Harvard inherits Samuel Johnson papers

March 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON - The Houghton Library at Harvard University has inherited the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of material relating to Samuel Johnson. It is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive compilations of 18th-century rare books, manuscripts and personal correspondence.

The collection offers an intimate look at the private and professional lives of Johnson and his literary contemporaries. It contains more than 4,000 rare volumes and 5,500 manuscripts and letters between Johnson and his acquaintances. It also holds more than 5,000 prints, drawings and objects, including Johnson's engraved silver teapot and a portrait of him by Gilbert Stuart.

Mary Viscountess Eccles, a scholar and bibliophile, began amassing the collection with her first husband, Donald Frizell Hyde, a New York lawyer, soon after their marriage in 1939. He died in 1966; she married Lord Eccles 18 years later. Lady Eccles died in August at 91, leaving the collection to the university.

Leslie A. Morris, the library's curator of manuscripts, said in an interview that she hoped to have the material, which arrived last month in hundreds of boxes, archived, cataloged and fully available to scholars and students within two years. Portions may be accessible earlier.

"I don't know of another collection of 18th-century literature that rivals this," said James Engell, a professor of English literature and of comparative literature at Harvard. "It brings one much closer to the life of the time and gives a less mediated view of history."

The collection holds the only known copy with untrimmed pages of the first edition of Johnson's 1755 dictionary, the first in the English language. It also contains corrected proofs of James Boswell's biography of Johnson as well as letters exchanged between the two men.

Morris said she did not have a dollar value for the collection. But Harvard is not measuring its worth in monetary terms.

"To a scholar, it's priceless," Engell said.

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