Houghton Library Adds to Samuel Johnson Collection

new Johnson acquisitions

John Overholt, Assistant Curator at Houghton Library, examines a letter written by Samuel Johnson to Hester Thrale Piozzi. The letter is one of nearly three dozen items the library recently acquired which are related to Johnson and his circle.

June 2, 2009 – Samuel Johnson scholars have new reasons – dozens in fact – to visit Harvard’s Houghton Library. The library recently added more than 30 letters and several manuscripts, including several extremely rare items, to The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, its notable collection of materials relating to the English poet, critic and lexicographer.

The materials were acquired from the sale of the Paula Peyraud collection earlier this month at Bloomsbury Auctions in New York. Notable acquisitions from the sale include:

  • A letter from Samuel Johnson to Hester Thrale Piozzi, which will join the more than 200 such letters already in the Hyde Collection, as well as a book Johnson gave to her.
  • Nineteen letters written by Mrs. Piozzi, most importantly a letter to the novelist Fanny Burney in which she discusses her impending marriage to Gabriel Piozzi, and the reactions of her friends to the news.
  • Several books with manuscript annotations by Mrs. Piozzi, including a copy of her own Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, in which she fills in a story about Johnson considered too scandalous to include in the published version.
  • A rare surviving letter to Samuel Johnson from Hester “Queeney” Thrale, to complement the Hyde Collection’s holdings of more than 30 of Johnson’s “Letters to Queeney.”
  • Eleven letters from the poet and Johnson associate Anna Seward, complementing the library’s collection of “bluestocking” women of the Age of Johnson.

While the library’s existing collection is already recognized as the most extensive, Houghton Assistant Curator John Overholt said the new additions add to the research possibilities for Johnson scholars.

“We recently had a research fellow here who was specifically doing research on Hester Thrale’s annotated books, and in this sale we just acquired five additional volumes,” he said. “We have already been contacted by several people who are interested in these new acquisitions, and I’m very excited to explore the ways this material fits in with our existing holdings.”

Bequeathed to Harvard in 2003, key items in the Hyde collection will go on display this summer as part of an exhibition and symposium to mark the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. Opening August 26 and running through November 14, the exhibition, A Monument More Durable Than Brass: The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, will be accompanied by a three-day symposium, held August 27 though 29, entitled “Johnson at 300.”

Though the newly-acquired items won’t be part of the formal exhibition, Overholt, who is curating the exhibition, said he plans to put some of the items on display in other areas of the library during the symposium to help illustrate their relationship to materials already in the collection.  

For example, Overholt said, several of the newly-acquired letters help shed light on the relationship between Johnson and close friend Piozzi, and their falling out due to her decision to remarry following the death of her husband, Henry.

“The Hyde Collection included a very large number of letters between Johnson and Piozzi, including several on the subject of her marriage. Two of those letters will be included in the exhibition,” Overholt said. “At this sale, however, we were able to acquire a letter from Piozzi to the novelist Fanny Burney which was written at the time Piozzi remarried. In that letter, Piozzi writes about the reactions of various people, including Johnson, to the news that she had gotten married. It’s a perfect complement to the correspondence between Piozzi and Johnson we already had.”