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The Correspondence of Voltaire in the collections of the New York Public Library

Nicholas Cronk with the participation of Paul LeClerc

The collections of the New York Public Library (NYPL) contain a remarkable wealth of material about Voltaire.1 Even in the edition of the Correspondence and related documents, edited by Theodore Besterman, we find four letters whose manuscripts are preserved in the NYPL: two notes addressed to Formey when Voltaire resided in Berlin (D4943, D5174)2 and two letters addressed to Ami Camp (D8775, D10312). Since the publication of the second (so called "definitive") edition of the Correspondence, other manuscripts of Voltaire's letters have enriched the NYPL collection. Two manuscripts were bequeathed to the library (see below D6009a, D19945a), and the library was especially fortunate in being able to acquire the significant collection of Martin J. Gross, which contains numerous Voltaire manuscripts and printed items.3 The purpose of this paper is to review these new acquisitions, in the context of the first revision of Besterman's edition of the Correspondence which is currently under way.

The seven unpublished letters (along with a document of which only a part has been previously published), which we present here, are linked neither by topic nor by unique correspondent (unlike, for example, Voltaire's letters to his nephew, the Abbé Mignot, few of which few are published for the first time).4 The current letters come from all periods of Voltaire's life, from his English sojourn (which letters are all the more valuable for their rarity) to his days as a patriarch. These letters belong to different epistolary genres, and if some can be placed in an already known "series", such as those addressed to Laleu or Vasselier, others, such as those Voltaire sent to Lord Bathurst or Lépine, open up new perspectives. Each of these letters encourages us think again about the private and public life of Voltaire: further stones to add to the monument built by Theodore Besterman. For as Christiane Mervaud recently wrote, "this enormous corpus of letters remains at the heart of current research into Voltaire".5

Contacts between Th. Besterman and the New York Public Library

The exchange between Theodore Besterman and Dr. Robert W. Hill, Keeper of Manuscripts at the New York Public Library, testifies to the Herculean task carried out by Besterman when preparing his edition of Voltaire's correspondence. The exchange of letters between Hill and Besterman, always exquisitely courteous, starts in 1949 and continues until 1963.6 At first, Besterman wrote from Paris on paper bearing the letterhead of UNESCO; later, he wrote from London (1950-1952), and finally from les Délices, Voltaire's chateau in Geneva (from 1952). Hill writes to Besterman: "Does your need for Voltaire items continue?" (8 May 1950). Besterman responds: "How very kind of you to remember my interest in Voltaire! Pray by all means continue to send me notes of any material you may come across. I am progressing, but occasionally feel overwhelmed" (31 May 1950). Besterman requests his services: "I wonder whether I might ask you for your help to locate some Voltaire letters? . . . I think perhaps a phone call from you to Mr Blumenthal might be more effective than a letter from me. At any rate, I wish you would try. I should be very greatly obliged" (17 December 1951). On very rare occasions, a personal note intervenes in the business correspondence between the two men: on the 14 July 1952, Besterman announces to Hill, in a letter bearing the header "Les Délices, Genève", that "I am now the director of this institute". Hill responds: "Very best wishes for a fruitful and successful directorship; please command us if there are matters here in which we can be of service" (14 August 1952). Besterman speaks of the difficulties he encounters in obtaining photocopies (10 December 1955), and sometimes he complains: "I must say that Mr Swann has been most uncooperative" (18 February 1954). Hill sends catalogues to Besterman, while the latter refers to what he calls "the American problem": "Alas, the American problem remains exactly what it was. I know that there must be a number of Voltaire letters in private hands, and perhaps even in out of the way public collections, but I am no nearer to discovering their whereabouts" (30 September 1953). Besterman places an advertisement to find letters in America;7 but to his disappointment he receives only one answer: "Unfortunately, this notice was so discreet that it has produced only one reply, yielding one letter, which is of course better than nothing". And he continues: "I am afraid you will think me very ungracious, but, knowing from the auction records that there are scores of Voltaire letters in private, and possibly even in public hands in the United States, it is tantalising not to be able to lay my hands on them. But of course I am really very much obliged to all those who have kindly helped, and not least to you." (20 August 1952). In addition to the wealth of its own collection, and thanks in particular to Robert Hill, the New York Public Library played a significant role in the formation of the corpus of the Besterman edition.

Principles of the transcription

The letters and documents that follow are transcribed as accurately as possible. In the manuscripts, it is of course often impossible to distinguish between lowercase and uppercase letters.

— Nicholas Cronk
Director, Voltaire Foundation
University of Oxford
November 2011

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La Correspondance de Voltaire dans les collections
de la New York Public Library

Nicholas Cronk avec la participation de Paul LeClerc

Les fonds de la New York Public Library (NYPL) contiennent des richesses remarquables au sujet de Voltaire.1 Déjà dans l’édition de la Correspondence and related documents éditée par Theodore Besterman, nous trouvons quatre lettres dont les manuscrits sont conservés à la NYPL: il s’agit de deux notes adressées à Formey, lorsque Voltaire résidait à Berlin (D4943, D5174)2 et de deux lettres adressées à Ami Camp (D8775, D10312). Depuis la publication de la deuxième édition (dite "Définitive" . . .) de la Correspondence, d’autres manuscrits de lettres de Voltaire sont venus enrichir les collections de la NYPL. Deux manuscrits ont été légués à la bibliothèque (voir ci-dessous, D6009a, D19945a) et surtout la bibliothèque a eu la très grande chance de pouvoir acquérir l’importante collection Martin J. Gross, qui contient de nombreux imprimés et manuscrits voltairiens.3 Le but de cet article est donc de faire le bilan de ces nouvelles acquisitions, dans la perspective d’une première révision de l’édition Besterman de la Correspondence qui est actuellement en chantier.

Les sept lettres inédites (accompagnées d’un document en partie inédit) que nous présentons ici ne sont liées ni par un thème ni par un correspondant uniques (contrairement, par exemple, aux lettres de Voltaire à son neveu l’abbé Mignot, publiées pour la première fois il y a peu).4 Elles viennent de toutes les époques de la vie de Voltaire, depuis le séjour anglais (dont les lettres sont d’autant plus précieuses qu’elles sont plus rares) jusqu’au règne du patriarche. Ces lettres appartiennent à des genres épistolaires différents, et si certaines s’insèrent dans des "séries" déjà connues, comme celles adressées à Laleu ou à Vasselier, d’autres, commes celles que Voltaire envoya à Lord Bathurst ou à Lépine, ouvrent de nouvelles perspectives. Chacune de ces lettres nous incite à réfléchir de nouveau sur la vie privée ou publique de Voltaire: autant de pierres apportées au monument construit par Theodore Besterman. Car, comme l’a écrit récemment Christiane Mervaud, "this enormous corpus of letters remains at the heart of current research into Voltaire".5

Les contacts entre Th. Besterman et la New York Public Library

Les échanges entre Theodore Besterman et le docteur Robert W. Hill, Keeper of Manuscripts à la New York Public Library, témoignent du travail herculéen qu’entreprit Besterman en préparant son édition de la correspondance de Voltaire. Les échanges épistolaires entre Besterman et Hill, toujours d’une courtoisie exquise, remontent à 1949, et continuent jusqu’en 1963.6 Au début, Besterman écrit de Paris sur du papier à en-tête de l’UNESCO; par la suite, il écrit de Londres (1950-52), et enfin depuis les Délices (à partir de 1952). Hill écrit à Besterman: "Does your need for Voltaire items continue?" (8 mai 1950). Besterman répond: "How very kind of you to remember my interest in Voltaire! Pray by all means continue to send me notes of any material you may come across. I am progressing, but occasionally feel overwhelmed" (31 mai 1950). Besterman demande des services: "I wonder whether I might ask you for your help to locate some Voltaire letters? . . . I think perhaps a phone call from you to Mr Blumenthal might be more effective than a letter from me. At any rate, I wish you would try. I should be very greatly obliged" (17 December 1951). En de très rares occasions, une note personnelle intervient dans la correspondance entre les deux hommes: le 14 juillet 1952, Besterman annonce à Hill, dans une lettre portant en en-tête "Les Délices, Genève", que "I am now the director of this institute". Hill répond: "Very best wishes for a fruitful and successful directorship; please command us if there are matters here in which we can be of service" (14 août 1952). Besterman parle des difficultés qu’il rencontre pour obtenir des photocopies (10 décembre 1955); et parfois il se plaint: "I must say that Mr Swann has been most uncooperative" (18 février 1954). Hill envoie des catalogues à Besterman, tandis que ce dernier évoque ce qu’il appelle "le problème américain": "Alas, the American problem remains exactly what it was. I know that there must be a number of Voltaire letters in private hands, and perhaps even in out of the way public collections, but I am no nearer to discovering their whereabouts" (30 septembre 1953). Besterman va jusqu’à placer une annonce pour trouver des lettres en Amérique;7 mais à sa grande déception il ne reçoit qu’une seule réponse: "Unfortunately, this notice was so discreet that it has produced only one reply, yielding one letter, which is of course better than nothing". Et il continue: "I am afraid you will think me very ungracious, but, knowing from the auction records that there are scores of Voltaire letters in private, and possibly even in public hands in the United States, it is tantalising not to be able to lay my hands on them. But of course I am really very much obliged to all those who have kindly helped, and not least to you." (20 août 1952). Au-delà de la richesse de ses propres fonds, et grâce en particulier à Robert Hill, la New York Public Library joua un rôle significatif dans la constitution du corpus de l’édition Besterman.

Principes de transcription

Les lettres et le document qui suivent sont transcrits aussi fidèlement que possible. Dans les manuscrits, il est bien entendu souvent impossible de faire la distinction entre lettres minuscules et majuscules.

— Nicholas Cronk
Director, Voltaire Foundation
Université d’Oxford
novembre 2011

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1 Le personnel de la New York Public Library, et en particulier Michael Inman, Thomas Lannon et Jessica Pigza, ont énormément aidé à la préparation de cet article: qu’ils en soient ici vivement remerciés. Nous remercions également pour leurs précieux conseils Christiane Mervaud, Georges Pilard et Steve Weismann.

2 C’est Th. Besterman lui-même qui identifia le destinataire de ces deux lettres: il écrit à Robert Hill, alors Keeper of Manuscripts: "Dear Bob, You might like to note that the two Voltaire letters in the Montague collection are to Formey . . . » (NYPL, MS, Misc. papers, Voltaire, lettre datée du 2.5.63). Voir aussi Appendice I.

3 Voir Voltaire: The Martin J. Gross Collection in the New York Public Library (New York, 2008). Ce livre illustré contient trois essais signés par Martin J. Gross, Paul LeClerc et Stephen Weissman, ainsi qu’un catalogue de la collection.

4 Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, ‘Cinq lettres inconnues de Voltaire à son neveu l’abbé Mignot. L’une est datée de 1766, les quatre autres de 1772’, RHLF, 109 (2009), p.197-207.

5 C. Mervaud, "Voltaire’s correspondence", dans The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire, éd. N. Cronk (Cambridge, 2009), p.153-65 (p.153).

6 Les citations qui suivent sont tirées des lettres conservées dans la Manuscripts and Archives Division (Miscellaneous Papers).

7 Autograph Collector’s Journal, t.4, no 4 (été 1952), p.40. Voir la lettre de Besterman datée du 14.7.52.

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