When I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, back in the late ’60s, I was lucky enough to get a job as a student assistant in the Bancroft Library. Other student assistants fetched books from the stacks, shelved books, checked books in and out, and filed cards. I got to work in the Manuscript Division of the Bancroft, where I sorted old letters and organized the less important collections. It was not only an interesting job, but I got to meet such luminaries in Western history as George P. Hammond and Dale Morgan.
I never really understood who Bancroft was or where the Bancroft Library had come from, however, until I read this “new” book. Literary Industries is Bancroft’s autobiography, an 800-page work written in 1890, here skillfully reduced to 225 pages by his great-granddaughter Kim Bancroft and published by Heyday Books.
Hubert Howe Bancroft was the son of New Englanders who had settled in Ohio, taking their Protestant work ethic and Puritanical solemnity with them. Bancroft loved his hometown of Granville, Ohio . . . and couldn’t wait to get out of it. Salvation from the farm and the schoolroom came in the guise of his brother-in-law, who hired him to work in his Buffalo, New York bookstore. In 1852 he migrated to California, shipping a stock of books to the Pacific coast and setting himself up as a San Francisco bookseller. He never looked back.
Selling books wasn’t enough for Bancroft. He became obsessed with collecting them. He wanted everything he could get his hands on that pertained to the history of the Pacific slope — not just books, but manuscripts, newspapers, letters, and records of all kinds, and not just California, but everything from Central America to Alaska. He wanted it all, and he scoured Mexico, Europe, and the eastern states for material, amassing a collection of over 60,000 books and documents.
He devised methods for organizing and extracting information from these sources, and pioneered the “history factory” method of writing historical works. He sent out representatives to acquire the recollections of early settlers before their knowledge passed beyond retrieval. One of the most entertaining parts of the book is the tale of how his agent, the sly and charming Enrique Cerruti, courted the wary General Vallejo and won his trunkful of historical documents, and then enlisted Vallejo in the quest to win still more precious documents from the native Californios.
H.H. Bancroft was a remarkable man, in a remarkable age, and this condensed version of his memoirs captures the wit and energy of a unique man. Not only that, but Heyday Books has produced a volume that physically is a pleasure to read and to hold. I bought my copy at the gift shop at Bidwell Mansion and I highly recommend the book to anyone who loves California history.
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