Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Baranov Museum's Literary Past, Revealed and Revived

The building that currently holds the Baranov Museum has quite the storied history: from fur warehouse to boardinghouse, it has played many roles in its two-hundred-plus years of existence – including home and social hub, when it was owned by the Erskine family from 1911 to 1948.

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
 An important facet of that home was their extensive library. When W.J. and Nellie moved to Kodiak, they brought their love of reading with them. Nellie, in particular, excelled at combining literary and social interests. On Wednesday evenings, she would have local children over so she could read aloud to them from the classics. ("...she would read a chapter out of The History of Mankind or some boring, boring book like that and then she would read a chapter from The Wizard of Oz," reminisced Thelma Johnson in A Legacy Built To Last, also deeming Nellie "just a lovely person, very lovely.")

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
 History and literature have always gone hand in hand, and the idea that this magnificent old house has a literary past is a thrilling one to me. The stars seemed to align after my interest had been piqued by these long-lost Wednesday readings: Anjuli, our curator, discovered a Kodiak Women's Club yearbook from the 1920s soon afterward, which introduced us to the existence of what had once been the Kodiak Library Club. Then came another fantastic find: a complete inventory list of the Erskines' family library, taken in 1937.

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 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

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