The Commons
The Arts

Becoming his admirers

Through their books — which contain our interests, our intimate thoughts, our insights, our activities, information about our friendships, even parts of our lives — we get to meet the Galbraiths

Originally published in The Commons issue #182 (Wednesday, December 12, 2012).


MARLBORO—Before America had talking heads it had public intellectuals.

These were men and women who were respected for the quality of their minds, their educations, their ideas, their contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of the country and to the world.

“The public intellectual (is) someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large,” wrote Barry Gewen in The New York Times in 2008. “Public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way... They might be journalists or academics, but only because they had to eat. At the most fundamental level, ideas for them were not building blocks to a career. Rather, careers were the material foundation that allowed them to define and express their ideas.”

One of the great public intellectuals of the 20th century was John Kenneth Galbraith, a world-renowned economist, a diplomat who served as President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India, a long-time Harvard professor, the writer of more than 45 books, the husband for 68 years of the lovely and accomplished Catherine Atwater Galbraith, and a great and good friend to a long list of America’s greatest cultural figures.

Although they lived in Cambridge, Mass., the Galbraiths were also honored part-time residents of Townshend for 61 years.

Ken Galbraith died in 2006 at the age of 97; Kitty Galbraith died in 2008 at the age of 95.

While Galbraith’s papers went to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, the Galbraiths’ sons — Alan, James, and Peter — donated their parents’ personal library from their home in Cambridge, Mass., to Marlboro College.

Our libraries are ourselves. At the very least, they are part of the insides of our heads, as all of us who have libraries — I mean those of us who still believe in books — know very well. Our books contain our interests, our intimate thoughts, our insights, our activities, information about our friendships, even parts of our lives. By their libraries will you know them.

That thought was running around my head recently at the dedication of the John Kenneth and Catherine Atwater Galbraith Library Collection at Marlboro College’s Rice-Aron Library.

Before the ceremony, I found myself perusing the bookcases, idly pulling out a volume here and there. I was astonished to find that many of them contained hand-written dedications by the authors to either Ken or Kitty. Suddenly these books came alive. They became personal.

And here they were, 2,000 hardbacks and paperbacks, open to the public — open to me! As a somewhat tongue-tied admirer of the Galbraiths when they were alive, I couldn’t resist the idea of taking my intellectual curiosity for a ride, browsing through the books at random, seeing what insights they offered into the Galbraiths’ well-lived lives, and maybe picking up a little inspiration for my own.

The library is open to the public, but you have to check in with the librarian before you can have access to the books.

The library takes the form of three long floor-to-ceiling bookcases that form a wide “U” in a closed room. Study tables with lights and comfortable chairs take up the rest of the space. The books are not organized — neither by title nor Dewey Decimal Number, nor by author nor by any other way of cataloging known to man. It’s organized by serendipity, my favorite goddess. It’s catch as catch can, and the catching turned out to be tremendous fun.

The first few shelves were full of the books Galbraith wrote — translated into so many languages and alphabets that I couldn’t even figure where some of them were spoken. Sure, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but was that Urdu or Sanskrit? I read somewhere that Kitty Galbraith was fluent in Hindi as well as German and some other languages, but I had no idea how widely Ken Galbraith was read.

As to be expected, presidents took up a large part of the real estate. Heavyweight biographies of heavyweights such as Andrew Jackson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. The thick and authoritative “The American President,” published by Sidney Hyman in 1954 — how out-of-date might that one be?

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