Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Unexpected Letter

A recent reference inquiry about the Jacques Benoist-Méchin papers reminded me that the completion of a finding aid for a collection is not the end of the story when it comes to the process of archival arrangement and description. There is an additional element that comes from the input of researchers using the finding aid and scrutinizing the materials in the collection. This often gives us a fuller or corrected picture of both the documents and the person that they pertain to.

In working on the papers of Jacques Benoist-Méchin, a French intellectual and Nazi sympathizer who served in the Vichy administration in France during World War II, my main focus was on his wartime experience, which is what he was primarily known for. And for the most part, the initial researchers using the papers focused on those aspects of his career.

The most recent inquiry, however, was quite different, in that it had nothing to do with Vichy or the Nazis. A Canadian professor, the editor of a large volume of the letters of Aldous Huxley, wrote to ask about the reference to Huxley in the correspondence series of the Benoist-Méchin papers. There was only one letter, written by Huxley to Benoist-Méchin in 1932, but the Huxley expert was intrigued enough to request a copy of it.

The subject of the letter turned out to be author D.H. Lawrence, whose work Benoist-Méchin had translated into French. In his letter, Huxley comments favorably on Benoist-Méchin’s introduction to his translation, but he also points out an error Benoist-Méchin had made concerning Lawrence’s grandfather. Wanting to learn more, the Huxley expert decided to track down Benoist-Méchin’s original piece on Lawrence.

Before his fateful involvement in politics, Benoist-Méchin had made a reputation for himself in France as a literary scholar and translator. This reference inquiry made me more aware of this dimension of Benoist-Méchin’s complicated personality. It also showed that there are facets to collections, and different ways that they may prove useful to researchers, besides the ones that may seem obvious.

A letter written by Aldous Huxley to Jacques Benoist-Méchin, June 25, 1932. Jacques Benoist-Méchin Papers, Box 4, Folder 27, Hoover Institution Archives.

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