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The Autograph Letter Collection of Mildred Barnes Bliss

Many people are unaware that Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection includes a remarkable assortment of autograph letters from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultural notables. Mildred Barnes Bliss collected them, presumably beginning when she was a young woman traveling Europe. Letters were a natural complement to her interest in etchings, engravings, and rare books. Some of the letters were clearly purchased from dealers, while others were given to her later in life by friends. There are roughly eighty items still in the collection, including the manuscript of an Emily Dickinson poem, a musical note from Richard Strauss, and letters from William Wordsworth, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens, among many others.

The autograph letter collection is a miscellany: there is no single point of focus and the letters range widely in substance. Nevertheless, taken together, the letters speak to the tastes and beliefs of the early twentieth century and to the question of who was thought to be a sufficiently important writer, artist, or thinker. There are some familiar names, but others are now fairly obscure. And while some of the correspondence is quite brief—Victor Hugo’s note is just a few words—other letters are substantial enough to provide generous insight into the personalities of their authors, as in the case of John Ruskin’s to Charles Eliot Norton (“The middle ages are to me the only ages”) or Arthur Henry Hallam’s to Emily Tennyson.