Missing Books of the Month: John C. Calhoun Biographies

Biographies jump from Cagliostro to Calvin.

From Cagliostro to Calvin. No Calhoun in sight.

“Did you know that all of your John C. Calhoun biographies are missing?”

No. I didn’t.  Or rather, it had not even occurred to me to check.  Which is, in retrospect, was something of a failure for me as librarian at the Yale Club.

I should have been ready.  This summer, a Yale controversy reemerged.  It came out of a larger conversation about race and racism that has been commanding national attention.   The murders of black men and women in America in 2015 received significant attention in the national news and social media.  These crimes have inspired Americans to again question the public display of symbols linked to slavery in the United States. South Carolina, which saw the murder of nine men and women in a Church Bible Study, at the hands of a young man who associated himself with white supremacist movements and political regimes, came to the center of this maelstrom.  Its governor, Nikki Haley, finally called for the lowering of the confederate flag that used to fly in front of the South Carolina State House.

Another South Carolina lawmaker, one from an earlier generation, also became an important figure in the conversation.  The legacy of John C. Calhoun, American statesman, 7th vice president, vocal defendant of slavery, and Yale graduate is being reexamined by the institution that considered him a great enough figure in its own history that one of its residential colleges is named after him.  Whether it should retain that name has been in question on and off for years. This summer’s reassessment of what the college name means for the University and for the country has been notably chronicled in The New York Times , The Atlantic, and (of course) Yale Alumni Magazine.

It makes sense that our members, most of whom attended Yale and many of whom were members of Calhoun College, would have a special interest in the developments in this discussion.  They should have had ample resources at our library.  Our catalog lists four biographies of Calhoun in our collection, including Charles M. Wiltse’s three-volume collection of his papers and Margaret L. Coit’s 1951 Pulitzer Prizewinning tome.   They’re all mid-Twentieth Century pieces – no recent historians have given Calhoun such lavish attention.  But, in theory, the books were there and waiting to be checked out by a curious member.

Yet, two weeks ago, I received a call from a member: “Did you know that all of your John C. Calhoun biographies are missing?”

My member had been in over the weekend.  He approached the “C” biography section with great anticipation – he could choose any of the books he wanted, or all of them!  He walked away disappointed.  Not a single book was on the shelf. There is only on book in our collection in which Calhoun even figures prominently, a book on the Great Triumvirate: Gerald White Johnson’s 1939 America’s Silver Age: The Statecraft of Clay-Webster-Calhoun.

And, despite the Yale Club’s impressive collection of Yale Publications, the class book from Calhoun’s 1804 year is not in our collection (our holdings are still spotty in the early nineteenth century).  We do have some information on the naming of Calhoun Hall in George Wilson Pierson’s Yale: the University College, 1921-1937 (1955), which did serve another member who wanted to see how the residential college names were chosen in the 1920s.

I confess that part of me wondered if some protesting member had simply made-off with the biographies, hoping that to remove them would remove any seeming support of Calhoun’s ideas of social “justice” – an idea that is abhorrent to me as a professional who believes in providing access to information.  However, given the history of the club with missing books, it’s more likely that over time, these books just disappeared into member book shelves, fell unceremoniously onto Metro-North train tracks, and fell apart from use or disuse.  Plus, there was no tell-tale gap on the shelves where the books would have been, had they been spirited away as a group recently. The conspiracy theorist in me went back to dozing, lightly.

Nevertheless, the resources we’ve lost are ones I will need to replace in some fashion, at least in the form of a very good copy of Coit’s biography.  Whatever Yale may decide to do about the naming of Calhoun College, it’s sure that our libraries must aim to present both Yale and America’s full history, especially the unsettling, disappointing, and unjust bits.

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