This is the first (biographical) chapter in Mr Stevens' book detailing the collection of material for the creation on the Lenox Library in New York.

James Lenox, son of Robert Lenox of Kirkcudbright and New York

MR JAMES LENOX of New York, the founder of the LENOX LIBRARY in that city, was born in 1800 and died in 1880. A general biography is not aimed at, but only such personal recollections and memoranda respecting him as happen to be in my own private keeping. It is not within my plan to pry into the Lenox reserves, especially as it is understood that he requested on his death-bed that the private particulars of his life might not be publicly canvassed. This is strictly in accordance with the modest and retiring character of Mr Lenox, and is fully appreciated. Providence however set the Lenox beacon on a hill, and it is too much to expect that death should not have partially removed the bushel that so long obscured it.

For more than a quarter of a century (1845- 1871) our intercourse and confidential relations as principal and agent, while he was forming his most valuable library of rare and costly books, were of the closest character, as evidenced by the piles of letters, lists and invoices that passed between us, all still carefully preserved.

Mr Lenox was a man of few words and few intimate friends, but of varied information, much studious reading, extensive correspondence and many books. He was the only son of Robert Lenox, a Scotch merchant who emigrated to New York in 1784, and achieved great wealth during an honourable and long life. James was educated chiefly at Princeton and became a Presbyterian of the strictest sect. He nominally joined his father in business at about the age of twenty-eight as a foreign or importing merchant. The firm was Messrs Robert Lenox & Son at 59 Broadway, and was so styled from 1829 to 1840, when it was changed to ‘James Lenox, Merchant' at the same address, and so continued till about 1845. But with his ample fortune and education, Mr James Lenox's mind was rather on music, gems, engravings, paintings, fine arts and literature, than on merchandize. He was most methodical, and had acquired excellent business habits.

On the death of his father in 1840, he inherited almost the whole of the vast Lenox property, including a large farm of some 300 acres in the upper part of the City of New York, which by the year 1865 became surrounded by the rapidly growing city, and in consequence rose to a value of millions. About this time he sold off building lots to the amount of about $3,000,000, reserving some of the largest and best lots for an extensive public hospital, public library and other public enterprises.

Thus we see Mr James Lenox was not only born with a fortune, but Fortune made him her own through life. He was a pattern of industry, method, and good management. He not only himself worked ten hours a-day, but he managed to make his property work for him twenty-four hours daily, accumulating by good investments like rolling snow- balls. He could there fore well afford to do as he liked ; and it is well known that he liked to do every thing in his own way, without outside influence, interference or dictation.

Mr Lenox was ever most generous and charitable, but like my old friend the late Mr George Peabody, the founder of sundry public libraries, he manifested a dislike of being indebted to strangers or neighbours for hints as to his public or private duties ; nor would he tolerate any interference in his own charitable impulses. He staked out his own course, hoed his own row, paddled his own canoe and revelled silently in his own generous suggestions, which began literally at home in his own bosom.

He paid his taxes liberally, bore his share of the public burdens, pastured figuratively the widow's cow, helped the needy, but avoided all public offices and politics. Perhaps he carried some of these notions a little too far to be reckoned a good citizen. Were many others to do the same the public weal might suffer ; but that is a circumstance hardly to be counted on in New York, where the general tendency is rather the other way : too many citizens giving their time and attention to public business, sometimes even to the neglect of their own.

With all this apparent selfishness, Mr Lenox was always studying the welfare of the public, and that of posterity rather than his own. Yet with all his set ways he was ever tolerant in granting to others the same privileges and pleasures of the mind- your-own -business principles and habits which he uniformly assumed and practised for himself. He thought that more young men prospered by minding their own business than by politics or noisy professions. Hence by some he was thought proud, aristocratic, distant and haughty, but those who entertained or expressed such opinions of him manifestly did not know him. To me, who was in constant communication with him for more than a quarter of a century prior to the founding by charter of the LENOX LIBRARY, he always appeared diffident (almost bashful), simple- hearted, generous, kind, very pious, very retiring and very close- mouthed to outsiders, but as communicative as a child to his intimates ; and especially to those in sympathy with his projects and pursuits. With all his amiable qualities none knew his duties better, and knowing them, none dared maintain them more firmly and consistently than he.

Mr Lenox shunned notoriety with the same ardour that others sought it ; but when it overtook him, as it frequently did, in spite of his reserve, or when it was blown upon him by the breath of the people, he bore it with Christian fortitude and silence, even avoiding to read the newspapers that heralded his praises, knowing that in most cases the writers communicated only fragments of the truth, often exaggerated and distorted.

His love of exactness, or exact conformity to truth, was sometimes carried into inconvenient trifles. He tolerated no interviewers or curiosity hunters, and his own door was seldom opened to visitors except by appointment. He was himself not easily accessible except for good cause, but the treasures of his library, however precious, were generally with great promptitude and courtesy submitted to the use of scholars on due and satisfactory application, but seldom at his own house ; nor was he (with rare exceptions) willing to lend his rare books or let them go out of his possession. His frequent practice was to deposit his rarities, when asked for, in the hands of the librarian of the Astor Library, or some similar place of safety, and then by note inform the applicant that the use of the particular book required was at his service there. He was always extremely nervous and fidgety about the safety of his treasures when out of his own keeping, and uniformly declined applications to 'see his library.’ He even refused, among a good many others we know of, Mr Prescott the historian, but at the same time politely informed that distinguished writer that any particular book or manuscript he possessed which Mr Prescott might name should be forwarded for his use if possible. The words ‘if possible' often used by Mr Lenox in his replies were sometimes incomprehensible, and gave offence to many whose curiosity to see the library overbalanced the desire of access to particular books. The truth was that from about 1845 to 1869 Mr Lenox was actively collecting his library so rapidly, and doing all the work himself, that he had no time to catalogue or arrange his accessions, except a few of the smaller and tidier nuggets which he could put away in the few bookcases in his gallery of art which was also being filled at the same time with paintings and sculpture. The great bulk of his book collections was piled away in the numerous spare rooms of his large house, till they were filled to the ceiling from the further end back to the door, which was then locked and the room for the present done with. The accessions after examination and careful collation, approval and payment, were entered or ticked off in interleaved catalogues of Ternaux-Compans, Rich, Ebert, Hain, Lea Wilson, Offor and others, or in small and special memorandum books, with sufficient clearness for his own use but unintelligible to outsiders. The books were then piled away, or corded up like wood. ‘If possible' therefore was a term which Mr Lenox might fairly use, but was not called upon to explain. Indeed I have heard him say that he had often bought duplicates for immediate use or to lend, rather than grope for the copies he knew to be in the stacks in some of his store-rooms or chambers, notably ‘Stirling's Artists of Spain,’ a high-priced book. Though most tidy and methodical himself he could not permit others to witness this apparent disorder.

One rainy morning in New York, when Mr Lenox and I were discussing ‘Nuggets' and telling anecdotes, chiefly of his father and himself, I ventured to ask him if the story I had often heard of his refusing Mr Prescott permission to see his library was true. He replied that it was painfully true. ‘I had acquired the Munoz Manuscripts from Mr Rich and the Lord Steuart de Rothesay Brazilian papers, with many valuable Spanish and Portuguese books from you, and it seemed to be the fashion of every stranger that came to New York to see the Lenox Library. It was very annoying and I thought that a good opportunity to declare myself.' He therefore gave the inquisitive public to understand through Mr Prescott that though he was forming a library it would not be accessible, except on special occasions, till formed. He relaxed his wholesome rules once or twice, particularly in the case of Mr 'Ander Schiffahrt’ but the treatment he received from that distinguished Frenchman was no encouragement to continue to submit to this inconvenience.

As Mr Lenox advanced in years and took upon his shoulders new responsibilities, he felt more and more that his time, his money, and his brains were all his own, in a lower but not a higher sense, they being the three talents specially entrusted to him by a bountiful Providence for use and due increase. So with a conscience as round as his heart, and with a zeal commensurate with his diligence and his knowledge, he plodded on till he had finished all the work he had begun. Like Noah Webster he was called away in the ripeness of old age just when he had done his life's work, leaving nothing to be finished. A purer, cleaner, and more finished life it is hardly possible to conceive.

Such was JAMES LENOX of New York, who died on the 17th of February 1880, at the age of eighty, the bibliographer, the collector, the founder of one of the most valuable public libraries in the New World, the philanthropist, the builder of churches, the establisher of a large public hospital, the giver to New York of a Home for Aged Women, the dispenser of untold silent charity, and the benefactor of his native city and his honoured country. With all this outcome of a quiet and unostentatious life Mr Lenox was rarely seen of men, and few there be who can from experience divulge the untold particulars of any of his achievements ; especially as to how, when and where he accumulated the treasures of the extraordinary library he bequeathed to the public. He was himself content to labour and to wait under the wide-spreading shadow of oblivion, his many virtues bringing to him their own sufficient reward.

This was the man with whom I had the good fortune to exchange commodities for a continued period of twenty-five years. He gave me his money and his friendship, and I sought the world over to supply him with books and manuscripts. If you will overlook the apparent egotism I will now briefly relate how our good genii brought it all about without any fault on the part of either of us. It was to be, and so I suppose it was. I therefore tell the story as history.

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