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The Joseph Buttinger Collection on Utopias at The Graduate and University Center, City University of New York–WESS Newsletter (Fall, 2009)

The Joseph Buttinger Collection on Utopias at The Graduate and University Center, City University of New York [DRAFT]
by Michael W. Handis (mhandis@gc.cuny.edu)

Joseph A. Buttinger gave the last part of his utopia collection to the Graduate Center in 1971. In the deed of gift Mina Rees, then president of the Graduate Center, promised that the collection would always be housed together and that none of the materials would circulate. Nearly four decades later, the Joseph Buttinger Collection on Utopias is housed safely in the Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library.

Who was Joseph Buttinger? Born in Barvaria, Buttinger went to Austria at 15 to find factory work. He immersed himself in the Socialist movement there and at 24 became the secretary of the Social Democratic Party. Imprisoned for several months in 1934 because of his anti-Nazi stance, Buttinger joined the Socialist underground. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Buttinger fled to Paris and, in 1940, to the United States. He helped form what would become the International Rescue Committee, dedicated to helping refugees fleeing from oppression. For the next 42 years Buttinger served the IRC in various positions. It was his contact with Vietnamese refugees that drew Buttinger into the culture, history and politics of the country. Though only formally educated through sixth grade, Buttinger became a scholar and analyst on Vietnam, writing several well-received books on the subject. Buttinger died in 1992.

With all that Buttinger had seen in his life, little wonder that he would collect materials dealing with utopias. There are a total of 1,204 titles in the collection, with the majority of items in English. However, there are large parts of the collection in French (247 titles) and in German (229 titles). The collection is in two locations. Materials of recent publication (962 titles) are in the open stacks but can only be used in the library. The rare materials (247 titles) are housed in special collections.

The oldest book in the collection, Sylua syluarum, was published in 1631 and written by Sir Francis Bacon. La relation de l’isle imaginarie; et, L’historie de la princesse de Paphlagonie is from 1659 and is attributed to Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, the Dutchess of Montpensier. Montpensier was the cousin of Louis IV of France. She was exiled when she refused to marry the man that her cousin had selected for her. The Graduate Center is the only North American library to have this edition; it is currently being used by a CUNY Ph. D. candidate in her dissertation research.

Buttinger’s interpretation of “utopia” included not only works of fiction but also those dealing in the real world. Bob Brown’s manuscript, How to Start a Co-Op Colony, is based on Brown’s experience in founding the Llano Colony, a cooperative farm located in Louisiana. Robert Owen’s A Development of the Principles and Plans on which to Establish Self-Supporting Home Colonies (1841) discusses practical applications of communism. Owen’s autobiography is also in the collection. There are books on slavery, such as Robert Dale Owen’s The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in United States, published in 1864. There are also rare serials, such as the London Phalanx, covering British social and economic conditions in the 19th century. It was only published in 1842-1843. Gustave de Molinari’s The Society of Tomorrow has the newest imprint (1972) and deals with forecasting future political and economic organizations.

Buttinger kept hand-written cards that recorded various information on the individual titles including some notes that were included in the bibliographical records. For the 1644 title, Le Voyageur curieux qui fait le tour du monde avec sds matières d’entretien qui composent l’Histoire curieuse, Buttinger wrote, “We could not find any record in Brunet or Barbier. This work eludes all our long search for any record. Of great rarity.” “An extremely rare 17th century French utopia,” Buttinger wrote for Montpensier’s La relation de l’isle imaginare.

Though the Mina Rees Library is not open to the general public, special permission to use the collection can be arranged. The collection can be browsed through the CUNY library catalog from the Office of Library Services’ web site (http://apps.appl.cuny.edu/) and doing a command search on the two location codes, buttc and buttr (wcl=buttc and wcl=buttr).

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