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Hugh Amory

APHA presented its Individual Award posthumously to Hugh Amory, retired Senior Cataloger in the Houghton Library, on January 26, 2002. Hugh’s son Patrick received the citation from David Whitesell of the Awards Committee, and a tribute was offered by Roger Stoddard, Curator of Rare Books, Harvard College Library.

“For Hugh from Roger at APHA, 26 January 2002”
Speech of Roger Stoddard, Harvard University Library, in honor of Hugh Armory (1930–2001)

Good afternoon! It’s been six years since you invited me and David Whitesell to speak about books and Thomas Jefferson. David’s paper, altogether brilliant and far more original than mine, remains unpublished; but you printed mine, so you know that I quoted Hugh Amory on the unreliability of printer assignment in early American books: “incomplete, inconsistent, and unreliable,” he said. Since then Hugh and I have lamented jointly the identical situation in English books, 1641-1700. Fortunate are the members of APHA to have such open and fascinating fields for research. If only Hugh were here with us this afternoon so that I could roast him, what fun we would have! What laughter! What a life! Well, here we go, Hugh:

As he was general and unconfined in his studies, he cannot be considered as master of any one particular science; but he had accumulated a vast and various collection of learning and knowledge, which was so arranged in his mind, as to be ever in readiness to be brought forth. But his superiority over other learnèd men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind: a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge, which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was, in him, true, evident, and actual wisdom. … Though usually grave, and even aweful in his deportment, he possessed uncommon and peculiar powers of wit and humour; he frequently indulged himself in colloquial pleasantry; and the heartiest merriment was often enjoyed in his company; with this great advantage, that as it was entirely free from any poisonous tincture of vice or impiety, it was salutary to those who shared in it. [James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford University Press, © 1980), pp. 1400-01.]

You will recognize these sentiments as those of James Boswell in his summary of the character of Samuel Johnson, but for those of us who were his colleagues, these words apply just as well to:

Hugh Amory 
(July 1, 1930-November 21, 2001)

In his youth Hugh was mechanical, assembling parts in order to achieve special effects. He designed and constructed a cart for his brothers, he mastered the soldering iron, he cast lead soldiers, he cast wax soldiers, he learned how to concoct gunpowder. (Later, in Korea, he served as staff sergeant in the U. S. Army Explosive Demolition Team.) He taught himself how to take apart the engine of his Cord automobile and how to put it back together again: it worked just fine. All of it worked just fine–except for the wax soldiers; they emulsified with cauterizing effect.

At Harvard he discovered the Poet’s Theatre–more special effects–for which he composed at least two vehicles, one of them being a translation of Sophocles’s Ajax. He got a reputation as a poet. The sublime Frank O’Hara challenged him:

Listen, you mad poet, never 
ask for gasoline from the girl 
selling bonbons in the department store! 
Your words, sea-rushed engines, 
hammer on, and from the muck 
and bones and golden curls and silk 
your sienna house, New Jerusalem, 
rises. Art! Hosanna! Huzzah! 
[Frank O’Hara, Early Writing, ed. Donald Allen 
(Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox Press, © 1970), p. 64.]

After achieving the magna, with highest honors, in 1952, he styled himself “playwright” in his class report, but in 1958 he got the LL. B. from the Law School, followed by the Ph. D. in English literature–eighteenth-century, he would report, from Columbia in 1964. There they charged him with the proseminar as Assistant Professor, and his former student and later colleague and collaborator Elizabeth Falsey recalls him as smart, mysterious, infuriating. Student papers were followed by an hour and a half of punishing cross examination, and the material argument or material evidence seemed to be a subtext. They asked themselves Where was he coming from? Didn’t they know that the protocols of the classical rhetoric of Quintilian together with courtroom practice and the handling of evidence would follow a law school graduate into any classroom? Only years later did Elizabeth figure out that Hugh had been teaching from the perspective of a library, the attitude of a library cataloger.

But where were the publications of smart young Hugh Amory? Just an eight-page article in the journal of the Manuscript Society, and that just a touch-up of his classroom handout, “Eighteenth Century Autographs and Manuscripts: a Selective Bibliography”? He left Columbia to become an associate professor at Case Western Reserve from 1968 until 1973. But where …

But then, in 1972, the tragic death of Daniel E. Whitten opened a position for a cataloger in English literature at Houghton Library. Hugh came for interview on a Saturday, so James Walsh, Keeper of Printed Books, had to unlock the great front door of the library for him, locking it up behind him with the usual great thud and echo. Must have seemed like the Tombs–or a Yale fraternity house! James handed him two copies of an early English book. They were the same (line-for-line), but also different, as one was a reprint of the other. There was no reason for Hugh to spot the differences so fast and explain them so well, for, whatever he had been doing, he hadnot been comparing dozens or hundreds of early printed books in order to sort out bibliographical conditions. James was dumbfounded, Hugh got the job and remained inside the great front door. Hugh Amory, the catalog department, and Houghton Library were never the same again.

My first clear recollection of him is the moment when he discovered me unpacking from two tea chests the Russian books that I had bought at the Diaghilev-Lifar sale at Monaco in 1975. He seemed reluctant to believe what he was being handed, including all those gift books and journals with printed labels from the Paris exhibition that Lifar had organized for the Pushkin centennial in 1937, and that Hugh would organize and publish for Houghton’s celebration of Pushkin’s 150th in 1987. How was I to know that he could read the stuff?

That compartment behind the great front door was no sleeping car, it was an express special into print for Hugh, beginning with a prodigious output of catalog cards. Neither language nor subject could baffle him, and he would explain to you that he had simply changed classrooms, for he was teaching as before; books remained his subject, but catalog descriptions were his lectures.

That was not enough for him, for someone who wanted to create special effects. One thing to describe a book, another to show it. From 1977, with his Edward Gibbon, Hugh became the library’s most prolific and inventive designer of exhibitions: Johnson, Mather, Fielding, Pushkin, F. J. Child, Cambridge Press, Carlo Goldoni. Many were memorialized by printed catalogues no less creative than the shows that spawned them: He Has Long Outlived His Century (a catalogue written by Harvard graduate students for the Johnsonians), New Books by Fielding (designed for class reading, just like Pushkin and his Friends), The Virgin and the Witch(poster/catalogue of the Law Library exhibition on Elizabeth Canning),First Impressions: Printing in Cambridge (distributed with the long-awaited type specimen of the press). He changed formats, won prizes, reformatted the exhibition cases. Articles flowed freely now, rich with insights and connections, full of new data from unexpected sources. All the while, Fielding provided the ground bass; is any English author so well ‘grounded’ in every aspect of printing, bookselling, and reading culture now that Hugh has considered and recorded all those aspects with his articles and editions?

At his retirement party Hugh shared an important anecdote. He said that cataloging books was not very difficult, in fact it was easy, just telling the truth about books. But recently he had discovered that the authorized heading for Ossian, the fictitious creation of James Macpherson, was “Ossian, 3rd cent.” as if such a person had actually existed. He complained to the LC authority office, but he was told to subside–the heading holds false to this day: they had created it by analogy with the heading for Homer. “So, I’m glad I’m retiring. Now I can go back to telling the truth about books,” he concluded. And so he did.

Almost immediately appeared the indexed facsimiles of the first three catalogues of the Harvard Library, then five years later The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, both of them monumental contributions to American history from the point of view of The Book. The first was a collaboration with W. H. Bond; Hugh helped to identify the “cataloged” books, but also he rendered the badly printed originals, with the readthrough that had prevented any earlier facsimile edition, into legible masters, no mean feat. He collaborated in the editing of the latter with David Hall; instead of thinking about what he contributed–all the sections are signed, just consider what the volume would have been without his knowledge of British booktrade practice and without his clearheaded analysis of printing statistics. Don’t just count the products, he said, distinguish job printing from newspapers and book printing; count by the energy factor of the press, materials plus labor, by enumerating sheets, just as the trade priced their work–by the sheet. Don’t miss his “Pseudodoxia Bibliographica [i.e., False Bibliographics], or When is a Book not a Book? When it’s a Record” in the Consortium of European Research Libraries Papers II: The Scholar & The Database (2001).

Hugh’s colleague, the Slavic cataloger Golda Steinberg, would burst into tears when she saw how the cancer was ravaging his body and darkening his countenance. We embraced, Golda and I, when word of his death reached the library. She says that she still sees him, don’t we all, with his face deep in a book, concealing for the moment that outrageous laugh of his that so endeared him to friends!

The next issue of The Book, newsletter of the Program in the History of the Book, will memorialize Hugh by printing work both by and about him. His chapter on the London booktrade will appear in the fifth volume of The History of the Book in Britain, and his biography of Andrew Millar will be printed in the New Dictionary of National Biography. Let us hope that we will see more fruits of Hugh’s dedication to the products of the printer’s twenty-six little lead soldiers, as he styled them. What a life! What an afterlife! What laughter! What special effects! What fun we had!

Roger Stoddard
Curator of Rare Books, Harvard College Library

Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.