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Visions of Dante

A Dante Collection At Cornell: A Short History

Who was Willard Fiske?

Daniel Willard Fiske was born in Ellisburg, NY, in 1831. On his father’s side, he was related to General Clinton B. Fisk, for whom Fisk University was named. From his mother’s side, he could claim two Harvard presidents and two Harvard Librarians as ancestors. He studied at Hamilton College and Uppsala University in Sweden. The young Fiske acquired the first volumes of what would become a large collection of Icelandic books, which, down to the present, is surpassed only by the collections of the Royal Library in Copenhagen and the National Library in Reykjavík. Back to America in 1852, he went on to serve as Assistant Librarian at the Astor Library in New York (1852—59); General Secretary and Archivist to the American Geographical Society (1859—60); attaché to the U.S. Legation in Vienna (1861—62); editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal (1863—65); a book-dealer in Syracuse (1866); and correspondent for the Hartford Courant — in which capacity he would cover the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

In 1868, Cornell President A.D. White appointed Fiske as Cornell’s first University Librarian and as Professor of German and Northern European Languages.

In 1880, Fiske married Jennie McGraw, the daughter of a millionaire and philanthropist, whom he had gotten to know during a trip to Venice. Rumor had it that the wedding was encouraged by A.D. White (by then the U.S. ambassador to Germany), who was hoping that the McGraw fortune would go to Cornell. The couple planned to inhabit the largest mansion in Ithaca, designed by William Henry Miller. Alas, Jennie never enjoyed her new home; she died from tuberculosis in 1881. Fiske sold the house (which became the Chi Psi fraternity, and burned down in 1906.) He resigned from his position at Cornell, and moved to Italy. Despite a bitter legal and financial fight with the Cornell trustees, Fiske proved extremely generous with his former employer. Upon his death in 1904, he left his library and the remainder of Jennie’s legacy to Cornell.

For further information about Willard Fiske’s career and collecting, please see the online exhibition curated in 2005 by Patrick J. Stevens,  Willard Fiske: The Passionate Collector and his Libraries; and the article by Christian Y. Dupont, “Collecting Dante from Tuscany: The Formation of the Fiske Dante Collection at Cornell University.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 58, 2007, pp. 185–210. JSTOR, Accessed 16 June 2021.

Purdy & Frear
American, active 1860s–1870s
The Founders and Faculty of the Cornell University, 1869
Montage of albumen print photographs
17 x 13 3/4 inches (43.18 x 34.93 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
11-7- 2784
(2 images)

Montage of albumen print photographs

Willard Fiske became the University’s first librarian in 1868. He held this position until the untimely death of his wife, Jennie McGraw Fiske, in 1881. With funds inherited from her, he built world-class collections on Icelandic literature, as well as on Petrarch and Dante.

Gabriel Legekian & Co
American, active in Egypt 1870–1890
Portrait of Willard Fiske, Cairo, Egypt, 1889
Albumen print cabinet card
6 3/8 x 4 1/4 inches (16.19 x 10.80 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Fiske and Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White were lifelong friends. In 1889, after White’s retirement, they took an extended trip to Greece and Egypt together. This photograph was taken in Cairo, where Fiske impressed White with his knowledge of Arabic and his many academic contacts.

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