesn't hurt the institution financially, since attendance is free, but it has produced some grumbling about the need for a multi-million-dollar expansion program.
Mr. Thorpe insists that the building plans "point to a deepening and enrichment of our operation to make it more available to scholars and the public. . .to make the opportunity for using the resources equal to the quality of the resources themselves."
Then there are the bookworms not overly zealous researchers, but real worms, which devour the books. When the library's exhibition hall was redesigned, Mr. Thorpe and Dr. Woodward moved some rare books to a narrow balcony overhanging the main hall. Bringing those books out of the cool vaults and into a heated public room has allowed book worm larvae to hatch (they cannot be destroyed by fumigation, only put in limbo with cold storage), say certain members of the library staff, including some of its antique book experts, and they are eating up those rare books.
The official position, says Huntington spokeswoman Katherine Ann Wilson, is that there are no worms eating up these books.
Such issues don't interest the Joel Hurstfields and Ray Billingtons, who use the library, not only for the information it contains, but out of a personal sense of passion and reverence for books. "Suddenly, when you are reading these books, you get this curious feeling of continuity," says Mr. Hurstfield. "It is exciting to read somthing in (Winston) Churchill's hand. . . He used to sign letters to his ministers 'WSC.'" Mr. Hurstfield. "It is exciting to read somthing in (Winston) Churchill's hand. . . He used to sign letters to his ministers "WSC.'"