Friday, June 1, 2012

Harry Elkins Widener

Harry Elkins Widener
I have come to the final chapter in Newton's Amenities of  Book-Collecting. In these last pages, Mr. Newton tells the sad story of Harry Elkins Widener, the son of George D. Widener of Philadelphia. George was financially prominent, Newton writes, having taken over his father's business, the Philadelphia Traction Company. The family lived in a 110-room mansion known as Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Harry Widener was George's oldest son. He was born in 1885 and attended Harvard University. While at Harvard, he began to show an interest in book-collecting. Soon after he graduated in 1907, book-collecting became a serious matter for the young man.

Newton writes about his library:

"It is but a collection of perhaps three thousand volumes; but they were selected by a man of almost unlimited means, with rare judgment and an instinct for discovering the best. Money alone will not make a bibliophile, although, I confess, it develops one."

One evening, Harry confessed to his friend Newton that he didn't want to be remembered only as a book-collector. "I want to be remembered in connection with a great library, and I do not see how it is going to be brought about."

As the Fates would have it, Harry Elkins Widener needn't have worried about how it would happen. He and his father were both passengers on the Titanic and were drowned in the Atlantic on April 15, 1912. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived. She made a $3.5 million donation and had erected in his memory the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University. It was dedicated in 1914. Here his collection rests.

Today, the Widener Library, is the centerpiece of the Harvard University Library system. With its 15.6 million volumes, it is the largest university library system in the world.


  1. What a sad story brought to a meaningful end with the donation. This book sounds interesting, Belle. I will be on the lookout for it.

  2. Thank you for the comment. I loved reading this book. Newton was a thoughtful writer and his profiles of authors and his contemporaries were as fresh today as they were 100 years ago when he wrote them. Amazing.

    When I read on the Web about his death and the sale of his personal library it made me sad. I felt as if I had lost a friend.