There’s a persistent strain in the USA of aspiration. Ever since Thomas Jefferson we have desperately longed to not only be smart but to be seen and acknowledged by the world as smart. This is less noticeable now — the 20th century has sort of cemented our place in intellectual history. But in the 18th and 19th century, and the first half of the 20th, we were kind of needy. You can see it in how we named our towns: Rome, NY, Athens, GA, Madrid, NM, Memphis, TN, Cairo, IL, Paris, VA. If you named your new home New York or New Hampshire then you were being homesick. But naming a town of less than 400 inhabitants Paris is touchingly optimistic, a hope and a dream.
Where I am now, this impulse manifested itself in adorning buildings with the names or images of admirable people. I’ve posted before a photo of a medical building adorned with caduceuses and profiles of noted doctors. And here we can see that temple of learning, the main public library building. Up at the eaves the major areas of knowledge are engraved: Biography, Mathematics, Astronomy, Travel. (Wait a minute, travel?)
Lower down are plaques adorned with famous engravers: Hogarth, Durer. And next to them the artists: Titan, Rembrandt, Rubens. And, finally on the benches at ground level, the authors. This one, the largest, commemorates the Inimitable himself, Charles Dickens. But some of the names are of authors that I have never heard of (and at this moment I am irritatingly well read in 19th century English lit). Who is George Borrow? Naturally this kind of thing dates with astounding speed. You don’t see Stephen King or Louis L’Amour here.