Abernethy Collection of American Literature
Gift of Julian W. Abernethy, 1923
By far the largest of major gifts to the Middlebury College Library in more than 200 years, the Julian W. Abernethy Collection of American Literature is the diamond among the crown jewels of Special Collections at Middlebury College. Unlike the other jewels in the crown—the Flanders, Tashiera, Prescott, and Berenbach collections, to name but a few—the Abernethy Collection, by virtue of generous endowments from both Julian Abernethy and his brother Frank, has continued to grow from roughly 6000 to significantly more than 20,000 books and 5,000 manuscripts, over the past 80 years. The literary gems purchased by Abernethy curators and accepted as gifts from generous donors over the past eight decades continually add luster to that crown. Among the gems are first editions of Walden (Thoreau's personal copy containing his annotations, 1854), Leaves of Grass (1855 ; 2 copies), George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (1844), and a complete collection of first editions of Robert Frost.
The core of today’s collection, the Julian W. Abernethy Library of American Literature, was bequeathed to the College upon the death of Julian W. Abernethy, Class of 1876, and 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 penned 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, Elizabeth Peabody, etc., 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, abolitionist scrapbooks maintained by his sister Helen. In keeping with Abernethy’s spirit, legendary Abernethy Curator 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 wings as additions to the landmark 1900 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.
In recent years, the collection development policy of the Abernethy Collection has moved away from collecting contemporary first editions and in the direction of acquiring primary source materials, primarily manuscripts, related to established American authors in the Abernethy Collection and the area of travel writing of Americans abroad over the last 200 years. Popular periodical literature of the 19th and early 20th century has become another collection priority.
In 2007, thanks to a generous gift from Ann Hemingway Feuer and Hilary Hemingway Freundlich, daughters of Leicester Hemingway, younger brother of Ernest, the Abernethy Collection became home to the Leicester Hemingway Family Archive, a major repository of Hemingway materials.