The largest collection of Browningiana in the world is found at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Why is it in a magnificent building on the rolling plains of Texas, rather than in London or Oxford? The answer is that Dr. Andrew Joseph Armstrong, an aficionado of the life and works of Robert Browning, was head of Baylor’s English Department from 1912 to 1952, and his wife, Mary Maxwell Armstrong, was his staunch supporter. Dr. A., as many of his students called him, was dedicated to the ideal of creating an outstanding collection of Browningiana at Baylor and, ultimately, a beautiful library and museum to serve as a monument to the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth.
Armstrong became a dedicated fan (short for “fanatic,” remember) of the person and works of Robert Browning very early in the 20th century. Elizabeth, who had died in June of 1861, was somewhat out of fashion late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century. Robert lived twenty-eight years after Elizabeth’s death and composed many fine works during that period, including his acknowledged masterwork The Ring and the Book (1868-69). By the time of his death on December 12, 1889, Robert had become one of the most eminent poets of the late Victorian era in Great Britain.
Dr. Armstrong was considered something of a renaissance man: Baylor’s English department head, a teacher adored by most of his students, and knowledgeable in all the arts. To raise money to build the Browning collection (and, ultimately, the beautiful building) he became an impresario and entrepreneur (more on the second later). As impresario, he brought more than 300 luminaries of the first half of the twentieth century to the campus. In many cases, to persuade the famous to come to Baylor, he had to find and schedule other venues in Texas and the southwest for their readings, performances, etc. Thus, he also came to act as a tour agent.
Armstrong arranged the Baylor visits of approximately forty poets, some of whom remain well-known but most of whom have been largely forgotten. As an example, the 1920’s and ’30’s saw visits by such poets as Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel LIndsay, Edwin Markham, the English poet John Masefield and others.
Dr. Armstrong arranged Baylor visits by many celebrities in other arts, as well: for example, the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore who reshaped his region’s literature and music; novelist Sinclair Lewis, whose gruff assessment of the Browning Collection was “A Browning library has no more business in Texas than the Grecian Marbles do in the British Museum”; colorful wanderer and travel writer Richard Halliburton; famous explorers Roald Amundsen, Prince William of Sweden and Admiral Richard E. Byrd; playwright Hugh Walpole; Texas’ own J. Frank Dobie; writer Sherwood Anderson, and, among other actors and companies, Broadway theater stars Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell and Basil Rathbone (Cornell and Rathbone performed the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street at Baylor).
Eminent musicians and dancers came to the University at Dr. A.’s invitation, perhaps most notably the world-famous opera singers Luisa Tetrazzini and Amelita Galli-Curci. In addition, he arranged performances by the eminent violinist Mischa Elman, Frank Asper, organist at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City; contralto Marian Anderson; lyric tenor Roland Hayes (first African-American male singer to achieve worldwide acclaim); lyric soprano Helen Jepson; the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and Devi Dja and her Asian dance troupe.
Numerous lecturers were brought to Baylor, including critics, dramatic readers, humorists, publishers, diplomats, and writers. One lecturer, the prolific American writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant, already well-respected for his The History of Philosophy (1926), later produced (with his wife Ariel) the monumental Story of Civilization (11 vols., 1935-1975). Unfortunately, the eleventh and last volume of the set is The Age of Napoleon. Due to age, and death within two weeks of each other in 1981, The Story of Civilization thus ends in the early nineteenth century.