Wednesday, October 21, 2009

American Heroes

The legendary Edmund S. Morgan, emeritus professor of history at Yale and authority on Colonial America, has published his eighteenth book, American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America. The link is to a review of the book in the Washington Post. The book consists of seventeen essays, three previously unpublished and fourteen not previously available in book form. The essay of particular interest to readers of OOTJ appears as Chapter 2, "Dangerous Books" and was written in 1959. Morgan recounts an anecdote about a scholar he encountered at a meeting of book collectors who pointed out a book printed in 1625 that was in nearly pristine collection. The scholar said he hoped the book would remain in that condition, unlike the books at Harvard, where "professors [were allowed] to go [into the library] and read ... any old time they have a mind to.'" This observation got Morgan to thinking; he came to the conclusion that

[T]here is no more insidious instrument of change than a library in which professors or students or people in general are allowed to read the books.

In fact, in view of what books have done to change the world, it is strange that those who fear change have not succeeded in burning them all long since. The trouble with books is that people will read them. And when they do, they are bound to get new and dangerous ideas. Libraries are the great hothouses of change, where new ideas nursed into being and then turned loose to do their work. And the ideas are not always benign. One thinks at once of Karl Marx, laboring through the musty volumes of the British Museum and emerging with those notions that turned the world upside down. Or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris--how much, one wonders, did its volumes contribute to the French Revolution?

Morgan goes on to give a concrete example from Colonial America, the Yale Library, which "in the eighteenth century took command of the college, subverted the purposes for which it was founded, and transformed it into something utterly different ..." It is a fascinating story, previously unknown to me, and Morgan tells it well. My favorite portion has to do with Jeremiah Dummer, a Harvard graduate, who arranged "an extraordinary donation" of books to Yale's library in 1714. In 1708, Dummer had moved to England, where he served "as agent for the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut." Dummer "recognized that what Yale needed more than anything else was books, and, since England was full of authors and patrons of authors, he ... persuade[d] them to donate some of their favorite works to [Yale]." Around 180 individuals, including Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Sir Hans Sloane, and Richard Steele, donated more than 500 books. Morgan paints a vivid portrait of the arrival of the books in New Haven:
The unpacking of the crates must have been a moment of singular excitement and curiosity for students and faculty. Here was an enormous variety of riches ... None of those who first opened the volumes and leafed through them could have recognized the full dimensions of what had happened. A century of English literature, science, philosophy, and theology was spread before them. It was as though a group of men today had studied nothing but the textbooks of a hundred years ago and were suddenly confronted for the first time with Darwin, Marx, Hegel, Freud, and Einstein, all at one blow.

For many, of course, it was simply too much to comprehend. To be handed a years' work to do may not be an altogether pleasing experience. And it was a long time before the full effect of the new books was felt. But New England was never the same after their arrival ...

One of the individuals most affected by the new learning contained in the books was Ezra Stiles, a minister who became president of Yale. "[P]laced in reach of the Yale Library, [Stiles] would soon arrive at a number of heretical ideas," one of which was that the Bible was not the word of God. Having "read himself to the edge of deism," he was able to read himself back and conclude that "the Bible was indeed divinely inspired." Like Jeremiah Dummer before him, Stiles wrote to authors all over the world, "begging copies of their works for the college library." As president of Yale, Stiles "not only let the students read what they wanted but encouraged them to discuss controversial questions in every field of thought." Today, this open discussion of controversial issues is part of the college experience, or should be; however, in Colonial New England, this was a radical and courageous position to take.

Morgan concludes the essay with a stirring defense of libraries:

...[W]hile libraries exist, where students and scholars can go to the original sources and discover the facts for themselves, all efforts at control will be futile. The only way to make a library safe is to lock people out of it. As long as they are allowed to read the books 'any old time they have a mind to,' libraries will remain the nurseries of heresy and independence of thought. They will, in fact, preserve that freedom which is a far more important part of our life than any ideology or orthodoxy, the freedom that dissolves orthodoxies and inspires solutions to the ever-changing challenges of the future. I hope that your library and mine will continue in this way to be dangerous for many years to come.

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