P-D-H: THE BOOK COLLECTOR AT HOME by Charles A. Rheault, Jr.

P-D-H : THE BOOK COLLECTOR AT HOME
Charles A. Rheault, Jr.

Having thoughtfully foreseen the possibility that some users of this catalogue might inquire what sort of man had collected all these books, Sidney Ives (rare book librarian at the University of Florida at the time of the Parkman Dexter Howe Library's acquisition) kindly suggested that I might provide some background information about Parkman Dexter Howe, a man of great scope, widely Varied interests, and remarkable energy.

As one who was fortunate enough to have known him as my father-in-law for a third of a century, I find on recollection that one of the most astonishing aspects of Mr. Howe's life is that he could have collected even a few hundred — never mind several thousand — books, for he was so continuously busy in so many varied pursuits that there would hardly be the time, the interest, and the perseverance to do it all.

First and foremost, Parkman Howe was a family man, fond of his children and grandchildren, and devoted to his wife. His other great passion was sailing, whether in a Herreshoff twelve-footer or in a ten-metre racing sloop; he was a first-rate navigator in cruising the farthest shores of down-east Maine; he was a highly competitive helmsman in the often stormy waters of Buzzards Bay; and he was even a noted cook in the galley when called upon. He was also a considerable collector of silverware, and would sweep up several trophies each summer.

When the sailing season was over, Mr. Howe's chief weekend delight was in pruning and clearing the woods and flowering shrubs surrounding his Needham home; he was an ardent and skillful woodsman and, beyond that, a self-taught horticulturist who was equally adept in the art of establishing espaliered fruit trees, or in the planting and cultivating of an extensive rose garden. As yet another hobby, he took up woodcarving, and then the making of fine furniture; his skill can still be attested by four superior pieces which have been passed on to his children.

In business, Parkman Howe was involved for most of his life with the manufacture of textile machinery, and it is fair to say that he was eminently successful: in each of three firms he became either treasurer or president. During this strenuous period, he still found time to take an active part in civic affairs: he was a selectman for three years; he was chairman of the local draft board during World War II; he was a Vestryman and senior warden for his church for nine years; and after leaving business affairs, he became first treasurer and then president of the Children's Hospital in Boston, for a ten-year period.

Collecting books was not one of Mr. Howe's interests until he was in his early forties, when he became seriously involved. Later, he would find it hard to describe the process by which he began to collect; he would usually shrug his shoulders, give a sheepish grin, and admit that it had become an "addiction." From what I have learned from various fragments of family history, I venture to offer a reasonable hypothesis for the addiction.

First, he grew up in a book-collecting environment where his father, Henry Saltonstall Howe, accumulated a truly vast library; the senior Howe collected notable association and presentation copies, first editions of Austen, Hardy, and Eliot, over one hundred books about Napoleon and his times, one book each from the libraries of the presidents of the United States, many multi-volume sets in fine bindings, and a host of other items. Parkman was the youngest of five children, and I dare say he was the closest to his father, and especially so in his book-collecting period; certainly he was the only one of the children who went on to collect seriously.

Second, when Henry S. Howe died in 1931, the huge library was divided up by his five heirs and the individual collections were dismantled. Except for the association copies and the presidential library books, which were bequeathed to Harvard, the rest of the books were widely dispersed, with children taking by turns individual books out of an author collection. This, Parkman Howe mentioned to me much later, was a great pity.

With his share of his father's library, Mr. Howe received a number of books by New England authors, and particularly interesting were those by John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a friend and neighbor of his grandfather in the Haverhill days. Parkman Howe felt the pull of his father's interest, and after some reflection, decided to collect a few more books in the New England field. From Whittier it was an easy leap to Longfellow and Holmes; and soon Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau; eventually, his interests went all the way back to the literary beginnings of New England history. He began first by trying to fill some evident gaps, and would try to exchange or purchase books which his brothers or sister had. Then he began to inquire where other needed titles could be found, and by a rather happy coincidence there was, readily at hand in Boston, Goodspeed's Book Shop — where he began an active and cordial association that persisted for almost fifty years.

Mr. Howe's "addiction" grew apace in the nineteen thirties. Although much of his correspondence was not preserved, he did decide to keep three large letter-files for the years 1933-1936, years during which he was a selectman; the files were full of town affairs, of course, but when I went through the attic after his death in 1980, I found at the end of each file a thick folder of correspondence about books. It was astonishing to see that hardly a week went by without one or two letters being written — to booksellers, to fellow collectors, to scholars, to descendants of New England authors who might have a clue as to where a long-lost eight-page pamphlet might be hidden.

As the trickle of books became a steady stream, Mr. Howe's den in Needham began to overflow; to make shelf space available for New England authors, other books were moved to the living room and the bedrooms; then even some of the New Englanders had to be relegated to the attic and, by the nineteen fifties, even to the basement. He bought a summer cottage in Wellfleet whose shelves were soon filled; now in retirement and busily gardening eight hours a day, he still could not resist temptation when he dropped into a bookstore and found that a Cape Cod author had written some forty novels. Over several years, he found them all, first editions, of course, and was delighted with his finds, even though he did not consider them as properly part of his collection of New England authors.

A recurring theme in Mr. Howe's conversation about books was always "the sheer fun of it." He enjoyed pursuing an elusive title, finding a previously unknown publication, discovering by chance an autograph letter tucked into an old book. He derived an immense amount of pleasure from talking and writing to fellow collectors, booksellers, bibliographers, and anyone who shared his love for books. He would never, though, force his own interest upon a general conversation, and he was so modest in everything that very few people knew him as a book collector. Mr. Howe was extremely diffident about the size and quality of his collection, insisting that other collectors had done a much better job. It was only with some reluctance that he was willing to write a short article for The Book Collector, and he brought the first draft to Sidney Ives (then working at the Houghton Library) only with the most grievous misgivings.

As did his father before him, Parkman Howe derived a special kind of thrill from association copies. He never claimed to be a scholar, nor did he ever claim to be deeply read in the literature of the authors whom he collected, but nonetheless the possession of a book once held in hand by its author, who had then inscribed his name, gave him an immediacy, a feeling that he had met the author himself. For almost all of the New England authors whom he collected, the association copy was the closest he could get to the author; but in the case of Robert Frost, there was a living poet not very far away and, one day in the late nineteen fifties, Mr. Frost was invited to Sunday luncheon in Needham. At that time, Frost was almost at the crest of his fame and popularity; Mr. Howe had been collecting his books for many years, had often corresponded with him, and had a very complete collection of the works, and most of the ephemera as well.

The usual Sunday luncheon, as practiced by Mr. and Mrs. Howe, was a considerable event which included not only children but numerous grandchildren. Matters would begin with the insidious Howe cocktail, shaken up in a large silver milk pitcher (a trophy awarded to Henry S. Howe in his days as an eminent breeder of dairy herds). Luncheon was of formidable size; while the patriarch carved the roast of beef, a succession of enticing dishes were passed until all the plates were full to the brim. Afterwards, the ladies retired to the living room and the gentlemen, in the book-lined den, sipped coffee and lit up excellent cigars.

What Robert Frost made of all this, I cannot say, except that he was gracious, affable, and voluble. I wish I could report that I had written down every word uttered by the poet, but I cannot; I do vividly remember Frost's often unusual choice of words and the cadences of his speech, so markedly different from ordinary small talk. The whole event was memorable in every way, and the host remarked that night that it was the high spot in his love affair with books.

As time rolled on into the nineteen sixties, Parkman Howe had to face a problem which eventually besets all collectors: what to do with the collection after he has gone. Although he had been a member of the Overseer’s Visiting Committee to the Harvard University Library, he felt that he would not leave his books to Harvard; as he told me, "Harvard already has most of what I have, and perhaps some college far from New England, which has not widely collected New England authors, would be more interested." His decision, finally, was to leave the entire collection to his children in his will.

The four children in turn had to decide: would the large collection be divided into four collections, with each author's work kept intact, to be treasured by succeeding generations? Or were the books to be sold separately over a period of time for a new generation of collectors? Or should the collection be kept intact and made available to an institution which could care for it? There was, as can be imagined, considerable discussion, but with three generations' vivid memories of book collecting, a strong undercurrent developed towards keeping the collection intact. When the University of Florida evinced a strong interest, Sidney made an excellent presentation of its real need for the Howe Library, of its concern for the careful conservation of the books, and of the scholarly use to which the books would be put.

A final decision was soon reached, and the heirs unanimously accepted the proposal by the University of Florida, where the Howe collection has now found a good home, not only to be treasured but also to be well utilized; and now, many, many others may share the inspiration and enjoyment which were those of Parkman Dexter Howe.

(Reprinted from: The Parkman Dexter Howe Library: a descriptive catalogue, Gainesville, FL : University of Florida Libraries, 1983-)

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