Today’s blog post comes to us from Dr. Joni Hand, Associate Professor of Art History at Southeast Missouri State University.
When I tell people I moved to Cape Girardeau from Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from New York City, they look at me as though I was from another planet. Most say, “That must have been a big adjustment!” while looking at me incredulously. I usually respond with “It’s not the location so much that’s important, but what you find there.”
This statement rang true once I began to research my new home, specifically its history. As an art historian, history to me means objects and how, when, and where people used them. These questions are what led me to Kent Library, which, as far as I knew, was your average university library, filled with research materials students never used. Much to my surprise, this was not the case. I was alerted to the existence of the Rare Book Room, which I visited as soon as I could. It was there I found the Harrison Collection; a group of over 800 manuscripts and books collected by Charles Luce Harrison over a period of 30 or so years. Although several books in the collection were described in promotional materials printed by the library, the majority of the manuscripts had little or no information about them. I did discover, however, that the earliest manuscript dated to 1300 or so. Being a medievalist and having already published a book on medieval manuscripts, I thought this collection might be an opportunity for further study. In addition, Harrison’s place in the history of Cape, my new home, was also intriguing.
Harrison was a frugal man, choosing each book for its quality and aesthetic beauty. This thoughtfulness was perhaps a symptom of his upbringing. Unlike many collectors of his generation, such as J. P. Morgan or Frederick William Lehmann, he came from modest roots. He was born in Ohio in 1883 and moved with his family to Missouri in 1900. He worked for his father, who formed the Himmelberger-Harrison Lumber Company with John H. Himmelberger, and became an officer on its board. In 1907, the executive offices for the company moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where Harrison would spend the rest of his life. He was very active in his community as a civic leader and as a member of St Vincent’s Catholic Church. One of the most important of his projects in Cape Girardeau was the building of the public library.
Harrison’s biography is similar to other industrialist from the early twentieth century who financed and built the county’s infrastructure. Many like him quietly amassed collections of books that would rival those of their wealthier counterparts. These men were often from the middle class and had limited funds to purchase books. Seeing the value of their collections to the general public, many willed their books to local universities. Such was the case with Harrison’s Collection, which he bequeathed to the Cape Teachers College, now known as Southeast Missouri State University. His wife, Maude, officially gave the collection to the University in 1946 where it resides today in Kent Library’s Rare Book Room.
Harrison began purchasing books in the late 1910s, but became more intent on collecting during the unlikely years of the Great Depression. It was also at this time that his friendship and business relationship with the Kansas City-based bookseller Frank Glenn began. The correspondence between the two men increased as Harrison’s collection grew. In addition to their discourse on book purchases, their letters to one another included political commentary and details about family events. There are many references to future and past meetings to discuss possible purchases as well as reminiscences on past social gatherings.
My research into the Harrison Collection resulted in my publication of Bound for the Midwest: Medieval and Early Modern Religious Manuscripts in the Charles Luce Harrison Collection, Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University, a detailed catalogue of eight books, published in October of last year. These books are a small sample of an impressive collection, acquired during a time when many Americans were experiencing financial hardship. Harrison chose each volume carefully for its beauty and value, a practice that reflected the difficulty of this period. Although begun as a personal endeavor, Harrison had the foresight to ensure that his private collection of books was shared with others when he bequeathed it to Southeast Missouri State University. Hopefully, my book will reveal to its readers the importance of this collection. My own discovery of it has been enlightening and proves my earlier point that it’s not where you live that is important, but what you find there.
Dr. Hand will be discussing her book, Bound for the Midwest, at two upcoming local events.
On Thursday, January 25th, 2018, from 5:30-7:30pm, Dr. Hand will present to the Southeast Missouri State Alumni Association meeting to be held in Kent Library’s Rare Book Room. For more information about this event, please contact Jay Wolz, Director of Alumni Relations, at 573-651-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Wednesday, January 31st at noon Dr. Joni Hand will share her insight on Charles Harrison’s collecting habits and his relationship with his Book buyer, Frank Glenn. She will also discuss some of the books from the collection, focusing on unique characteristics of each. There will be a book signing immediately after the presentation. This presentation is part of Kent Library’s monthly Athenaeum series, located in Sadie’s Place on the main floor of Kent Library. All presentations in the Athenaeum series are free and open to the public.
For more information, or to purchase a copy of Bound for the Midwest, please visit: