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Friday, March 01, 2013

A Samizdat for the Aristocrats of 18th Century

We have nowadays The New Yorker, a weekly magazine covering literature, art exhibitions, theater, politics, social sciences, the talk of the town, the primary focus being the cultural life of New York.  We have also The London Magazine, a non-university  based periodical, boldly assuming (as T.S.Eliot has put it) the existence of a public interested in serious literature. There are Le Figaro littéraire and Les Lettres Françaises, offering a view of the cultural life from a Parisian perspective. And there are more such periodicals, in New York, as well as in London, and in Paris. And the landscape is much, much larger: every major city in each country has one or more cultural magazines.

Well, the 18th century has had its own magazines, covering literature, art exhibitions, theater, politics, social sciences, the talk of the town. The focus was the cultural life of Paris. One of these publications was associated with Mercure de France. Another was Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, and it is about this one that I would like to speak here.

The Correspondance littéraire has had a life span of about fifty years, from 1747 to 1793. It was founded by Abbot Raynal, and at the beginning it was named Nouvelles littéraires. In 1753 Baron von Grimm took over the lead and changed the name into Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique. Diderot and Madame d'Épinay became co-editors by 1759, and eventually Jacques-Henri Meister replaced Grimm at the helm.

The magazine was not distributed in France (though its focus was, as I said, on the Parisian life). The copies were sent exclusively to a confidential list of subscribers (none of them from the Hexagon). Much later some subscriber names would get known. Among them Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, Gustav III, King of Sweden, George William, Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, Stanisław Leszczyński, King of Poland, Sophie, Princess of Nassau-Saarbrücken, along with other dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses. A kind of samizdat, reserved for the high aristocracy of almost any European country but France. This way the magazine was escaping censorship rigors, which allowed a very free attitude from the contributing authors. Diderot published his Salons in this magazine.

All issues of Correspondance littéraire would eventually be published in France in 1812, and several successive editions followed.




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