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Anarchici ed editori. Reti scientifiche, editoria e lotte culturali attorno alla Nuova Geografia Universale di Elisèe Reclus

Author: Federico Ferretti | Publisher: Zero in conduct, 2011

Critics have often considered the major work of Élisée Reclus, the Nouvelle Géographie Universelle, as a less interesting work than other titles of the reclusian production. On the 19 volumes of this encyclopedic geography has long weighed the prejudice that it was a work of little significance from the political point of view, also suspected of “censorship” by the publisher Hachette. This book aims to reconstruct the genesis of a work that intertwines with the history of the foundation of the anarchist movement, because it saw at work French-speaking Switzerland of the years 1870 and 1880 a team of geographers who were at the same time among the main animators of the antiautoritarian component of the First International. Starting from the analysis of unpublished correspondences,

Review (by Marcella Schmidt of Friedberg): The Nouvelle Géographie Universelle (NGU) – 19 volumes, 17,873 pages of text, 4,290 cards and thousands of engravings – is the greatest work of Elisée Reclus and, paradoxically, perhaps because of its size , still remains little studied until recent years. In reconstructing the work of compiling this immense work, the result of over twenty years of work by Reclus, Federico Ferretti presents us with an era, a page of French history that coincides with the Third Republic between 1876 and 1894. In this second great work by the French geographer, located chronologically between La Terre (1868) and L’Homme et la Terre(1905-1908), Reclus’s dual vocation is reflected, a ‘desk-like’ geographer and explorer, he: “it is among geographers that the figure of the traveler and the scholarly scholar perhaps cohabit and better balance” (p 17). The NGU was born as a ‘general geography’, an encyclopaedic project inspired by the model of Malte-Brun and obviously by Carl Ritter, with the aim of drawing: “from the study of specific facts […] general and generally applicable principles”, to become ” universal geography ‘, “specific genre which aims at an analysis of all parts of the earth” (page 9): two kinds of geography coexisting in the only universalist conception of the author and a title that will be the result of long negotiations between the author and his publisher. The idea of ​​writing the NGU dates back to the sixties of the nineteenth century, but the design will be slow and will be affected by the political events of its author. From the beginning, Reclus participates in the establishment of the anarchist movement that is structured in the French-speaking Switzerland in the seventies and then becomes a leading exponent of international anarchism. His participation in the town will be short, immediately arrested, he will remain in prison until 1872 and then take the road to exile: the whole process of the NGU reflects the period of the Swiss exile of Reclus.

In a very dense book, the result of a thorough archive work that led him to follow the traces of Reclus across Europe – from France, England, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Russia -, Ferretti is dedicated to reconstructing “the factory of the work”, digging its daily work, professional relationships, technical aspects of the organization of materials, cartography and illustration. The result is an extraordinary team work, produced by the choral effort of a network of collaborators, belonging at least in part to that “milieu of anarchist geographers” (p.20) which shares the author’s political faith, in addition to his geographer. The NGU appears: “As something very distant from the romantic idea of ​​individual writing and there is a work that is also and above all of relationships: management of collaborators and informers, correspondence, cultural organization and even ‘craftsmanship'” (page 195). The exponents of this network are the brothers of Elisée, Elie and Onèsime, then the publisher of the publishing house Hachette, Emile Templier, the geographer Ernest Desjardins, at the height of his university career, the cartographer Paul Pelet, Charles Schiffer, correspondent of the publishing house, geographer Franz Schrader, cousin of Reclus, the Geneva cartographer Charles Perron, teachers and anarchist activists James Guillaume, Gustav Lefrançais, Luigi Galleani, and, for the areas of their competence for language and territory, the Hungarian geographer Attila De Gerando,sami to the description of a tropical plant “(page 220).

The network then expanded, throughout the life of Reclus, to contacts, meetings and exchanges of letters with a large number of intellectuals of the time, from Patrick Geddes, to Oscar Peschel, to George Perkins Marsh, to Halford J. Mackinder, only to stay in the geographical area. In this network of intellectuals, many share the master’s political ideas, in addition to his conception of geography (Dragomanov, Kropotkin, Lefrancais, Galleani, Guillaume, Metchnikoff, Perron): “A whole circuit of revolutionary intellectuals clings around the geography because considers it primarily a knowledge useful for social transformation. Secondly, because for those who are exile or without a professorship these publications constitute an indispensable resource “(page 239). Reclus organizes collective work and supports in any case the network of collaborators: “In relation to the anarchists who present themselves to him, […] Reclus is a real employment office, which welcomes not only those who need a letter of recommendation, but sometimes also those who offer them home-based collaboration” (page 176) . The punctual reconstruction of the composition of the work and also of the publishing success that it immediately obtained (20,000 copies for the first installments) definitively calls into question the traditional interpretation of the figure of Reclus as a misunderstood and isolated author: “At this point, on question of the solitude of the author, we are already certain with the exposed data of not being in front of the isolated genius, the romantic hero, who only performs his work, “embodies the heroic geographer character”, image from which many of the scholars who rediscovered Reclus in the 70s and 80s of the twentieth century, especially in the Francophone area, were seduced to build this sort of heroic legend of the ‘spiritual father’ “(178). From this chorus of collaborators emerges the masterly direction of the master: well known (as emerges from the original of the manuscripts) is the perfectionism of Reclus, which is responsible for the final editing of every single part of the work.
In addition to investigating the genesis, and internal and external mechanisms of anarchist networks, the second theme explored by Ferretti is that of publishing that in Europe of this period has a key position in geographical production. The framework of the editorial activity of Reclus once again reveals its visibility and cultural importance in France at the time; he collaborates with the Revue des deux mondes for a decade (from 1859 to 1868) and is deeply linked to Pierre-Jules Hetzel, publisher of Victor Hugo and Jules Verne, with whom he publishes the history of a stream and the history of a montagn a, with large runs. It will also be, for decades, “one of the standard bearers” (p.59), of the publishing house founded by Louis Hachette, “a very modern publishing enterprise” and “the first agency for the production of intellectual geography in France” (page 238), for the which will pass all the main names of the French geography, from Dejardins, to Guyot, to Vidal de la Blache. The collaboration of Reclus began in the 60s, with the Joanne guides and with the magazine “Tour de Monde”, directed by Charton, followed by the publication of La Terre , immediately translated into several languages.

After the disappearance of Luis Hachette in 1864, the publisher’s guide will pass to his partner, Louis Breton, and his son-in-law Emile Templier, responsible for geography: a detailed analysis of the complex relationship between the publisher Templier and his author Elisée Reclus is another of the most interesting aspects of Ferretti’s work. The NGU project took shape in 1872, after the deportation penalty to New Caledonia was commuted in ten years of exile. Reclus sends to Templier a detailed plan of the work: “I will have more possibilities to interest the reader by proceeding immediately to the description of the different districts. It is by studying every country that I will naturally have to clarify the scientific problems connected to the same subject “(ER, p.196). Delicate, finally, it is the theme of the ‘alleged’ censorship activated by Hachette against the NGU. From the correspondence with Templier it emerges rather an agreement not to speak openly about politics by Reclus and to respect the geographical ideas of Reclus, from the publisher. Ferretti concludes: “If the writing of the NGU did not happen in conditions of complete freedom, it seems nevertheless excessive to resort to the category of” censorship “since the author’s scientific ideas, after a series of negotiations, are substantially endorsed by the editor and it is precisely on those that is based the strategy of the anarchist geographer, which remains up to now in suspicious times strongly linked to his main publishing house “(p.238). From the correspondence with Templier it emerges rather an agreement not to speak openly about politics by Reclus and to respect the geographical ideas of Reclus, from the publisher. Ferretti concludes: “If the writing of the NGU did not happen in conditions of complete freedom, it seems nevertheless excessive to resort to the category of” censorship “since the author’s scientific ideas, after a series of negotiations, are substantially endorsed by the editor and it is precisely on those that is based the strategy of the anarchist geographer, which remains up to now in suspicious times strongly linked to his main publishing house “(p.238). From the correspondence with Templier it emerges rather an agreement not to speak openly about politics by Reclus and to respect the geographical ideas of Reclus, from the publisher. Ferretti concludes: “If the writing of the NGU did not happen in conditions of complete freedom, it seems nevertheless excessive to resort to the category of” censorship “since the author’s scientific ideas, after a series of negotiations, are substantially endorsed by the editor and it is precisely on those that is based the strategy of the anarchist geographer, which remains up to now in suspicious times strongly linked to his main publishing house “(p.238).

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