Voltaire is in the house

McGill Libraries acquire an important collection of Voltaire’s works that includes almost 2,000 items representing 3,189 volumes.
Portrait of Voltaire by Quentin de La Tour (circa 1736).
Portrait of Voltaire by Quentin de La Tour (circa 1736).

McGill Libraries acquire important collection of Voltaire’s works

By Merika Ramundo

François-Marie d’Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, played a singular role in defining Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. A philosopher, historian and an outspoken advocate for free speech and religious tolerance, Voltaire was a prolific writer who worked in virtually every literary form, penning plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. The author of a multitude of bon mots, Voltaire famously said “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire had a rapier wit to the literal end of his life. On his death bed, the great man of letters (who was a staunch critic of the Catholic Church) was visited by a priest who implored Voltaire to renounce Satan. “Now is not the time for making new enemies,” said Voltaire, dying soon after.

In what can only be called a major coup, McGill Libraries, thanks to the generous donations of a number of benefactors, recently acquired the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection. The acquisition has bolstered McGill’s reputation as a top research centre for Enlightenment studies.

“Adding the J. Patrick Lee Collection of rare materials by Voltaire and his contemporaries to an already significant collection of related works is a unique opportunity of importance and benefit to McGill University, Montreal and Quebec as a whole,” said Dr. Richard Virr, Chief Curator, Rare Books and Special Collections. “With the acquisition of this collection, McGill has the potential to be the Canadian centre for eighteenth century studies and, indeed, one of North America’s leading centres for the study of the Enlightenment.”

Belonging to the late, eminent Voltaire scholar J. Patrick Lee, this collection of books and manuscripts by and about Voltaire includes 1,994 items representing 3,189 volumes. In addition to the large number of older editions and more recent editions of Voltaire’s work, in different languages, the collection includes an ensemble of manuscripts and letters written or received by Voltaire. The collection also includes over 1,000 books published in the eighteenth century.

It is in the History of Ideas that the McGill Library has truly outstanding eighteenth-century strengths. From Pierre Bayle, the precursor of the Enlightenment, through Immanuel Kant, who was to influence much nineteenth-century thought, the Library’s holdings represent both comprehensiveness and depth.

It is within this framework that the Library’s David Hume collection exists. Internationally known, McGill’s Hume collection is rivaled only by that of the National Library of Scotland with it complete multi-lingual coverage. Furthermore, it is supported by a large collection devoted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The one major figure of the eighteenth century who does not have comprehensive coverage in the Library’s holdings is Voltaire. The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee collection signals in a significant way the importance of McGill within Canada as a centre for research and study of history, philosophy and literature. As part of McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections, this collection will now be available for scholarly research, study and learning in a myriad of ways and disciplines.

The Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections will launch an exhibit titled “Voltaire: A Sampling of the J. Patrick Lee Collection” at McGill’s Open House on Sunday, Oct. 27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., to celebrate the acquisition of this collection. On view will be editions of Voltaire’s well-known story Candide, modern illustrated editions, a selection of Voltaire’s other works in early editions, editions of works by some contemporaries and a number of manuscripts, including two letters by Voltaire. “Voltaire: A Sampling of the J. Patrick Lee Collection” runs until Jan. 31, 2014 in the Rare Books and Special Collections’ Reading Room.

Rare Books and Special Collections is located on the 4th floor of the McLennan Library Building (3459 McTavish Street). Open to the public Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go here.