Thursday, April 2, 2009

“Those Known Parts in that Unknowne Worlde”

Here's my take on the prompt, "1,000 words on the burning of Harvard Hall."

The city of Boston did not appear anywhere in John Speed’s 1627 atlas, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World. Completed three years before John Winthrop’s fleet sailed for Massachusetts Bay, Speed’s compilation featured a map of “AMERICA with those known parts in that unknowne worlde” that included detailed street plans of Cuzco and Havana, but left most of North America blank. In an attempt to fill the vast emptiness between Hudson Bay and “The Virginian Sea,” Speed covered the land with the names of explorers, perhaps as talismans against the uncharted void. To the north and west, the continent faded vaguely into a coastless abyss.

Less than a century after Speed sent his atlas out into the world, a copy found its way into that unmapped wilderness. In 1723, the fledgling college at Cambridge, Massachusetts listed a copy among the treasures of its growing library.  Though Harvard Hall housed several thousand volumes, few were more alluring to students than Speed’s illustrated folio. If none of the nearly 100 maps caught a particular student’s fancy, the supplementary engravings — bare-breasted personifications of the elements, voluptuous women and gallant courtiers displaying their national costumes, fanged sea monsters prowling the coastlines — surely did. Thomas Hollis, one of Harvard’s great benefactors, complained that “boyish students” enjoyed valuable atlases too much, charging that they “take them to their chambers, and teare out pictures & maps to adorne their walls.”

In the cold cells under Harvard Hall’s leaky roof, generations of the colony’s future leaders drifted off to sleep under Speed’s engravings and dreamed of a world beyond Cambridge. For aspiring merchants, Speed promised splendid Indian kingdoms “aboundant in sundry sorts of spices” and illusive southern continents rich in “either Land, people, or Comodities.” For budding philosophers, the atlas provided maps of the real Cambridge, framed by the colleges’ ancient coats of arms and portraits of richly-robed scholars engaged in learned discourse. Young politicians admired the grandeur of London, prospective ministers traced the contours of the Holy Land, and would-be soldiers searched out the names of famous battlefields. At Harvard, on the fringes of the “unknowne worlde,” Speed’s maps formed a bulwark against the precarious isolation of a still-vulnerable colony.

The most important pages in Speed’s atlas were his detailed maps of England. As the first world atlas published in English, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World placed the British Isles at the center of the world, rather than relegating them to the periphery. No other atlas in Harvard’s library devoted a hundred pages to detailed maps of the English counties or included historical maps like Speed’s “BRITAIN As it was DEVIDED in the tyme of the Englishe Saxons.” For New Englanders, an intimate knowledge of the streets of Canterbury, the villages of Oxfordshire, and the territories governed by Hengist of Kent strengthened their claim to Englishness. Though most of Harvard’s students had never set foot on fair Albion’s soil, any who studied Speed’s atlas could imagine that he knew the land as well as any man born there. The colonists’ identity as Englishmen informed their understanding of their legal rights, their history, and their relationships with their French Catholic neighbors. Thus, the material trappings of that Englishness — shillings, livestock, linen shirts, and maps of Britannia — had resonance beyond their prosaic utility.  They were signposts of civilization in a world that remained unsubdued.


On the evening of January 24, 1764, the priceless atlas lay quietly on its shelf as the Governor’s Council met in Harvard’s library. An epidemic of small pox had driven the gentlemen out of Boston and the college, empty of students during the winter vacation, seemed the best alternative meeting place. Most members of the General Court and many of the Governor’s Council knew Harvard Hall well; they were once the very students who had exasperated Thomas Hollis with their youthful irreverence. Perhaps one of the councilmen, remembering Speed’s atlas from his student days, sought it out and perused it during a break in the proceedings. If so, he would have been the last to touch it.

In the dark hours after the Council adjourned, a coal continued to smolder in the library fireplace. Outside, a howling snowstorm blew in from the west, but inside, a spark caught and spread, engulfing the dry leaves of five thousand beloved books. The atlas was among those lost, its ink-etched oceans no match for the accidental flames.

By the time a neighbor noticed the smoke and raised an alarm, the fire was unquenchable. Every available man, including Governor Bernard and members of the General Court, worked through the night to save the college, but they succeeded only in containing the blaze. When dawn broke over the harbor, Hollis, Stoughton, and Massachusetts Hall were singed and Harvard Hall was a smoking heap of rubble. Not a single page of Speed’s atlas, either from the folio or from the map-decked walls of the students’ dormitories, escaped the conflagration. As the Massachusetts men, sooty and sweating despite the relentless snow, surrendered their fire buckets, they watched the cloud of smoke drifting eastward, over pox-riddled Boston, over the stormy harbor, and toward an invisible England.

1 comment:

Robert J. said...

A clever opening gambit, focusing on the single book. My favorite historico-biblio-Harvardian opening is from one of Samuel Eliot Morison's tercentenary essays, written in 1934 and reproduced in a number of places:

"Autumn has crushed her vintage from the wine-press of the year. November has come, the days of family reunions and New England anniversaries. In November the Mayflower sighted Cape Cod, and the Compact was signed; it is the month of Thanksgiving, the important football games, and John Harvard's birthday. The Old Farmer's Almanac advises us to observe November by taking in cabbage, casting up accounts, and filling the cellar with good cider, 'that wholesome and cheering liquor'. So let us pause, and take stock of the past, and for a moment forget about Mussolini, Ethiopia, and our own politics. Let us take down from our shelves Bradford's History of Plimmoth Plantation and turn to that noble and prophetic passage where the Governor of the Pilgrim Fathers in his old age summed up the history of his Colony."