Anniversary Exhibition Preview: The Best of All Possible Candides

Voltaire's Candide.
Voltaire. Candide, ou L'optimisme. Case Y 762.V8802.

It is no secret that authors visit and re-visit their prose, but pre-edited writing is rarely disseminated to the public. Voltaire’s Candide, an inimitable work in any form, is an exception to the rule.

In January of 1759, Candide was typeset by a Genevan printer, Gabriel Cramer. A copy was dispatched to John Nourse, an English bookseller responsible for its reprinting and distribution in English markets. The Nourse and Cramer editions are largely similar: each has 299 pages and bears comparable ornamentation. But here’s the catch: while in Switzerland, Voltaire made last-minute revisions that failed to reach the English printers. And as a direct consequence, there are multiple, slightly altered versions of Voltaire’s masterwork.

A notable difference appears in the latter pages. The Nourse printings house a paragraph that begins, ”Candide etait afflige… ” (“Candide was grieved…”). It continues in an unfavorable vein, lobbying censure on Frederick the Great, the autocrat of Prussia. Voltaire had kept a years-long friendship and intellectual camaraderie with Frederick; perhaps he was struck by the possibility that their amity would sour if the critical lines remained. And thus, he scrapped the off-putting prose for what would become the “official” version of the book.

Sadly, Voltaire’s revisions were a stopgap measure that failed to halt a barrage of reproach. Critics accused him of religious blasphemy, political sedition, and of an undisguised hostility for the powers-that-be. One can safely assume that Voltaire had anticipated this. After all, he published under an ancillary pseudonym, “Mr. Dr. Ralph”—a not-so-subtle comment on the absurdity of titled nobility.

But, as is often the case, great scandal is met with great success. Today, the London printings are something of a marvel. They reside in a dozen U.S. and British libraries, and are celebrated as the offerings of an unedited, uncensored voice. The Newberry is fortunate to have an original, if unintentional, copy. Bound in blue paper wrapping, the Newberry typescript is in remarkable condition. It appears as it did when it emerged from Nourse’s shop—that is, in the earliest physical state of its earliest printing. No other copy exists in this condition (which, truth be told, might have comforted Voltaire).

Submitted by Corinne Zeman, Newberry Communications Intern.