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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?

I found Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War” near a slightly water-damaged copy of Theodore H. White’s classic “Making of the President 1960.” Kennedy and Bush: one man who avoided war even when his shoulder was pressed to the wall, and another who greedily sought war out for personal aggrandizement. Their names shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath, much less be sitting on the same shelf. But the authors are very much of a piece. White revolutionized modern political journalism by writing about the Kennedy vs. Nixon election, while Woodward, of course, was part of the team that finally took Nixon down.

It was nice to see that the Galbraiths weren’t above lifting a book or two. “The Roosevelt I Knew,” written by Frances Perkins in 1946, had written in it: “Return to Katherine Gavins Jackson, 17 East 97 St. NYC, Harpers Magazine, 49 E. 33, NYC.”

Needless to say, economics has a large sway. Two shelves hold green-bound copies of 1970 government hearings, mostly on the topic “Role of Giant Corporations: Competitive Aspects of Oil Shale Development.”

A thick book that comes under the heading of “Who has the time?” was “Fascist Economic Policy: An analysis of Italy’s Economic Experiment,” written by William G. Welk in 1938. It describes the economic underpinnings of fascism and, from my brief paging through, seems to illustrate many similarities to our own American economy.

“Greed is Not Enough: Reaganomics,” written by Robert Lekachmanis in 1982, sits on the shelf near “The Numbers Game: How Economists Got it Wrong” by Andy Turnbill in 2001. Pages with quotes from Galbraith’s work are tabbed.

The Galbraiths’ India adventure took only the years 1961 to 1963, but they make up a fascinating part of their library. There are the expected books, such as biographies of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. There is also the collected letters of the two, edited by Sonia Gandhi and signed, “To Professor John Galbraith and Mrs. Galbraith, my very warmest regards, Sonia. 19.11.92.”

But there are also unexpected books that thrust you right into the heart of exoticism. I loved an ochre-bound 1962 picture book called “Indian Hair Styles” by Veena Purohit. In it, she illustrates contemporary styles and shows how they match those of Indian goddesses. She also offers instructions on how to make your hair smell like incense. It’s inscribed by the author, “With compliments.”

To me, the most precious book wasn’t even a book, but a revised proof (without photos) of the memoirs of the Princess Gayatri Devi, the third maharani of Jaipur. The book, which is marked “Confidential. Please do not quote for publication until verified with the published book,” is the story of this beautiful and fabulously wealthy Indian socialite. It is dedicated “To the people of Cooch Behar and Jaipur.” I could have easily lost several hours to the description of how she chose her wedding dress. (It was red.) After Indian independence, the princess ran for election to Parliament, won, and served.

There was also “Life of Maharaja Ala Singh of Patiala and His Times: Based on Contemporary and Original Sources” by Kirpal Singh, “research scholar,” 1954. Ala Singh was maharaja between 1714 and 1765, and the book comes with a hand-folded map of the territories he conquered.

“Just as Napoleon had benefitted by his marriage with Josephine, similarly Ala Singh substantially benefitted by his marriage with Fateh Kaur” writes Kirpal Singh.

Most touching of the Indian books was a tiny thin yellow-green bound copy of an idealistic lecture given by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur called “The Concept of Social Service In Relation to World Needs and Problems.”

Only 27 pages, it ends with these words: “Gandhi said, ‘My goal is friendship with the world and I combine the greatest love of man with the greatest opposition to wrong.’ I learned during the years that I was privileged to be with this great man that the glory of life is to love, not to be loved, to give, not to get, to serve, not to be served, to be a strong hand in the dark to another in the time of need, to be a cup of strength to any soul in a crisis of weakness... It is for freedom from the bondage of poverty, hunger and disease, for the freedom of the spirit of man that we must all dedicate our lives. That we may, each one of us, be given the courage, the wisdom, the love and the faith so to do is my earnest hope and prayer.”

This good man writes on the title page, “To Kitty Galbraith, with my love and gratitude for all her kindness to me during her all too brief sojourn in India. From Amrit.”

Jacqueline Kennedy visited the Galbraiths in India. I found a copy of “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” collected and published posthumously by her daughter. The inscription reads, “For Mother/Grandma, Who graced our lives. Happy 89th Birthday! Love, Ying, Jamie and Eve.”

Wistfully leaving India, I moved on to vast stretches of American history, including Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War and biographies of power players such as William Randolph Hearst, John Foster Dulles and Tip O’Neill. There is also “The CIA: A Forgotten History of U.S. Global Intervention Since World War 2,” signed by the author, William Blum, in 1986.

An integral part of the armory of a public intellectual is literature, which takes pride of place on the back wall. I found the works of James Joyce, Graham Greene, the Modern Library librettos of Gilbert & Sullivan (dated 1925), Archibald MacLeish, the complete Trollope, George Bernard Shaw’s collected letters, the complete works of Proust, a lot of Updike and Untermeyer, a little Lessing and Edith Wharton, the poems of e.e. cummings, and an illustrated copy of the Argentine poet José Hernández’s Martin Fierro — in Spanish.

I was relieved to find, tucked at the end of one shelf, a well-worn Patricia Cornwell medical mystery paperback. Not all Proust all the time, then.

The arts, both high and low, were also well represented. The (separate) biographies of David Niven and Lucille Ball, for example, as well as Jerome Robbins’ biography. I found Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner and Mme. de Stael all together. My intellectual curiosity was getting dizzy.

“So This is Depravity” by Russell Baker sat next to “Bertrand Russell: A Political Life” by Alan Ryan.

A biography of Mary Anne Evans, also known and revered as the writer George Elliot, turned out to be a gift to Kitty from a friend. Tucked inside was a personal letter that began, “I hope that you enjoy this as much as I did...” and a folded photocopy of an article from a magazine titled “The Stigma of Success?” by Uday S. Mehta.

Next to the 1958 “The Guide to Garden Flowers” by Norman Taylor, I found a 1968 book called “Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France” by Geoffrey Warner. Written on the inside cover was this: “For Dad, with thanks for the great thesis idea. Unfortunately, someone else already wrote it. Love, Peter.” It gave a nice glimpse into the Galbraiths’ family life.

When the great poet W. B. Yeats died, according to W. H. Auden, he “became his admirers.” His work became “scattered among a hundred cities and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections.”

My affections may be “unfamiliar” to Mr. and Mrs. Galbraith, but at Marlboro College, they live and breathe in many astonishing ways through the books they left behind.


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