Abernethy Collection of American Literature

Julian W. Abernethy


The Julian W. Abernethy Collection of American Literature was bequeathed to the College in 1923, upon the death of Julian W. Abernethy, Class of 1876, College Trustee from 1901-1923. A distinguished teacher and scholar of American and British literature, Abernethy was an avid bibliophile and during his lifetime amassed an extraordinary collection of first editions, collected works, critical editions, and original manuscripts by the most notable men and women in American letters from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries.

Arguably the greatest strength of the original collection lies in books, pamphlets, and manuscripts related to the transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, George Ripley, and Elizabeth Peabody are well represented. It was Henry David Thoreau, however, who Abernethy collected with a passion, considering himself “a Thoreau collector with an unappeasable ambition.” Documenting his constant pursuit of new Thoreau material, the collection contains detailed correspondence between Abernethy and several antiquarian book and manuscript dealers. Among the most unique Thoreau items in Abernethy’s collection are books from his library and artifacts from the site of the cabin at Walden, pencils and letter openers crafted by Thoreau, and abolitionist scrapbooks maintained by his sister Helen. In keeping with Abernethy’s spirit, legendary Abernethy Curator and Middlebury College librarian Viola White purchased Thoreau’s personal copy of the first edition of Walden with the author’s annotations, in 1940.

In his will, Abernethy stipulated that his library should be kept independent of the College Library’s circulating collection, provided a fund for its maintenance, and perhaps most curiously stipulated that, should the College split into separate colleges for men and women—at the time a persistent consideration for administration, trustees, and alumni—his library would form the core of the newly independent women's college. Without question, a residual benefit of the College’s sustained commitment to co-education is the retention of the Abernethy Collection.

In 1927, after years of legal red tape in passing the Abernethy library on to the College, construction of east and west wing additions to the Starr Library began. Largely funded by Frank D. Abernethy, the east wing was designed to house the newly acquired Abernethy collection. In the early 1960s, the Abernethy Room was relocated, joining the College’s other Special Collections in the West wing. In 2008, the original Abernethy Room was restored to its former splendor as part of the renovation/construction of the Axinn Center at Starr Library, while the Abernethy Collection remained in Special Collections in the Davis Family Library.