The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Widener, Harry Elkins

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography
James E. Homans, editor
Widener, Harry Elkins

WIDENER, Harry Elkins, bibliophile, b. in Philadelphia, Pa., 3 Jan., 1885; d. at sea, in the “Titanic” disaster, 15 April, 1912, son of George Dunton and Eleanor (Elkins) Widener. He was a member of the Widener family of Philadelphia, whose work in the organization and management of that city's street railway system form an important chapter in civic history. His maternal grandfather, William L. Elkins, organized the Philadelphia Traction Company, finally acquiring possession of Philadelphia's entire system of street railways. Peter A. B. Widener, his paternal grandfather, who was closely associated with Mr. Elkins in his traction enterprises, was a practical philanthropist, and deeply interested in art. His son, George D. Widener, early became recognized as a traction expert, and soon came into the management of his father's great traction interests. With his son, he died chivalrously and heroically on the fatal voyage of the “Titanic.” Harry E. Widener was prepared for college at Hill School, and entered Harvard University in 1903, being graduated in 1907. Immediately afterward he became connected with the extensive business and railway interests which the genius of his father and grandfathers had built up. Like them, however, he was not of a nature to be contented wholly with the mere amassing of wealth, but was keenly desirous to give to the world something of value — something it would not willingly let die. He inherited a love for books and art; and in him the tastes of his family found their highest expression. At the time of his death, which occurred when he was but twenty-seven years of age, he was identified with many interests, social, athletic, business, and philanthropic, yet had lived in books as few men have ever lived. He had acquired a library of valuable works which has the distinction of being the finest library ever collected by so young a man; had few peers as a collector; and was known among dealers as the most intelligent and discriminating of all American bibliophiles. Mr. Widener had been surrounded with fine books all his life, and he began his own remarkable collection while in college. The Hasty Pudding Club plays appealed to him, and he went on a search for books with pictures of period costumes. Incidentally he discovered many old colored plates, some of which he purchased, notably several by Rowlandson and the Cruikshanks, and these formed the nucleus of his fine collection of the better works of the same character. He began his collection of books with first editions of such standard authors as Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Browning, and soon owned rare and desirable copies of nearly everything they had written. His knowledge of books was truly remarkable. He was intimately acquainted with the annals of English literature, while his intense enthusiasm, painstaking care, and devotion to his chosen subject, and wonderful memory, aided, as he says in the introduction to his catalogue, “by the interest and devotion of hia grandfather and parents,” enabled him in comparatively few years to secure a collection of 3,000 volumes, the possession of which could make any collector proud. Mr. Widener early began to realize where his fondness of interesting copies of famous books would lead him. He enjoyed intimate acquaintance and friendship with some of the greatest collectors of books, and determined to be one of them. While he stood modestly aside for those who, like J. Pierpont Morgan, he thought had a prior claim to first choice at sales, he nevertheless keenly studied the market and books with a view to laying the foundations upon which to base his claim to the greatest treasures in the years to come. He was fortunate in securing the co-operation of Dr. S. W. Rosenbach, of Philadelphia, who became his friend and mentor, and Mr. Bernard Quaritch, of London; while his sincere enthusiasm and winning personality gained him easy access to the treasures of many of the great antiquarian booksellers. He was better known in New York than in Philadelphia for his enthusiastic devotion to his quest, and better known in London than in New York. His policy in buying was marked by an unusual degree of prudence and wisdom. When at sales, such as the Robert Hoe sale in New York and the Huth sale in London, he was compelled to let many famous books go to those whom he granted a prior claim, he drew upon his inexhaustible fund of book lore and included among his purchases volumes which he felt confident would be famous when better known, books often unheard of by the ordinary collector, but which would delight the heart of the scholar. His library was a young man's library, the result of the use of large means, rare judgment, and an inborn instinct for discovering the best. Primarily a library of English literature, it includes first editions of Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, Johnson, Goldsmith, Gray, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Thackeray and Meredith. The first folio of Shakespeare included in this collection was the Van Antwerp copy, formerly Locker-Lampson's, one of the finest copies extant; also a copy of “Poems Written by William Shakespeare, Gent, 1640,” in original sheepskin binding. Mr. Widener was particularly fascinated by Stevenson, and his Stevenson collection is a monument to his industry and patience, and probably the finest in existence. He possessed holograph copies of the Vailima letters and other priceless treasures; while he secured and published privately for Stevenson lovers an edition of an autobiography written by Stevenson in California in the early eighties. He possessed a superb “Pickwick,” presentation copies of “Martin Chuzzlewit” and “Oliver Twist”; dedication copy to Macready of “Nicholas Nickleby”; Boswell's “Life of Johnson,” and Burton's “Anatomy of Melancholy” in original binding; and presentation copy of Butler's “Hudibras.” One of his chief delights was his search for volumes which had belonged to famous people, and he was rewarded by having in his possession a number of notable volumes of this kind, also books in which the author had inscribed his name. Among these was the Countess of Pembroke's copy of Sir Philip Sidney's “Arcadia”; the Rev. Samuel Purchas's “Pilgrimes,” which continues Hakluyt's record of English foreign travel; the copy of Thackeray's “Henry Esmond” given with “grateful regards” to Charlotte Brontë; an inscribed copy of “Romola,” and a copy of the extremely rare Bible, printed in 1550, formerly the property of King Edward VI. The collection of Rowlandson water color drawings which Mr. Widener began in college grew to number 150, the finest collection of its kind in the world. The Cruikshank drawings included the illustrations of “Oliver Twist,” upon which Cruikshank based his claim that he supplied the ideas which Dickens exploited and elaborated in his novels. Other drawings in this collection included William Blake's “America; a Prophecy”; an original water color drawing, “The Reunion of the Soul and Body,” by Blake, and published in Blair's poem, “The Grave”; and a number of interesting drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. Harry E. Widener was a young man of brilliant attainments, insatiable in his thirst for knowledge, and as the result of his wonderfully retentive memory, which never let him forget a date or a fact once imbedded in his mind, was inconceivably well informed on every subject. He had a way of saying: “. . . if I get it in my head, I will put it where it can't be lost, that is — so long as I keep my head.” He won friends easily and he had every opportunity that attaches to ideal environment, and social prestige. Yet he lived in and for his books. He was of a retiring, studious disposition, considerate of others and unfailing in courtesy; amiable and lovable by temperament, and devoted to his friends. Yet another one of his strongest characteristics was his love for his mother. When displaying his treasures to his intimates, his devotion to her always led him to show among the first his copy of Cowper's “Task,” a book which once belonged to Thackeray, and under the frontispiece, which shows Cowper looking at a portrait of his mother, the novelist had inscribed, “A great point in a great man, a great love for his mother.” Mr. Widener was a member of many clubs, including the Grolier Society of New York, for which he was named by Mr. Morgan He was ambitious to be known as something more than a mere collector of books, and longed to identify himself with some great library, so that his books could be at the disposal of scholars. In the spring of 1912, shortly before he started on his last voyage to London, he sat late into the night planning for the future disposal of his books. He said, “I do not wish to be remembered merely as the collector of a few books, no matter how fine they may be. I want to be remembered in connection with a great library.” And in order to gain more permanent results than his own satisfaction, he transferred in his will his collection to the Harvard Library. In the light of future events his remark and plans seemed prophetic. On this trip to London Harry E. Widener bought his last book — a rare copy of Bacon's “Essaies,” edition of 1598, which Quaritch secured for him at the Huth sale. After giving instructions as to the final disposition of his purchases, he said: “I think I'll take that little Bacon with me in my pocket, and if I am shipwrecked it will go with me.” As a friend remarked, “in all the history of book collecting, this is the most touching story.” The same friend also beautifully said: “When Shelley's body was cast up by the waves on the shore near Viareggio he had a volume of Keats in his pocket doubled back at ‘The Eve of St. Agnes.’ And in poor Harry Widener's pocket there was a Bacon, and in this Bacon we might have read: “The same man that was envied while he lived shall be loved when he is gone.” The Harry Elkins Memorial Library at Cambridge was dedicated 2 June, 1915. It is essentially a memorial, a mother's tribute to her son, and more completely a memorial since it is the fulfillment of his strongest desire. From the central doorway, which opens from a portico formed by lofty Corinthian columns, the visitor may look straight ahead, through a vista of marble columns, up a broad marble stairway to the Widener Memorial rooms, which are the particular feature of the building, and where Harry E. Widener's precious books are stored. Within view from the doorway, on the south wall of the library room, over a marble framed fireplace, hangs a portrait of Harry Widener, done by Ferrier, of Paris, in 1913. On either side of the entrance are two tablets inscribed to the memory of Harry E. Widener by his mother; while a further tribute on a slab in the entrance hall reads as follows:

“Harry Elkins Widener, A.B., 1907, loved the books which he had collected, and the college to which he bequeathed them. ‘He labored not for himself only, but for all those who seek learning.’ This memorial has been placed here by his classmates.”

A superb building, the Widener Library was planned by Horace Traumbauer, of Philadelphia, and erected under the personal supervision of Mrs. George D. Widener. Its total capacity may be placed at 1,900,000 volumes, with a possible capacity of nearly 2,400,000 volumes, placing it well ahead of all other university storehouses for books, and only slightly behind the New York Public Library and the Congressional Library at Washington, while it considerably surpasses the Boston Public Library in capacity. Briefly it is a house of beauty, utility, and service to Harvard, the country, and the world.


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