12 October 2007

Matthew Arnold at the Boston Public Library

In September 1887, the magazine Book-Lore quoted liberally from a New York Herald interview with the head of the Boston Public Library. The resulting article was titled "Library Lunatics," and shows that the antics of patrons in Unshelved are not recent phenomena.

One of the librarian's anecdotes involved a leading voice of British literature, who G. K. Chesterton said was "even in the age of Carlyle and Ruskin, perhaps the most serious man alive":

Mr. Matthew Arnold was greatly struck by this democratic government of our reading-room when he was in Boston. He came in here one day and saw a little barefooted newsboy sitting in one of the best chairs in the reading-room, enjoying himself apparently for dear life.

The great essayist was completely astounded. "Do you let barefooted boys in this reading-room?" he asked. "You would never see such a sight as that in Europe. I do not believe there is a reading-room in all Europe in which that boy, dressed as he is, would enter."

Then Mr. Arnold went over to the boy, engaged him in conversation, and found that he was reading the Life of Washington, that he was a young gentleman of decidedly anti-British tendencies, and, for his age, remarkably well informed.

Mr. Arnold remained talking with the youngster for some time, and, as he came back to our desk, the great Englishman said: "I do not think I have been so impressed with anything that I have seen since arriving in this country as I am now with meeting that barefooted boy in this reading-room. What a tribute to democratic institutions it is to say that, instead of sending the boy out to wander alone in the streets, they permit him to come in here and excite his youthful imagination by reading such a book as the Life of Washington! The reading of that one book may change the whole course of the boy's life, and may be the means of making him a useful, honourable, worthy citizen of this great country. It is, I tell you, a sight that impresses a European not accustomed to your democratic ways."
And now, especially since it's Poetry Friday, it's time for our yearly reading of Arnold's "Dover Beach," courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.