Henry Edwards Huntington

James Thorpe was a director of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery between 1966 and 1983 and remains associated with the institution that was the primary legacy of Henry Edwards Huntington. He is clearly a devoted admirer of his subject. Every scholar is to some degree indebted to the man who bought all those books and endowed the public with one of the greatest libraries ever assembled. The acquisition of the library is tale enough for a lengthy history. Huntington, however, did not become a serious collector until fairly late in life, and he had first to make his millions before he could spend them in his legendary way. The story of this man’s life has resulted in an enormous book.

Huntington was descended from American revolutionaries, was nephew and protege of railroad magnate Collis Huntington, pulled himself up from modest beginnings and made himself, through the usual grit and ingenuity, a staggeringly rich man. The development of Southern California is in large part due to his interest and investment in the region. At the time of his death, his library was in fierce competition with the British Museum for the rank of world’s greatest library.

Thorpe’s portrait is of an intelligent, hardworking, generous, family man. He was also a paternalistic employer, a strikebreaker, and an absent husband and father—points that are made with unnecessary delicacy. Huntington was a millionaire, not a saint, and he lived by his principles, not necessarily the reader’s. The essential greatness of his character is well presented, but it cannot be forgotten that he was a captain of a particularly ruthless industry. Much of the excitement of the age to which Huntington contributed is regrettably overlooked in this unquestionably biased but nevertheless informative and overdue biography.