Romance is Eternal, and Bowdoin’s Special Collections Can Prove It

Browsing the timeless expressions of love at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library

On June 19, 1864, Col. Joshua Chamberlain lay on an operating table, wounded from a rifle bullet and thinking he had just moments to live. To say farewell, he wrote a note to his wife, Fanny. “You have been a precious gift to me,” he scribbled. “To know and love you makes life and death beautiful.” (Chamberlain survived his injury, and the couple remained together until Fanny’s death in 1905, at age 80.)

Chamberlain’s note, along with other love letters and love-related mementos were set out for public view at Hawthorne-Longfellow Library on Wednesday, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day. Special Collections has begun marking special days and holidays with small exhibits. The last one was on Halloween, and the next will be April 25, on Earth Day, 3 p.m.-5 p.m.

Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, the outreach fellow for Special Collections & Archives, said that she and her student helpers have dug up many romantic treasures as they have searched the collections. One object she found and displayed for the exhibit was an issue of the 1922-1927 Bowdoin campus humor magazine, The Bowdoin Bear Skin. On a two-page spread, a student cartoonist ponders the various meanings of the verb to love, which he calls “quite irregular, quite singular.”

While Van Der Steenhoven said she left most of the really racy stuff in the stacks, she did pull out a 1931 sex manual for married women, Married Love: a new contribution to the solution of sex difficulties, by women’s rights activist Marie Carmichael Stopes. The book, which was controversial for its time, brought the subject of birth control into the public discourse, according to Van Der Steenhoven.

Also on display were several of Oliver Otis Howard’s letters to his wife, Lizzie. Howard was born in Leeds, Maine, in 1830, and graduated from Bowdoin in 1850. He became a career army officer and a celebrated public servant. Bowdoin holds Howard’s collection of letters, scrapbooks, speeches, diaries and photographs — a national treasure of materials documenting America’s military, social, and cultural history through the latter half of the 19th century.

In his personal life, Howard was evidently quite a romantic. He married Lizzie on February 14, 1855, and together they had seven children. On their wedding anniversary in 1862, he wrote to her: “I believe it is seven years ago tonight when that bonfire of [kisses] took place in Portland…I wish I could kiss your forehead tonight and talk about the past, the present and the future.” Exactly one year later, he wrote again: “You seem just as young, just as beautiful, and I think a little more so to me now.”

James Bassett, Bowdoin class of 1934, outdoes both Chamberlain and Howard with his poetic rhapsodies of sentiment to his wife. He was a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times from 1934 to 1977. In 1943, when he was serving in the Navy, he wrote to his wife of seven years, Wilma, “If ever a man sat down at a typewriter to prepare a letter to his wife with less on his mind and more in his heart, then I, personally, will bow to him and possibly even commit harakiri; because I, Bassett, claim that all-time honor.”

Below were a few objects included in the display

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