Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays -- Caleb Fiske Harris

Caleb Fiske HarrisCaleb Fiske Harris was born in Warwick, R. I., March 9, 1818. He was the son of Stephen Harris, M. D., and Eliza Greene Harris; both his parents were descended from old Rhode Island families. His mother's sister, Mary Kinnicut Greene, was the mother of Senator Henry Bowen Anthony, another of the founders of the Harris Collection. Harris graduated from Brown University in the class of 1834, and was a businessman in New York and Rhode Island until his retirement.He and his wife died together in a canoeing accident in Maine in the summer of 1881.

As a collector, Harris was interested in English literature, particularly plays, works related to slavery and to the Civil War, and American poetry and plays. Roger Stoddard, formerly Curator of the Harris Collection, notes in an article about Harris:

"In March of 1875 there was issued privately from Providence a small pamphet which was without precedent in the annals of American bibliography. It was entitled Index to American Poetry and Plays in the Collection of C. Fiske Harris, and it credited Mr. Harris with 4,129 volumes in a field almost totally unexplored by scholar or collector. Harris's contemporaries in the book world were historians and collectors in the field of American history, and it would be a nother decade before successors with Harris's inclination toward his native literature could appreciate his foresight and achievement."


"To Americanists, Harris's collection of American poetry and plays is most important of all. Its influence still continues to be felt in collecting, bibliography, and scholarship. John Russell Bartlett wrote for The Providence Journal in 1875: 'Mr. Harris, who has always had a taste for English literature, and formed a very good library of the best writers, both English and American, conceived the idea a few years ago to make his collection of American poetry and dramatic literature as complete as possible, and having once made this a specialty, has pursued it with a zeal unsurpassed by any [other] American collector in this department. To form so large a collection would ordinarily be the work of one's life, but Mr. Harris has accomplished his work mainly within the last fifteen years.'"


"The crucial event in Harris's collecting career with the dispersal of the library of Albert Gorton Greene. Before the sale Harris attempted to purchase the American poetry and plays en bloc, but the renown of that department of the library prompted the estate to decline Harris's offer and the auctioneer to catalogue it in a separate section. Contrary to the statements of several biographers, Harris bought neither the entire Greene library nor the American poetry and plays intact. He was simply one of the largest buyers at the sale. Of about 1,850 lots of poetry Harris bought nearly 1,350, or about 75 per cent. At a cost of about $750 Harris added over 1,600 titles to his collection."


"The [great] virtue of Harris's purchases was bulk: quantities of early small-town imprints, ephemera, and minor rarities of the kind that will always go unrecognized. He added hundreds of songsters, many of them lotted up by the dozen, hundred of plays (one lot conatined over 200), and - again in a single lot - over 1,500 slip ballads. The Greene sale allowed Harris to harvest the fruit of nearly half a century of book grubbing, but it left him largely to his own devices to enrich his collection with the important rarities. . . Within a year after the sale Harris set out to do just that."


"By mid-year of 1873 Harris. . . was hard at work on the catalogue of his collection. In March of 1875 the Index was printed, and he sent copies to prominent scholars, collectors, and poets. . . Most of the recipients and reviewers were startled to learn that over 4,000 volumes of poetry, plays, and songs had been written by Americans. . . But few of Harris's contemporaries were competent to see that he had made one of the most significant achievements in American book collecting."

After Harris's death, the collection was sold through "the shop of Sidney S. Rider of Providence, an eccentric bookseller whose ethics were inscrutable to his contemporaries." Senator Henry Bowen Anthony, Harris's cousin, finally agreed to purchase the collection, although numerous titles (many of considerable significance) were no longer present. Anthony, who died in the following year, left the Collection to Brown University Library.

Source: Roger E. Stoddard. "C. Fiske Harris, Collector of American Poetry and Plays." Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 57, First Quarter, 1963.

» Return to the History of the Harris Collection