`I know how busy you are in your library, which is your Paradise.' - Erasmus to Bishop Fisher, 1524
I'VE always wanted to write a mystery set in The Boston Athenaeum, the elegant Beacon Hill library overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground and the graves of Paul Revere and Mother Goose. The big leather chairs in the reading room are perfect for Agatha Christie-like scenes of people looking up startled from behind copies of Punch or the Times of London.
Last year, to make space for other periodicals, the Athenaeum sold 230 volumes of its Times files from the 19th century.
My sleuth would not be Miss Marple but a former editor of this page, Miss Margaret Williamson, a commanding figure known not only for her erudition and her prose but also for her hats. I imagine her in the 1930s when a chronicler of Boston wrote: "In the afternoon the old gentlemen and the literary spinsters go to the Athenaeum for tea. And they have bouillon, or a pot of tea, cheese sandwiches, and sweet crackers for 3 cents. It was 3 cents a hundred years ago, and as it was in the beginning, so it shal l be forever more, for customs seldom change on Beacon Hill."
Tea is only once a week now, and the 3 cents has become $7.
Hard to imagine Miss Williamson being kept out of any place, but in an earlier age she would have faced the men-only policy that the Athenaeum would abandon much sooner than many elite Boston institutions.
What about the story that women had been excluded out of gentlemanly concern for their modesty on the high galleries along the upper shelves? Totally mistaken, says Rodney Armstrong, the Athenaeum's director and librarian, a long-time New Englander whose voice still has warm traces of his native South. He notes that the galleries are well shielded and that, in any case, women were admitted two decades before the present building at 10 1/2 Beacon Street was built in the 1840s.
It all began in a manner to serve my mystery agenda, with clues remotely connected to the White House.
The Athenaeum, one of the oldest independent libraries in America, was founded in 1807 by members of the Anthology Society, 14 gentlemen - including the Rev. William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo - who had gotten together to edit the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review.
This was later than the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731; but earlier than the London Library, which Thomas Carlyle nudged into being in 1841; and more than a century before such present libraries as the Morgan in New York, the Folger in Washington, the Linda Hall (for science and technology) in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Huntington in San Marino, California.
The Boston Athenaeum was deliberately patterned on the Athenaeum and Lyceum of Liverpool, England. Its proprietors and friends got together and bought (for nearly $4,000) a collection of autographed books that had belonged to George Washington. They recognized that "a nation that increases in wealth without any corresponding increase in knowledge and refinement in letters and arts, neglects the proper and respectable uses of prosperity." Or so wrote Josiah Quincy, congressman, mayor of Boston, president of Harvard, in his history of the Athenaeum.
In the Middle Ages, according to a library historian, people thought that the celebrated ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt - with some 40,000 volumes - was unimaginably vast. The Athenaeum today has more than 700,000 titles.
The Athenaeum's first librarian, William Smith Shaw, had a certain individuality. He was known as "Athenaeum" Shaw because he improved his time at dinner parties by spying books he would like for the Athenaeum and asking his hosts to donate them on the spot. He was also known for allowing one woman to come into the Athenaeum during lunchtime and do research in a sequestered room.
She was Hannah Adams, a niece of President John Adams and a cousin of Shaw himself, who was a nephew of First Lady Abigail (Smith) Adams. Why was Hannah's portrait commissioned from Chester Harding and hung in the Athenaeum's trustees room? Because in 1827 she became the first woman to gain permission to use the library freely during regular hours, and the Athenaeum has been open to women ever since.
Hannah Adams was also the first woman in America to make her living as a professional author, Mr. Armstrong says. In the 1850s, the Athenaeum became the first library in America to place a woman on its staff. In the 1970s came the first woman on its board of trustees.
So much for those of us who grew up in small-town America a century later thinking that all librarians were women. And not necessarily ones greeting boy readers like God's gifts to an educated work force. I still have a feeling of guilty-until-proved-innocent in the eyes of the ancient (to me) librarian who checked out my books at the front desk, moving her soft pencil in her translucent fingers with what seemed painful slowness but was probably just thoughtful care. Taking out books was not a required c hore or a hyped wholesome activity but an earned privilege.
Could it be that we kids wanted to read "library books" so much because they were a bit hard to get?
But I digress.
Miss Williamson introduced a few of us Monitor reporters to the Athenaeum toward the end of her Home Forum tenure in the 1950s. One of us became so much of a Samuel Johnson devotee that he began attending 18th-century literature conferences. Another developed a fondness for rare books.
I wound up as a member of the Athenaeum, coincidentally playing the drums against a backdrop of classical nude statuary in jazz concerts sponsored by Susan Morse Hilles, the first woman to become a trustee of the Athenaeum (in the 1970s). Naturally our band played "The Susan Hilles-Boston Athenaeum Blues."
One more hint of how far the Athenaeum has come - or gone, man, gone - from 1860. That was when Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, during the height of her husband's fame as a poet, lamented in her journal that there was no place to go except "the dreary Athenaeum."
The phrase is recalled by director Armstrong in his latest report, which notes some of the changes Mrs. Longfellow might see. Many involve the Athenaeum's extended hand to the community beyond its hallowed halls. One is a project called "Righteousness Exalteth a Nation: Abolition in Boston, 1827 to Emancipation," a joint venture with the Museum of Afro-American History and Boston City Hall. It will include an exhibition, a collection of essays, lectures, programs, and a specially commissioned opera to ha ve its premiere at Faneuil Hall. With libretto by poet Derek Walcott and music by T. J. Anderson, it will be called "Walker" for David Walker, the first black abolitionist martyr, whose last day the opera will dramatize.
Faneuil Hall got its name of "the cradle of American liberty" from Daniel Webster, an Athenaeum member who happened to become a member of the United States Senate from Massachusetts in the same year that Hannah Adams got free access to the Athenaeum.
The past year's events have ranged from an unexpected visit for tea by Mrs. Shulamath Shamir, wife of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to a juggling show for children, to a lecture on educational opportunities for native Americans, to the staged reading of a play concerning AIDS, to various exhibitions and the publication of a book, "Boston Lithography 1825-1880: The Boston Athenaeum Collection."
All still at 10 1/2 Beacon Street - thanks to one more of the women prominent in the Athenaeum's history, Mr. Armstrong recalled.
This time it was Amy Lowell, leader in the US of the poetic "imagism" practiced abroad by Ezra Pound, who accused her of "Amygism." Almost too implausible for my mystery, she smoked big black cigars and was known for saying what she thought.
The story goes that she was away when plans were developed to build a new building for the Athenaeum elsewhere in Boston. She heard about the move when she returned, and a cab driver asked her what she thought about it. "We'll see about that!" is one version of her reply. She thought the Athenaeum was in an appropriate building, and should stay there. She prevailed.
It's enough to bring back her much anthologized lines about New England: "... I speak to it of itself/ And sing of it with my own voice/ Since certainly it is mine." Or her lesser known lines about the Athenaeum (or perhaps any beloved library) itself: And as in some gay garden
stretched upon A genial southern slope,
warmed by the sun, The flowers gave their
fragrance joyously To the caressing touch of
the hot noon; So books give up the all
of what they mean Only when touched by
reverent hands, and read By those who love and feel as
well as think.
Or, as friend Margaret Williamson wrote in the Monitor's pages a half century ago, "The Boston Athenaeum remains itself. And, as long as this is so, who can say with justice that the great days of literary Boston have altogether passed?" This was in 1941, and she noted that the 3-cent tea included only one cookie, each additional cookie costing another penny. She couldn't know I'd be imagining her as a sleuth, but she tracked down the legend of a former Athenaeum frequenter, one David Crockett, who used to arrive in the morning with a small bag of gumdrops, "which candies he would proceed to set out at the end of his table at uniform intervals. As he read his history or his philosophy or whatever, he would munch down the line of gumdrops, and, when he had eaten the final one, he would glance up at the clock, reach for his hat and coat, and walk out. Do you think anyone cared or even noticed? Those gumdrops were Mr. Crockett's own concern and he ate them undisturbed."