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Our Trip to the Huntington Library

Here's an oldie from one of the greatest voices in rock history: Roy Orbison. It's called "Working for the Man."


 

Yesterday, as part of my wife’s birthday weekend, we went with the kids to Huntington Library & Gardens up near Pasadena. It is definitely worth checking out if you have never had the opportunity. The place is part historical research library, part museum, and part arboretum. If you do nothing but wander through the various botanical gardens, you will easily get your money’s worth. The kids had a great time sniffing and photographing the various plants and flowers. Just the Rose Garden took about an hour. I’ve included some pictures below (most of which were taken by my older daughter, a budding photographer.)








As we wandered through this amazing place, my wife and I had the same recurring thought:  “man, Henry Huntington must have been freaking rich!” The main art gallery is located in a small part of what used to be his ridiculously huge mansion, and the various botanical gardens are essentially his former front and backyard. Much of what you see has been collected and planted since the Huntington exhibit was established after his death in 1927, but still, what he and his wife managed to compile and create is astounding.

So how did he get all of this money? I did a little research, and it turns out that he got some of his fortune the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. Collis Huntington, Henry’s Uncle, made an enormous fortune in the railroad business.  Henry started working for his uncle as a young man and worked his way up in the company. When his uncle died, Henry inherited one-third of the family fortune. Henry would then proceed to become quite a businessman in his own right, making much of his money building electric public transportation systems in California. This was how he ended up buying his “little estate” in Southern California. He married his uncle’s widow – who was close to Henry’s age, so it wasn’t too gross – a woman who turned out to be quite the art collector herself. And the rest, you might say, is history.

Some would therefore describe Henry Huntington as a great businessman, collector, and, ultimately, philanthropist. This is not the only valid point of view, however. After all, how did Henry’s uncle accumulate the massive fortune that became the basis for his nephew’s success? Who did the hard labor of building those railroads, and how well were these workers paid? Some, myself included, would argue that Henry, like his uncle, was also a great exploiter of the working class, and money which could have gone toward providing these workers with a decent standard of living instead went into a fancy house; a hell of a collection of art, furniture, and historical documents; and some damn impressive landscaping. It’s a beautiful place, but was the cost truly justified?  I better discontinue this line of questioning. People might start labeling me as one of those Obama-supporting socialists.

The Huntington Library is one of the many great monuments to wealthy and powerful individuals that have been built throughout the history of the civilized world: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, The Forbidden City, etc. One of the greatest mysteries of life for me is how certain elite individuals are able to amass so much wealth and power. Why do the masses feel compelled to devote so much labor, resources, and devotion to an individual who, in a purely physical sense, is basically the same as they are? Why do people tolerate this degree of inequality? Many answers to these questions have been developed over the years, but I have yet to hear a completely adequate explanation. It may be just another piece of evidence proving that our species is not particularly rational. In the end, monuments to the powerful may be the ultimate paradox. In a place like the Huntington Library, beauty and incredible human achievement are wrapped together with human vanity, waste, and injustice.

3 comments:

  1. I think it's a form of idol worship--we must first create the idols or allow them to be created and then worship that which is sublime, purer, better, more powerful than ourselves. When we no longer have the need to find perfection and greatness in a specific someone or something outside of ourselves, and when we can find greatness in each and every human being, then I hope the injustice will no longer be tolerated and even psychologically created.

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  2. We are all serfs

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  3. On some level, I guess that we all are. (Except for the occasional nobles.)

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