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Culture Club

His methods were Machiavellian. Supplied with information from periodicals and catalogues, Shaw composed a long wish list of British books, including the reference works desired by merchants, “as most of our subscribers are of this class.” In 1806 he wrote from Boston, dictating to Buckminster a plan for acquiring books:

I would beg leave to suggest to you the expediency of selecting a confidential bookseller in London—promise that we will purchase all our books from him—let him supply us with all our newspapers magazines & c, in short everything we shall want from England—tell him that our institution promises to be a permanent one—that we shall probably send to England from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars per year to be expended in books—With such inducements, I should thing someone might be persuaded to make considerable exertions to comply with our requests.ix

The uncomfortable posture Shaw adopts seems both necessary and painful. Inducement, persuasion, confidentiality, and promises abound. With a contortionist’s skill, he distorts the facts of the Athenaeum to impress a distant audience. It was disingenuous to guarantee the institution’s permanence and to promise a single bookseller that he alone with “supply us with … everything we shall want from England.” Shaw knew both assertions were highly speculative. Efforts were already being made to commission other agents, who would no doubt contact other booksellers. And the Massachusetts legislature had not yet officially recognized the Athenaeum as a city institution. Nevertheless, Shaw urges his friend to push the Athenaeum’s agenda with “every generous American” there. “I think it is your duty,” he writes, unabashedly. “The gentlemen of the Anthology society desire to be particularly remembered to you,” he continues. “We now meet in Congress Street under the same roof with the reading room—Our subscribers gradually increase and the publication seems to be rising in reputation. The booksellers and printers begin to think us of some consequence and send us most of their publications.”x The impression of the Anthology Society that Shaw conveys to Buckminster here, in December of 1806, is also misleading. The fiscal health of the group and its Monthly Anthology was in decline. Just a few months earlier, the Anthology’s publishers, Munroe and Francis, had written to Shaw that in their opinion the publication must cease unless it could win more subscribers.xi

Anticipating the expectations of a London audience, Shaw’s correspondence with Buckminster was strained by bald exaggeration and unspoken worry. Shaw wrote what he believed Londoners needed to hear in order to grant Americans respect—and, of course, books. The boasts continued into the spring of 1807, as Shaw intones to his friend, “Depend upon it, that the establishment of the Athenaeum, the rooms of which are to be always accessible at all house of the day, is one of the greatest strides toward intellectual advancement that this country has ever witnessed.” The exceptionalism of the Athenaeum was to be its selling point: the place is represented as groundbreaking and newsworthy. One senses hope in this claim but also hyperbole beyond what would be expected of its librarian. From the beginning of this correspondence, Shaw’s efforts on behalf of the Athenaeum were linked with his own emotional stake in the enterprise. He mixed business with pleasure by requesting from Buckminster books for his personal library as well: “I send you one hundred dollars on my own account with which I wish you to procure for me the best edition of Shakespears plays with all the prefaces notes commentaries & c which I suppose to be Reids—Dr. Aikens edition of Dr. Johnsons Dictionary in 4 vols & both to be well bound in calf—Dibdins bibliographical work and if these would not amount to one hundred dollars any other books you may please to procure for me.” Access to London bookdealers was evidently too fine a thing to pass up. These few letters from Shaw to Buckminster underscore the fragility of the American self-image, and the feverish need to fill shelves.xii

In the decade that followed there would be much public handwringing about “the literary delinquency of America.” A short detour into the discourse of the Boston-based North American Review shows that intellectuals of the time searched self-consciously for the causes of their reliance on European literature. In an unsigned article published in 1815, the author writes, “The truth is, we have wanted literary enterprise, and been sadly deficient in general intellectual courage … The literary dependence to which we have been long reconciled, has become so much a part of our character that the individual who ventures to talk about surmounting it is thought the wildest schemer.” The article seems to be as much about American authorship and publishing as it is about libraries and other centers of learning. With a nod to William Roscoe, the piece despairs further: “Even a banker of Liverpool has amassed for us the literary wealth of Italy.” The author entertains reasons for this situation, dismissing explanations such as the lack of financial resources and a saturated literary market. Three additional causes are considered, and it is here that one senses the author’s determination to identify his nation’s true handicaps: “We want a remote antiquity. Our heroes are not yet dead. We are all acquainted with them, or feel so … Is it because we are a communal people, and thus the mind of the nation is thus necessarily diverted from the pursuits of literature? … Our best writers have been unfortunate in the vehicles they have chosen as depositories of their intellectual productions. Pamphlets and newspapers are ephemeral and temporary” (emphasis added). Finally, as part of a remedy, the piece offers a “suggestion of topicks”—including “the complete history of the United States of America” and “a collection of all that has been done for poetry among us (including a bibliography of our poets).” One can see that, in the mind of the anonymous author at least, an American literary life required deliberate, pioneering effort.xiii

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