Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Johnson and Friends Arrive en Masse

July-August 2004

One of the world's most important private collections of eighteenth-century English literature — with the lexicographer, author, critic, and talker Samuel Johnson at its center — has come to the Houghton Library to fill rooms made to order to receive it.

The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection consists of more than 4,000 first editions and other books; 5,500 letters and manuscripts, including half of Johnson's extant letters and several drafts of his "Plan for a Dictionary"; and 5,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and objects, among them an engraved silver teapot from which Johnson poured for his friends.

His circle included Tobias Smollett, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Alexander Pope, and David Garrick, as well as his biographer, James Boswell, and his great friend Hester Thrale (later Piozzi). The lively ghosts of all these individuals are gathered here, and curator of manuscripts Leslie A. Morris cites "a lot of dialogue in the collection between the various players." For example, a copy of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., perhaps the finest biography in the English language, contains about 500 annotations by Hester Thrale, some defending herself against Boswell, others altering or embellishing her previous statements about Johnson.

The Donald Hyde Rooms — finished in 1977 and used for other purposes until this year — consist of this elegant, oval exhibition room, with its marble floor and ceiling plasterwork from original molds by the Scottish architect Robert Adam; a seminar room; a commodious curator's office; and stack space. Samuel Johnson presides, in the undated portrait at left by Gilbert Stuart.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The collection arrived in February in hundreds of boxes. Morris hopes to have all the material archived, cataloged, and fully available to scholars within two years.

"This bequest is a boon to anyone interested in Samuel Johnson, his circle, and his era," asserted Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell in a library news release. "Such collections are as close as we can get to the unmediated presence of the past."

William P. Stoneman, Fearrington librarian of Houghton, declared that the bequest "has established a scholarly resource of international importance at Harvard, and generations of students and scholars worldwide will be grateful for the wisdom and generosity of Mary Hyde Eccles."

Born Mary Crapo in Michigan in 1912, she graduated from Vassar and earned a Ph.D. at Columbia. (Her dissertation appeared as Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605.) She and her first husband, Donald Hyde, LL.B. '32, began collecting in the 1940s, focusing then on Elizabethan drama. They shifted their attention to the eighteenth century, and books and manuscripts of that time soon arrived in strength at their home, Four Oaks Farm, in Somerville, New Jersey. They also formed a significant collection of early Japanese printed and illustrated books, which eventually was sold at auction to benefit the Morgan Library. Although Donald Hyde died in 1966, Mary Hyde continued collecting — and writing. Her books include The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale and The Thrales of Streatham Park. Never abandoning Johnson, she assembled a collection of Oscar Wilde and his circle, which she left to the British Library. In 1984 she married David, Viscount Eccles, a former education minister, and together they established the David and Mary Eccles Center for American Studies at the British Library. Mary, Viscountess Eccles, died last August at 91.

Johnson and friends are housed handsomely on Houghton Library's second floor in the Donald Hyde Rooms, an earlier gift from Mary Eccles and a family friend, the late Arthur A. Houghton Jr. '29. A further substantial gift from Eccles has endowed the position of curator of the Hyde Collection and will fund future acquisitions.