Mister Carnegie’s “Libary”

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When I was very young, I thought Andrew Carnegie lived in Moberly, Missouri (population 12,000, smack dab between St. Louis and Kansas City), because he gave Moberly what we natives called the “Libary.” Possibly he lived in the big red brick house at the end of Fifth Street, the one with the tennis court and the curved drive, or perhaps in the yellow stone mansion with tall white nillars on West Reed Street. They were both immense solid buildings similar to the library, and certainly appropriate as a dwelling for a man of Mr. Carnegie’s importance.

When I was older and wise enough to know that Mr. Carnegie would sniff at anything under a sixty-six-room castle, my mother, one of Mr. Carnegie’s high priestesses, and my two sisters and I went to New York. From behind a tall iron-spike fence we gazed respectfully for a long while at Mr. Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion, noting with pleasure the handsome pink brick, imposing enough for one of his own libraries. We half expected to see Mr. Carnegie’s ghost peering out at his Moberly librarian from one of the windows of his walnut-panelled study. But no Mr. Carnegie appeared, just as there had been no Nicholas Murray Butler all summer at the Butler residence on Morningside Drive. Mother had rented rooms for herself and three daughters right across the street, sideways, from Mr. Butler’s house, there being nothing available near Mr. Carnegie’s. And besides, Mr. Butler was the president of Columbia University, where she was taking a library course while Helen and Eloise went to Teacher’s College. I, being only thirteen, was experimented on in education classes by budding teachers.

Each of us was expected by Mother to look out the window once a day in hope that we could glimpse Mr. Butler—“just to say you’ve seen him.” And just as Mr. Butler was never at his windows, now there was nothing but plain glass in Mr. Carnegie’s, not even a ghost or anything alive.

“I simply don’t believe it,” Mother said suddenly, with an alarming vehemence, and I knew exactly what she meant. We didn’t believe it when we read it in a book, and we certainly didn’t believe it now, looking at the fine respectability of Mr. Carnegie’s house.

“Imagine Mr. Carnegie being called a robber, an octopus. I never heard anything so ridiculous. There wasn’t a crooked bone in his body. That fine man, the Giver of Libraries.”

Mother’s—and Mr. Carnegie’s—library was a square, solid gray stone building with pillars and pigeons decorating its front. The pillars Mother was proud of. I am not sure whether they were Doric or Corinthian or just plain Moberly in design, but they were stout, impressive columns of stone giving a proper dignity and tone.

The minute you entered the library you knew you were in some place absolutely different from anything else in Moberly. It was not only the rows and rows of books, but it was the smell of paste and people, and the soft little noises that wouldn’t be sounds at all except in the library: the quiet turning of magazine pages and rustling of a newspaper, the cautious tread of a footstep, the surreptitious crunch of a bar of candy.

The first thing you saw in the library was Mother sitting at the half-moon-shaped golden-oak desk. She looked very imposing and majestic rising above the desk, but if you were to glance inside, you would see that she had her legs curled around the rungs of the high stool. She was sitting on a pile of books, not the best new ones, of course, but some old Kathleen Norris or Grace Livingston Hill Lutz, whose literary merit she regarded as distinctly inferior.

Mother judged people by their reading habits, and she was proudest, perhaps, of Ben Jacks, who lived in the library. That is, he lived in the library as much as anyplace else, because he had no home at all. He slept nights in the railroad station, spent the mornings in the post office and his afternoons and evenings in the library. Ben Jacks limped and walked with a cane, and he ate candy while he read. Eating was forbidden in the library, but Mother pretended she did not see this. He read the best magazines and the New York Times, and this made up for the fact that he was disobeying a rule. (Mother herself liked to eat while she read and often did so at home.) It was her belief that anyone who delved so deeply in the Times was bound to be a superior sort of person, even if he did sleep in the railroad station. Sometimes Ben Jacks took naps in the library, leaning back comfortably in the rocking chair by the window. Unless he was holding on to the New York Times when he fell asleep, Mother did not disturb him.

Three other persons in Moberly besides Ben Jacks also read the New York Times daily, but Ben Jacks usually got it first, and I think Mother was secretly glad. She knew that of all people in Moberly the library and Mr. Carnegie meant more to Ben Jacks than to anyone else except herself. Most people, she was sure, took the library and Mr. Carnegie’s beneficence for granted, but Mr. Jacks received too much from the library to regard it with nonchalance. It was his home as well as his hobby. He and Mother had even discussed Mr. Carnegie together, and Mother said you could tell he had a fine mind: he agreed with everything she said.