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'The Nation's Attic'

A flawed , fascinating account of the origins of the Smithsonian, the ultimate collection of collections

The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian

By Nina Burleigh

Morrow, 298 pp., illustrated, $24.95

When I started this slim book, a new account of the life of the enigmatic and eccentric English love child who went on to become the initiating benefactor of America's Smithsonian Institution, the auguries were far from good, and I thought that I would not like it at all. There were all manner of infelicities about the book that, initially at least, put me right off it. But I persevered and, 200-odd pages later, I put it aside, replete, delighted, enchanted, and fascinated -- and humbled too by the realization that a hasty judgment is often an unworthy judgment, and that all books should at least be given a chance.

But that initial impression was not at all good. Oh no. On only the second page of "The Stranger and the Statesman," when Nina Burleigh is describing the removal of the Smithsonian benefactor's body from his grave in Genoa, Italy, in 1903, she commits a quite absurd error: She writes of the city's winds that December being so fierce as to whip the rain "almost vertical" -- a task that is, one would have thought, accomplished with little fuss by gravity alone. Then there are any number of startlingly inelegant sentences, one reading "Gout is a very painful disease directly related to eating and drinking habits that has come to symbolize eighteenth century excess" being among the more egregious. Burleigh is also clearly more than a little bewildered by the nomenclature of aristocracy, and her breathless accounts of the many figures of the British peerage in the story read as though written by some overawed hobbledehoy, someone who fingers the noblemen's lam draperies in envious amazement and wonders how much they would go for at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps most alarming of all, Burleigh's publishers proved either too cheap or incompetent to include an index for a book that, not least because of its immense number of dramatis personae, is badly in need of one. I daresay the author was particularly annoyed by this omission -- and well might she be, because despite my maundering above, she has told a rip-roaring story very well, and but for a few hiccups and throat-clearings which a good editor could have fixed with a salve and a stiff gargle, she has produced a first-rate little book about an extraordinary and all-too-little-known footnote to recent American history.

The lineage of the story's peculiar hero is majestically complicated: James Smithson was born in 1765 in France as James Macie, and he was the unfortunate biological consequence of the unprotected misbehavior of the heir to the Northumberland dukedom toward his wife's cousin, a sturdily wealthy landowner named Elizabeth Hungerford Keate, who at the time of the birth was newly widowed. (Already one can see a need for an index.) Macie was well off and would be well educated -- not least at Pembroke College, Oxford -- and he went on to become a scientist of some consequence, favoring geology and mineralogy at first, and later chemistry. He was a great collector, too -- he had a cabinet of curiosities that included well over 10,000 mineral specimens.

His rumored illegitimacy was made abundantly clear to such of the public as cared when he was in his 20s, and he changed his name to that of his father, Smithson. He never made much of his aristocratic genes, other than mildly delusionally: "The best blood of England flows in my veins," he wrote. "On my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to kings [not so] -- but it avails me not." Nor did he claim any financial entitlement above that from his mother's estate -- he simply worked, modestly and carefully, on the science that he adored, and lived as a shy bachelor at various elegant watering holes in Europe, deliberately at arm's length from the land in which he had been so carelessly conceived. And then in 1829, after 64 years of an unassuming and scholarly life, Smithson died as quietly as he had lived, in Genoa.

History would have simply drawn down the shutters on his existence, had not his last will and testament then been presented. Smithson's will astonished everyone, for the simple reason that, despite his never once having been to America nor having, to anyone's certain knowledge, ever met an American, he left without explanation the bulk of his considerable fortune to the American government, for the precisely specific purpose of endowing in Washington, D.C., "the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

Why he did such a thing, no one can be sure -- and Burleigh offers us no more in her telling of the story than those familiar with it have already heard all too many times. But no matter: Retelling a mystery as good as this turns out to be a fascinating exercise for reader and writer alike.

Challengers to the Smithson will came and went. Lawsuits were mounted and rebuffed. Doubts about the propriety of accepting foreign money swept across political Washington, and only the prescient genius of John Quincy Adams, the former president now in the House of Representatives, saw to it that the funds were eventually accepted. An American diplomat at length came and took the unanticipated gift of specie away, the money -- worth millions in today's terms -- rendered into 105 sacks of gold, all tucked away safely in the hold of a trans-Atlantic ship.

The money was promptly invested in Arkansas, and all was lost -- an amusing echo of more recent financial scandals from Little Rock. The federal government reimbursed the putative institution, whereupon architects were summoned, structures were built, fires broke out (destroying all of Smithson's papers and collections), and finally what has since come to be known as "the Nation's Attic," the most enormous collection of collections in the world, was born.

Smithson's body moldered in the Genoa ossuary until 1903, when developers tried to build on its site -- and Alexander Graham Bell, no less, was sent over as emissary of a grateful American government to exhume and identify the remains, and bring them home to a burial chamber inside the institution named for him. But even there they were never to be quite at peace: In the 1970s workers managed to set fire to the velvet in which his bones were wrapped, and had to spit water from a nearby drinking fountain to keep them from total destruction.

Every phase of Smithson's bizarre story -- from the circumstances of his birth, to the years through which he lived (the French Revolution and subsequent Terror being in full flood during his most impressionable years), to his death and his weirdly wonderful and wholly inexplicable bequest, up to the macabre end to his interment -- is written about engagingly and intelligently by Burleigh. Her book brings little that is factually new to a familiar tale, perhaps; but it is a complex and fascinating story well told, and so for that reason alone is well worth hearing anew.

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