Old world meets new in Pittsburgh, PA – ASECS 2016

Pittsburgh bridge

Pittsburgh: a bridge over the Allegheny

Pittsburgh, otherwise known as ‘the steel city’. My image of the place, unfairly tainted by the UK’s steel industry crisis, was of a struggling post-industrial metropolis, possibly in need of a complete makeover. The location of this year’s ASECS meeting completely overturned my prejudices: what I encountered was an impressively upbeat conurbation boasting several splendid art deco buildings, majestic bridges spanning the Allegheny river and recreational treats such as the Andy Warhol Museum, the National Aviary Center and the unlikely named Mattress Factory.

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The annual ASECS meeting took place in one of the oldest hotels in Pittsburgh, the Omni Penn, which has just celebrated its centenary. ASECS delegates would join the long list of illustrious guests which boasts John F. Kennedy and Bob Hope. For a UK-based publisher, the ASECS meeting is both a great way of showcasing our books from the ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’ series to faculty and academics, and, just as importantly, of meeting our US-based authors. With email and file transfer sites, communicating with authors is easy, though the one missing aspect for me is the human element. Meeting authors in person is very rewarding, always interesting, and sometimes surprising as the mental images we inevitably form of a person are, more often than not, completely wrong! This year I finally had the pleasure of meeting, amongst many other ‘old friends’, Sabrina Ferri, whose book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836, marks our first foray into Italian studies, and Clorinda Donato, co-editor of Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, which is part of our growing programme of Spain and Hispanic studies-related works.

Clorinda Donato

Clorinda Donato at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

ASECS is also an ideal opportunity for me and the new General editor of the series, Las Vegas-based Greg Brown, to get together in person. Whilst I manned our book stand in the exhibitors’ hall, Greg attended panel discussions and met several potential new authors. We hosted an inaugural drinks reception to celebrate the series – many thanks to Byron Wells and Vickie Cutting at the ASECS Executive Office for their organisational help – where the chocolate and fruit dessert proved very enticing.

My abiding memories of Pittsburgh: warm (even though it snowed on the day of departure), generous, up-and-coming and forward-looking. Next year’s ASECS in Minnesota may be slightly chillier, but wrap up warm, shelve those Fargo-esque preconceptions, and you may be surprised by what you find.

– Lyn Roberts

Greg Brown

Greg Brown at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

The sense of an ending – final Mme de Graffigny letters published


This month we celebrate the publication of the final volume (vol.15) of the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny alongside the launch of the completed correspondence’s online cumulative index – a live reference tool for all 15 volumes. This new volume brings Mme de Graffigny’s life to a close, and covers both the settlement of her estate and her friends’ early efforts to preserve her fame for posterity. The moment seems fitting to try to evaluate the end of her extraordinary life.

Her final year, 1758, was dominated by the failure of her play, La Fille d’Aristide. Many of her contemporaries connected it to her death. Voisenon quipped that ‘the public died of boredom and the author of grief’. Voltaire repeated the idea in a letter two years later. Casanova, who claimed to have attended the disastrous opening, said that she died of chagrin five days afterward.

Title page

Two variant title pages of the original edition of La Fille d’Artistide (Paris, 1759).

In fact, the play premiered on 29 April 1758 and Mme de Graffigny died seven months later on 12 December. Her letters tell a very different story of her reaction to the play’s poor reception. Her old friend and correspondent François-Antoine Devaux wrote that she accepted the failure ‘as reasonably as could be imagined’. Moreover, letters from other friends and acquaintances in May 1758 all attest to her equanimity. At the same time, she confronted far more serious troubles.

The first was the disgrace of her friend, the comte de Maillebois. In 1756 he had arranged a paid position in the archives of the Invalides to be shared by two of Mme de Graffigny’s Lorraine protégés, Nicholas-François Liébault and Devaux. Maillebois was a rising star in the French military at the start of the Seven Years’ War. At the battle of Hastembeck, on 29 July 1757, the French won a victory but let the enemy forces slip away. Maillebois engaged in a public dispute with the commanding general, the maréchal d’Estrées, about responsibility for this mistake, was convicted of insubordination, and exiled in May 1758.

In June, Liébault was suspected of leaking military documents while in the post Maillebois had obtained for him. He managed to flee, but his younger brother and assistant Léopold was imprisoned in the Bastille. Léopold was transferred to Vincennes in October, but remained behind bars until spring 1759, when he was exonerated and discharged. Mme de Graffigny did everything she could to help Léopold, recruiting powerful friends to support him, sending him money and supplies, and visiting him herself.

In July, Helvétius published his work of materialist philosophy, De l’Esprit. He was not just an old friend but the husband of Mme de Graffigny’s cousin Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. Their long courtship had taken place in Mme de Graffigny’s apartment. He was handsome, charming, immensely wealthy and well connected, a perfect husband. His book, however, though approved by a censor, was immediately attacked by the Church and by the Paris Parlement, which condemned it in 1759. Helvétius had to publish retractions and barely escaped serious penalties. On his behalf, too, Mme de Graffigny attempted to intervene, visiting the Procureur Général of Parlement to plead his case.

Françoise de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

As these disasters unfolded, Mme de Graffigny’s health declined. She had long suffered from poor health and occasional fainting spells, but in May she began to lose consciousness more frequently, sometimes without realizing that anything had happened. She was often fatigued, forced to dictate her letters to conserve strength. From time to time she spat blood. It is impossible to say now exactly what caused her death; some symptoms sound like cardiac events, others like strokes, or epileptic seizures, pulmonary problems, tuberculosis or cancer. Perhaps all were present. Her doctors cannot have helped, with such treatments as bleeding and flogging her legs to raise blisters.

The rumour bruited by Casanova, Voisenon and Voltaire made Mme de Graffigny’s death the punchline of a comic plot. She was portrayed as a ‘femme savante’, who had challenged nature by excessive ambition and was brought low by the return of normality. In reality, she led a heroic life. After surviving marriage to a brutal husband, she was forced by political events to leave her native Lorraine. Alone, with little income, she made her way to the pinnacle of Paris literary society. She wrote a novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and a play, Cénie (1750), which were hugely successful. She presided over an informal salon frequented by the most famous figures of the era. At her death she was the most celebrated living woman writer in the world.

Moreover, she had the peaceful death of a person who has lived well and feels no regrets. In her last days she was rereading her favourite authors and receiving calls. On the eve of her death, when she was first stricken, she was playing cards with old friends. To the end she followed the example of the poet Maynard, who wrote, ‘I await death without fearing or desiring it’.

– English Showalter

Celebrating Voltaire: A Symposium

J. Patrick Lee

J. Patrick Lee

McGill University in Montréal sponsored a Symposium on 9th March to celebrate its recent acquisition of J. Patrick Lee’s Voltaire Collection. Pat Lee, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a pre-eminent American Voltaire scholar, an inspiring teacher and a gifted university administrator. He was also a discriminating bibliophile. At his death in 2006, his library held some 11,000 volumes and many manuscripts. Of these, McGill purchased 1,994 rare and important items, including 35 manuscripts in the hand of Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, and others in Voltaire’s circle; there are 245 stand-alone editions of Candide, 39 of Zadig, 54 of the Dictionnaire philosophique, and 21 of La Henriade, as well as American imprints of Voltaire’s works, and volumes with notable American provenance.

The Symposium proved worthy of this remarkable collection. Held in the ballroom of the University Faculty Club, a capacity audience of students, academics, and members of the public was treated to series of lectures (some in French and some in English) presenting an overview of Voltaire’s life and career. Recurring themes were Voltaire’s role in promoting Enlightenment values and his battles against intolerance, superstition and religious fanaticism (Josiane Boulad-Ayoub), his relationship with England and the English (Richard Virr, Edward Langille), his latter day image as the patriarch of Ferney (Simon Davies), and, of course, his image beyond the grave (Hans-Jurgen Lüsebrink).

McGill Librarian Ann Marie Holland talked on the many versions of the Dictionnaire philosophique held in the Lee Collection.

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

Towards the end of the afternoon, the participants engaged in an exhilarating roundtable discussion on the question: ‘Why does Voltaire matter in the 21st century?’ which inevitably focused on the religious fanaticism of last year’s murderous attacks in France (Ethel Groffier, Ugo Dionne, Benoît Melançon, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne). A sceptical Benoît Melançon doubted whether sales of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance really could have attained the 185,000 copies reported in the aftermath of those attacks, or at least whether any of those who did buy it actually read it or merely had it as a kind of talisman. And he wondered too, as others have done, whether Voltaire is a writer whose works everyone quotes but no one reads. It is ironic to reflect that Voltairian slogans on free speech and religious tolerance were widely quoted after the attacks, rather as the faithful recite prayers in times of grief. And like a secular saint, his image became familiar on posters and banners at free-speech rallies throughout France.

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

The keynote address was delivered by the Enlightenment historian Robert Darnton, who took us (happily) back to the eighteenth century and its fascination with Voltaire, the best-selling author. Darnton’s account of how the 75 year-old played publishers off, one against the other, in order to secure for his monumental Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as wide a readership as possible, provided a riveting conclusion to the day’s proceedings.

Mounted in conjunction with the Voltaire Symposium is an exhibition of works by or on Voltaire covering nearly three centuries. Contemporary editions of Voltaire’s works are juxtaposed with the key 20th-century editions of Voltaire’s most popular work, Candide (MacLennan Library).

The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill University puts the land of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ on the map as an important centre of Voltaire and Enlightenment scholarship.

– E. M. Langille, St Francis Xavier University

(View a video recording of the Symposium here.)