Two Centuries of Creating U.S. History

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When the Society of Antiquaries of London was celebrated in an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art this year, you could see how the society gradually discovered and interpreted Britain’s history, shaping a nation’s understanding of itself. Now, in a new show at the Grolier Club, “In Pursuit of a Vision,” you see the American counterpart to that narrative in a survey of the collections of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. The American society was partly inspired by the London one, but what a different world it imagines, and what a different sense of history it creates.

It isn’t a matter of the organization’s youth. The London society is more than 300 years old, but the American group is celebrating its 200th anniversary with this exhibition. And it isn’t that the London society kept excavating artifacts and collecting artworks along with manuscripts, while the Americans have gradually shed many collections that were not fundamentally textual.

And it isn’t that the American society is less scholarly or imposing. Its research library has more than four million items, including 750,000 books and pamphlets, along with extraordinary ephemera, from the Colonial era through Reconstruction. The society hosts visiting research fellows and has helped establish an academic discipline with its Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. That focus is one reason that this exhibition is at the Grolier, which is devoted to books as objects of study and appreciation....

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