Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Literature, Poetry, and Books

Letter from London

London May 4, 2009 Old Friend,

I begin with a digression: I have visited the Wallace Collection yesterday and today in Marylebone, just north of Mayfair--an astonishing, and most amusing, personal 19th century collection of 17th and 18th century European art (you can get some sense of it on line). Even you, no lover of museums, would enjoy it. But that's because it's not a museum. It's a rich personal collection displayed in the great town house in which it was originally displayed. Besides they serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks in a beautiful courtyard. Stop in, have a bite, smile with the "Laughing Cavalier," laugh at the lady in The Swing, and compare her with The Lace Maker--the one with a whimsical slipper in the air, the other with two domestic shoes on the floor.

Now, a little more on Stratford-upon-Avon and how Yankee enterprise helped our English cousins develop reverence for their greatest poet.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford, visited by Jefferson and Adams in 1786, was sold with the attached buildings in 1805 for a mere 210 English pounds. In the announcement of the sale, no mention was made of any association with Shakespeare. In 1809 The Times of London reported perfunctorily that Shakespeare's birthplace had become a butcher's shop. There was no English lamentation or outrage. It seems the Brits did not feel an urgency to cherish the home of their greatest poet until . . . the Americans threatened to take it to America! (For these and the following facts I'm indebted mostly to that Sturgess book you suggested, which I carry with me here.)

Here's how the great American Shakespeare heist almost happened. Many Americans, following in the footsteps of Adams and Jefferson, continued to make what Washington Irving called the "poetical pilgrimage" to Stratford, even though all they found there was a butcher's shop with a room in it designated as Shakespeare's birthplace, and a tomb, with no name on it, in the nearby church. They seemed to share James Fenimore Cooper's sentiment, that Shakespeare was "the Great author of America." It was not an easy journey before the railroads, which nowadays get you there from London in a little over ninety minutes. Irving visited Stratford a few times and wrote a "Sketch Book" which became a "quasi-official guidebook" for later American visitors. Henry Clay visited in 1815, Martin van Buren some years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hawthorne, etc. It was common for them to join Irving in calling it a literary "pilgrimage."

OK. In 1844, P.T. Barnum--yes, THE P.T. Barnum--comes to Stratford-upon-Avon. He asks a native for guidance to the local scene. To his surprise, he is handed a pamphlet written--not by some British authority--but by his countryman Washington Irving. Not a man known for missing an opportunity, Barnum grasps immediately that the Yanks are more interested than the Brits in making the Shakespeare pilgrimage. He records in his autobiography what he does next: He "obtained verbally through a friend the refusal of the house in which Shakspeare was born, designing to remove it in sections to my museum in New York." He was going to buy Shakespeare's house, tear it down, ship the parts to America, put it back together in New York, and let Americans--and the rest of the world--make their Shakespeare pilgrimage to the Big Apple!

This awakened the sleeping bulldog. As Barnum records, word of his plans "leaped out. British pride was touched." A movement arose in the British popular press and in social and literary circles to save the great Bard's home from these foreign predators. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, got involved, and made a substantial donation, as did other gentlemen of mark, and an English Shakespeare association bought the home for the highly inflated price of 3000 pounds. Ownership was transferred to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The home of Shakespeare was safe from the reverence of P.T. Barnum. As Mark Twain wrote a generation later, "from that day to this every relic of Shakespeare in Stratford has been sacred, and zealously cared for . . . ."

Cheers,

cf

Discussions - 2 Comments

London should be crazy the next two days with both north london football giants hosting 2nd legs of champions league semi finals. I wish I could be there and root for Manu to finish of the gunners.

Mabye if barnum had got the house it could be touring with abe's log cabin.

I actually think there would have been something poetical and lovely about the idea of a touring Shakespeare house . . . taking it to all parts of the original GLOBE that would pay him the homage he deserves for his influence and contribution to our collective happiness. He is bigger than England and his home belongs to the GLOBE as his work belongs to the ages.

This isn't at all in the same league, but yesterday I found myself in an antique shop in Pomona, California. I stumbled upon a great old desk with a curious folding feature meant for concealing a bolted down manual typewriter. After some inquiries (in which I revealed none of my own information), I discovered that the desk was acquired from the Alta Dena estate of my own Zanesville hometown hero, Zane Grey. He was no Shakespeare, to be sure. But he had a certain kind of American genius all his own. He emigrated to these parts, as I did, and it was rather gratifying to sit at the desk where he might have typed up the manuscripts of his many winning novels. I thought about purchasing the thing, but space constrains me. And for the record, I did not take a sample . . . and anyway, I do not expect that it would multiply.

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