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Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays

History of the Collection

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The Harris Collection began in the mid-19th century as the private collection of Albert Gorton Greene, Brown class of 1820, a lawyer, poet, and judge in the Rhode Island court system. Greene collected poetry in a way unusual for his day: instead of collecting only finely bound editions of the works of prominent poets, he attempted to collect every printed volume of American and Canadian poetry and plays.

After Greene's death in 1868, his collection was sold at auction, and most of the American literature was purchased by Caleb Fiske Harris, Brown class of 1838, and Greene's distant relative. Harris acquired books and art work in many areas, but his most significant achievement was his collection of American poetry and plays. In 1874 he issued a catalog entitled Index to American Poetry and Plays in the Collection of C. Fiske Harris (Providence, 1874). The Index listed over 4,000 works of American poetry, drama, and music, and it came as a great surprise to the scholars and collectors (including Walt Whitman) who received review copies that so much literature had been produced in America.

Walt Whitman's Review

Whitman's review of
The Anthony Memorial

After Harris' death in 1881, the collection was purchased by a third Rhode Island collector, Senator Henry Bowen Anthony, Brown class of 1833, who bequeathed it to Brown University. In 1917, the collection was endowed by Albert Gorton Greene's son-in-law, Samuel Coffin Eastman, Brown class of 1857. The Eastman fund has enabled the collection to grow from the 5,000 volumes bequeathed to Brown in 1884 to the more than 250,000 volumes it contains today.

In the twentieth century, the Harris Collection was greatly expanded through the efforts of Librarian Harry Lyman Koopman and Curator S. Foster Damon. Koopman inaugurated an exchange program with the Library of Congress, through which nearly 20,000 poetry and play titles, many of which were never commercially available, were added to the Collection. Foster Damon's particular interest was music. He developed the Sheet Music Collection from a minor adjunct of the Harris Collection to one of the five largest collections in the United States. Damon was also a poet, and counted among his friends many of the leading poets of the twentieth century. The Harris Collection is greatly enriched by the many presentation and autographed copies he acquired over the years.

Source: Special Collections at Brown University: A History and Guide. (Providence: The Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1988).