W.J. Erskine, an ambitious businessman, worked for (and later purchased the Kodiak holdings of) the Alaska Commercial Company; Nellie, his cousin, was a San Francisco debutante with an ebullient spirit and a thirst for adventure. They married in 1909 and moved to Kodiak in 1911, where, as their daughter Carolyn wrote in her memoir Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak, “Between them, they established a home unlike any other in that part of the world.”
|Nellie on her first trip to Alaska in 1908|
But children weren’t the only ones who benefited from Nellie’s literary enthusiasm. One of her social endeavors was the formation of the Kodiak Library Club. She and other Kodiak women established the club in 1922, decades before the A. Holmes Johnson Public Library was founded. The club involved fortnightly meetings, each devoted to the discussion of a specific book. Each meeting had a designated discussion leader and hostess, and the Erskine home was often the location. The Library Club quickly expanded into the Kodiak Women’s Club, devoted to numerous types of social and public service, but it always retained its literary roots.
Nellie's literary passion was news to me when I happened across the mention of her weekly classics readings in one of the museum's albums. It was an idea that captivated me right away, since I've been devouring books my whole life. (I have it on good authority from my mother that I used to try to eat mine back before I figured out how to read them.) Getting acquainted with literary classics in college, I was struck time and time again by the way these great, lasting works encapsulate just how much has changed about society -- and, even more resonantly, just how little has changed about humankind -- since the time they were written.
|The bookplate designed by W.J. Erskine|
for his family's personal collection
The list is full of titles both familiar and long forgotten -- although a great deal of Googling has proven that few things are lost to absolute obscurity in the internet age. Drawing from the authors featured in the Erskine Library Inventory, we at the museum have decided to revive the building's history as a meeting-place for literature lovers by starting the Baranov Museum Literary Club. One Sunday afternoon each month will be devoted to discussing and exploring a work by one of the authors on the Erskines' list.
The Literary Club will kick off on Sunday, January 15 from 2:00 to 3:30 with Oscar Wilde's very funny play The Importance of Being Earnest -- a fun one to read aloud, not to mention that it poses some big questions about the institution of marriage, the nature of fiction, and whether cake or bread-and-butter is the truly stylish snack. Do join us, and bring your loftiest British accent! The play can be read online or downloaded in various E-reader formats for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP if you'd like to participate.
Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak by Carolyn Erskine Andrews
A Legacy Built to Last: Kodiak's Russian American Magazin by Susan M. Jeffrey