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Curator’s Tour Highlights Johnson Collection

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Houghton Library Assistant Curator John Overholt, left, points out some of the items in the Hyde Collection. More than a dozen HCL staff members recently toured an exhibition of material from the collection.

November 5, 2009 – One of the world’s most important collections of 18th century literature, the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts is comprised of thousands of letters, manuscripts, first editions, portraits and even includes Johnson’s silver teapot. More than a dozen Harvard College Library staff members recently got the chance to examine some of those treasures as part of a curator’s tour through Houghton Library’s exhibition devoted to Johnson.

Led by Houghton Assistant Curator John Overholt, the tour highlighted a handful of items, including: manuscript entries from Johnson’s dictionary, and a first edition of the finished book, the only surviving letter from Johnson to his wife and several books owned by Johnson, including the volume he allegedly used to bludgeon a bookseller.

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“This collection represents just how important and diverse a figure Johnson was,” Overholt said. “Everyone knows about his dictionary, and that he was the subject of James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” which is regarded as the one of the greatest works of biography in English, but one of the most significant things about him is that he pioneered the modern concept of the author as someone who made their living by selling their work directly to publishers.”

“One of the amazing things about Johnson is that he wrote in nearly every genre you can think of, he wrote poetry, he wrote a play, he wrote a novel, and he wrote literary criticism, and his work is excellent in all those genres,” Overholt said, explaining that the collection includes copies of virtually all of Johnson’s published work. “We are also fortunate enough to have in the Hyde Collection quite a few books from Johnson’s own library.”

Perhaps the most interesting of the books connected to Johnson, however, is one he didn’t own, but is believed to have used to assault a bookseller named Thomas Osborne.

The incident happened in the early 1740s, after Johnson was hired by Osborne to catalog the library of the Earl of Oxford, which Osborne had recently bought. “Johnson, however, was a little more interested in reading the books than he was in cataloging them,” Overholt said. “Osborne came to Johnson’s house, and they got into an argument, and Johnson clubbed him over the head with this book. He told Boswell, ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.’”

Though it’s difficult to say for sure whether the book included in the Hyde Collection is the book Johnson used to attack Osborne, the facts do fit, Overholt said. “The story says it was a Greek folio Bible, bound in wood, from the Earl’s library, and that’s, in fact, what this is,” he said. “And it does look a bit the worse for wear, as though somebody might have been brained with it.”

With the thousands of volumes, letters, manuscripts, drawings and other items in the collection fully cataloged, Houghton is an essential research stop for scholars studying 18th century literature, Overholt said.

“Following the bequest of the collection, we were able to fully catalog all the material,” he said. “That’s what makes it useful to scholars, otherwise this exceptional material would be trapped, and we would have no way of knowing the amazing resources it contains.”