Old worlds

“Poetry, as well as History, has consecrated the achievements of Columbus.  But we must leave, for the present, to History and Poetry the pleasing task of dwelling on individual characters.  The appropriate researches of the Antiquary aim at objects less exposed to ordinary notice, yet illustrative often of the interests of nations.”  So said William Jenks, pastor and professor, as he gave the first anniversary address to members of the American Antiquarian Society on October 23, 1813, at King’s Chapel in Boston.*

From Catalogue of the Illustrated Americana Collection, owned by James F. Hunnewell

Yet at the 200th anniversary of the Society, it has been the work of the curators of our Grolier Club exhibition, In Pursuit of a Vision, to celebrate the individual antiquaries and collectors (and their collected objects) who have helped to build the Society’s collections.  And what a pleasing task that must have been.

The exhibition features several works donated by James M. Hunnewell (1879-1954), son of the great collector of Americana, James F. Hunnewell (1832-1910), including Hunnewell Sr.’s own annotated copy of his privately printed 1873 library catalog.  A revised catalog, which is here at AAS, features many works, fitting for this Columbus Day, by or about Columbus that are not featured in the exhibition.  These items eventually came to the Society in a July 1941 gift of Hunnewell, Jr., and include a 1483 copy of the same edition of the Imago Mundi used by Columbus as well as a set of facsimile copies of Columbus’s letters, several of which were limited to an edition of five copies.  When he wrote to Director Clarence Brigham in May 1941 to offer the items, Hunnewell’s generosity was clear:  “I think I spoke to you quite a while ago as to whether the Society would like to have a small, but quite fine, collection of early or rare reprints of Columbus letters and other special material pertaining to the discovery of America…[I] would be very glad to turn over this collection to the society.”

Washington Irving's 1828 edition of "A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus" (gift of Isaiah Thomas).

The gift also included a Venice, 1571, copy of Ferdinand Columbus’s biography of his father.  Washington Irving once called the biography by Ferdinand, collector and bibliophile himself, the cornerstone of American history.  But others have feared the work spurious, as the biography is no longer extant in its original Spanish, and the only surviving edition is the 1571 Italian translation by Alfonso de Ulloa.  Regardless, interpretation is not necessarily the antiquarian’s role.  As Jenks said at our first anniversary:  “Indeed some knowledge of antiquities is indispensable to the historian, if not to enable him to describe with accuracy the subjects of his record, yet at least to form a sound judgment of their character and importance.”

* Jenks gave his address on Columbus Day (October 23, New Style, or October 12, Old Style, the day Columbus first landed in the West Indies)

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