Vexed in the City: Escape to the Morgan Library

What’s worse than getting the flu–miserable aches, pounding head, bone-splintering chills, a fever you stubbornly endure until it flirts with 104 and you can almost hear your brain fluid begin to bubble? Having to go on a business trip the day after your fever breaks. Irritated at being forced to break my three-year streak of not taking a sick day, only hospitalization or death would make me miss a long-planned professional workshop. And so, armed with grit and a pocket full of cough drops, I tackled Manhattan.

No one has less patience with New York City than an ex-New Yorker. More than once I almost did a Midnight Cowboy and pounded on the hood of a car: “I’m walkin’ here!” Somehow I stayed out of trouble, survived my class, and checked out of my seedy Midtown hotel with half a day before my train home. Normally I’d be happy just to walk around and explore, but it was pouring rain, and post-viral fatigue dampened my normal sense of adventure. Soaked within a few blocks, I needed an oasis. Not a noisy coffee shop or a squalid seat in Penn Station, but a place that might soothe my fractious mind as well as dry out my jeans. I found it on Madison Avenue: the Morgan Library and Museum.

Constructed in 1906 to house the private library and collections of legendary banker J.P. Morgan, the library became a public institution in 1924 in accordance with Morgan’s will. Morgan accumulated a fascinating array of books and other artifacts. As someone who’s always been incorrigibly curious about almost everything, this dilettante’s hoard resonated with me warmly. “Treasures from the Vault” on display included:

  • letters from the Civil War
  • a Gutenberg Bible
  • jeweled book covers
  • signed orders from 15th century queen Isabella of Castile
  • illuminated “Books of Hours” and novels from the medieval period
  • handwritten manuscripts by some of my favorite composers, including Mozart and Debussy
  • Norse, Byzantine, Roman, and Gothic jewelry
  • an astonishingly fine collection of ancient Assyrian cylinder seals
  • and more.

Morgan’s study and original library are worthy exhibits in their own right. A white marble rotunda connects the two, along with the former office of Morgan’s longtime librarian Belle da Costa Greene, who helped him acquire the collection. (Her room now exhibits archaeological pieces.) The study, with rich red damask on the walls and art objects scattered around the room, could host a scene from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Portraits of Morgan Sr. and Jr. hang over twin fireplaces. Bits of stained glass stud the windows. In one corner is the entrance to the “book vault”, an armored room built to protect the collection’s most cherished prizes. Yes, the man had a personal book dungeon, every erudite supervillain’s home remodeling dream.

The library, meanwhile, may be the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the one from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, about which I fantasized as a child: three levels of shelves with wrought iron railings around the catwalks; leather-bound volumes behind diamond-paned glass cabinets; a tapestry of cavalry knights over the vast hearth. Sure, it’s a bit gaudy by modern standards, but exudes the irresistable-if-slightly-overblown romance of a Victorian novel. I enjoyed several peaceful minutes to myself between tour groups, basking in the familiar musty quietude of old books.

Illustrations grace not only the medieval manuscripts, but the space itself. Scenes from classic literature–Homeric myth, Arthurian legend, and Renaissance allegories–decorate the rotunda ceiling. Historical figures gaze down from the library’s lunettes. It may not be Michelangelo (although he is one of the painted personages), but unlike the crowded Sistine Chapel, here I could sit on a bench in relative peace and study the designs for as long as I wanted. I especially liked the portrait of Galileo flanked by elegant personifications of science and astronomy.

The Morgan Library - view of books and a painted ceiling
Galileo, flanked by Science and Astronomy, looks down on illuminated medieval books displayed in the Morgan Library.

The larger museum also includes space for rotating exhibits. On the day of my visit, the gallery featured It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200. I’ve always held a certain fondness for Mary Shelley’s 1818 book, widely acknowledged as the first science fiction novel (remember that the next time someone suggests female authors are interlopers in the field). Although the showcase itself underwhelmed, I enjoyed learning how many ways the monster’s tale evolved from the original Gothic novel:

  • stage adaptations (including a 19th century musical burlesque)
  • a 1910 silent film by Edison studios
  • comic books
  • numerous Hollywood movies, including spinoffs, monster mash-ups, and parodies

Literary snobs can wrinkle their noses at sci-fi, but the fact that Shelley’s story can touch audiences across two centuries evinces the genre’s unique ability to capture imagination. When I left–staggering back through New York City in the rain, sick and alone despite the oppressive crush of people–I felt new compassion for the Creature.

Yet the library acted as a balm on my annoyance. As I jostled along drizzly crosswalks and dank train platforms, I projected walls of books around me like a protective charm against vexation. The mental magic got me safely home without any fights or psychological meltdowns. Better still, the artifacts I saw sparked several new story ideas. I recommend a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum for any fellow book nerds or intellectual butterflies with a few spare hours in New York City!

3 thoughts on “Vexed in the City: Escape to the Morgan Library

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  1. This is a wonderful bit of writing. I confess your description have piqued my curiosity. I make time to visit the Morgan Library next time I visit New York City.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! The library inspires writing, and thoughtfulness in general. I hope you get to visit. I believe the “Treasures from the Vault” rotate periodically–the museum’s web site boasts many artifacts I didn’t see on display–so you might see an even more intriguing array of items than I did.

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