Cadets Learn about Rare Books and Life at the Academy in the 19th Century

elaine checkOn 28 and 30 April, cadets enrolled in the EN102 plebe (freshman) English course visited the Library to see a selection of rare books and manuscripts. On display were such disparate treasures as De civitate dei (Venice, 1485), the earliest printed book in Special Collections; Londinopolis (London, 1657), a guidebook to London just before the Great Fire of 1667; Ben Jonson’s Plays (London, 1667); Cadet George S. Patton’s annotated copy of the textbook Elements of Strategy; period reproductions of the Kelmscott Chaucer and Morte d’Arthur; and fine editions of more recent classics like A Farewell to Arms, Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ed A second table illustrated the role literature played in the lives of cadets in the nineteenth century, when diversions were few and news from the outside world was limited, especially after the last boat went down the Hudson in late autumn. The Library was only open to cadets once a week, on Saturday afternoons; books that were borrowed had to be returned on Monday. Circulation records, which begin in 1824, show cadets checking out the same book for weeks on end in order to finish it. Many of these books are still part of today’s library, held now in Special Collections.

EN102 cadets who visited were able to examine well-thumbed biographies like first Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of Washington (1822), the Langhorne translation of Plutarch’s Lives (1822) and Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon (1848). Nineteenth century cadets also devoured poetry: the works of Lord Byron and other British poets and, not surprisingly, Edgar Allen Poe. Histories and travel books like A Year in Spain by a Young American (1830) were heavily read, as were magazines like the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Review and Harper’s Weekly with its serialized chapters by Charles Dickens. As the library grew, so did its fiction collection; at mid-century by far the most popular were Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, followed closely by those of Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Fenimore Cooper. Some examples from each of these categories were on show.

MSS Table

The use of our Special Collections in direct support of the Academy’s
curriculum is both educational and fun. If past history holds, the cadets
who visited during EN 102 will return to us in the future.

 Contents contributed by Susan Lintelmann, Manuscripts Curator