Office of the President
Laura Skandera Trombley
So Much to Savor
JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 - And on the 100th day, David Zeidberg, the director of the Library, brought me to tears. He certainly didn’t mean to, and I was as surprised as he was; however, I guess it was inevitable considering everything that has transpired over the past few months. My immersion in The Huntington has been so richly multilayered that at times I’ve felt as though I’ve become the equivalent of a metaphorical tiramisu.
In thinking about the importance of all that this institution represents—the manuscripts, the art, the gardens, our educational programs, and research activities—I always wind up where I started: with the people and the place. In Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great, Good Place (1989), he writes about the necessity of public spaces in our lives: “In order for the city and the neighborhoods to offer the rich and varied association that is their promise and their potential, there must be neutral ground upon which people may gather. There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable.” The Huntington is such a place. We have offered a rich experience for multiple generations now. (As I was parking my bike the other day, a car pulled up and the driver offered that she, her parents, and her son were all volunteers at The Huntington.) Yet what we provide is much more than “neutral ground.” We are a treasure trove of content with one of the world’s most remarkable manuscript and rare book collections, world-class art, and a continuously developing botanical garden of rare and endangered plants. We are authentic in an age where facsimiles increasingly have become the norm.
Now, I’ve worked with manuscripts and letters for a long time in conducting my own research on Mark Twain, so I knew what to expect as we made our way through the vault and David began showing me rare, stunningly beautiful botanical volumes, Shakespeare folios, and Twain’s Prince and the Pauper. Lastly, he took out Benjamin Franklin’s handwritten Autobiography and turned the pages, explaining how Franklin and his Loyalist son had a permanent and painful parting of the ways; how he always wrote in the right-hand column so he could write marginalia in the left. And David showed me a page where the handwriting was covered in ink because Franklin spilled the well.
Yet, I was caught completely off guard when David flipped the pages toward the end and pointed out a blank space in the manuscript. There Franklin had written a note for the reader apologizing for the break in his narrative due to a brouhaha that had taken up a bit of his time: the Revolutionary War. The humanness that the moment represented, the realization of being among our greatest intellects, and feeling so deeply one of Faulkner’s most famous line—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—I became overwhelmed.
When David offered to show me Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden, I begged for mercy. “Let’s take our time,” I said. “There is everything yet to see—no rush.” And that is what The Huntington represents for us all: so much to savor and appreciate in a beautiful place, and we have a lifetime to learn and enjoy.
Laura Skandera Trombley, President