Among the many cherished recollections that I have retained of the years I spent in the United States, one remains outstanding because it is associated with what, due to my inexperience, appeared to me as something of a discovery. Indeed, it embodies for me to this day the unfathomable wealth and mystery of the city of New York.
This apparent discovery took place quite casually one day on lower Broadway, when I stumbled upon a bookstore which specialized in second-hand government publications and where could be bought for two or three dollars apiece most of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
I can hardly describe my emotion at this find. That these sacrosanct volumes, in their original green and gold bindings, representing most of what will remain known about the American Indian, could actually be bought and privately owned, was something I had never dreamed of. To my mind, they belonged rather to the same irredeemable past as the beliefs and customs of which they spoke. It was as though the civilization of the American Indian had suddenly come alive through the physical contact that these contemporary books established between me and their time. I felt somewhat akin to a sixteenth-century scholar who, finding in what must have corresponded to our second-hand bookstores, old manuscript copies of the works of Homer, Plato, or Virgil, is struck by the evidence that these great men had actually existed since someone had seen and transcribed their written word. Although my financial resources were less than scant and three dollars represented all I had to spend on food for the same number of days, this sum seemed negligible when it could pay for one of those marvelous publications, more alluring to the eye than any costly art books, such as Mallery’s Pictographs, Matthew’s Mountain Chant, Fewkes’s Hopi Katcinas, or such treasure troves of knowledge as Stevenson’s Zuni Indians, Boas’s Tsimshian Mythology, Roth’s Guiana Indians, and Curtin and Hewitt’s Seneca Legends.
Thus it happened that volume after volume and at the cost of some privations. I built up an almost complete set (there is still one volume missing) of the Annual Reports 1 to 48, which belong to the “great period” of the Bureau of American Ethnology. At that time I was far from imagining that a few months later I would be invited by the Bureau to become a contributor to one of its major undertakings: the seven-volume Handbook of South American Indians.
Notwithstanding this close association and the years that have since elapsed, the work of the Bureau of American Ethnology has lost for me none of its glamor, and I still feel toward it an admiration and respect which are shared by innumerable scholars the world over. Since it so happens that in the same year that marks the 200th Anniversary of James Smithson, the life of the Bureau has come to an end (though its activities are carried on under a new guise), the time may be fitting…
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