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THE MAN WHO MADE DEAD BODIES SPEAK AND FATHERED THE AMERICAN PUBLIC LIBRARY

 

 

By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 24 OCTOBER 2007—When a ventriloquist whose big thrill is making cadavers speak turns into a sort of minister of culture without the name, then one must ask oneself: what kind of qualifications does it take to be a leader in the world of cultural policy?

Try being a military surgeon with the propensity to amuse the wounded with your ventriloquy tricks. Alexandre Vattemare did just this in Napoleon’s army.

Alexandre Vattemare, a French professional ventriloquist 1796 - 1864, thought up the idea of cultural exchanges, and put them into practice almost singlehandedly in the mid 19th Century, until the latter 19th Century changed cultural exchanges into an extension of the life struggle of a nation – also known as nationalism. None of that for Vattemare, a true man of the Age of Reason who died just when the Romantic age began to get intellectually nasty. When this cultural exchange spirit re-emerged after World War II, under UNESCO patronage, Vattemare the predecessor was mentioned in some UN document and promptly forgotten. It is just as well. Vattemare would not have liked the Cold War anyway.

Outside of the work of a Canadian researcher 35 years ago, Elisabeth Rivai, who worked on Vattemare’s influence on French Canada, Vattemare’s name and collections were rescued from oblivion in the late 1990s, when the Paris Administrative Library began to put some order in its American Collection, a disorganized mass which had survived the torching of the Library during the 1870 Commune only because the USA was completely out of fashion and the collection had been moved to some remote annex.

Entrusted with this reorganization was the librarian at the Administrative Library, Pierre-Alain Tilliette, who fell upon Alexandre Vattemarre by chance: during a professional symposium a researcher mentioned the name, the Canadian connection and the Bostonian connection were brought back to mind. Tilliette then discovered that the disorganized American Collection was the direct continuation of Alexandre’s Vattemare’s library, and that the dispersed collection could be identified and located if the time was put into it.

His investigations were so fruitful that a Franco-American exhibition resulted: The Extravagant Ambassador: Alexandre Vattemare, The French Ventriloquist Who Changed the World . Tilliette got some Americans in on the caper, and as historic justice would have it, the City of Paris’ Administrative Library and the Boston Public Library jointly opened the exhibition first in Paris at the Bibliothèque Forney  (a late medieval structure turned into municipal library), with the U.S. Ambassador in attendance. Then the exhibition moved this past summer through 28 October to the Boston Public Library.


Portrait of Alexandre Vattemare
Photo: (c) Sophie Robichon/Mairie de Paris

In all 250 items (books, letters, newspaper clippings, engravings, statues, bronzes, and all sundry items from watches to small cannon to stuffed birds to stage clothing), assembled from 30 institutions who did not themselves know they had items from Vattemare. In months and years to come, a lightened version of the exhibition (i.e. without the objects that cannot withstand constant traveling) will travel throughout the United States, France and possibly Germany and Canada. Stay tuned.

Vattemare Made Cadavers Talk to His Medical School Professors

Pierre-Alain Tilliette is probably the first person to fully realize who Vattemare was: the creator of the self-styled Universal Exchange Agency, and inspirer of the Public Library movement in the U.S.! Vattemare was an excentric: an unusually gifted child ventriloquist, raised in Normandy, he would make people believe someone was drowning which lead to brave souls jumping into a river to find the "drowning voice". Or he would make salacious remarks in the street, scandalizing the ladies and embarrassing the gentlemen. He especially enjoyed making the dead speak.

Expelled from seminary where he made sacred statues talk, he went to medical school where he could never resist giving a voice to cadavers during autopsies. Expelled again, he was drafted into Napoleon’s army as a medic. He tended wounded Prussian prisoners, and kept up their morale. After the Wars, his mission— by the prisoners’ acclaim— was to bring the prisoners back to Berlin, which he did! To some risk: on his way out of France the Prussians were almost lynched, and on his way into Germany French people were abominated. But he bravely talked down all this danger, and at least once his Prussians saved him from a mob at gunpoint.

In Berlin he fell upon a French girl, from among the Émigrés who had fled the French Revolution. She was penniless, so Vattemare put on ventriloquy acts to raise cash. His success was startling, and he became a traveling ventriloquist in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and England. He met the German princes, the Tsar (whom he made to believe there was a fly buzzing around his head), Sir Walter Scott, and most any other local VIP. All these people gave him mementos, stuffed animals, autographs, signed books. Vattemare also kept all newspaper clippings concerning his performances. That is how the Vattemare collection was born. A great many of these documents are in the Vattemare exhibition.

Alexandre Vattemare had an inquisitive and extroverted mind. He learned German and English. He would enter every single library he saw. At the time, libraries were practically closed to the public. Vattemare’s notoriety opened the doors, and he discovered that historical documents and much historical documentary painting were hidden from view. Even more interestingly, he found that one library had something of interest to another library, and so on, but that no one knew it. Often libraries had more than one copy of certain documents, and he asked to take these doubles to other cities. He took it upon himself to organize temporary swaps. This marks the beginning of cultural exchanges and the birth of the public library idea.

From Germany to Illinois and Back Again

By the 1830s, resettled in France, he had amassed a collection of curios which far surpassed the ordinary cabinet of curiosities, and began advocating the opening of libraries, the exchange of books and documents, and even the exchange of students and scholars. Alas, a ventriloquist who took himself for an educationist in the pleasure-loving reactionary aristocratic and unintellectual France of the time had little chance of being heard – even though Vattemare was discreetly royalist. The Marquis de Lafayette listened, and recommended that Vattemare cross the Atlantic to spread his ideas in Canada and the USA. Which he did in 1839, landing in Quebec and traveling through French Canada which had just gone through a Rebellion against the Crown. Vattemare performed ventriloquy, and also gave lectures to impressive gatherings in French and English. His message was always brotherhood, and cultural elevation. In the New World his ventriloquy was less of an embarassment, and he was considered a distinguished traveller. He made French Canadians and English Canadians cheer each other in one meeting. All this is attested by letters and newspaper clippings in the exhibition.

Local politicians began to support his moves for library and cultural exchanges. In the U.S.things also went well, and he ended up speaking to Congress, and being admitted to the White House! State legislature after state legislature passed motions to adopt his ideas. He returned to France laden with American curiosities. A great many are on display, of which many stuffed American animals, and documents entirely translated into most known languages including cherokee. But still no official personality was listening to him, although he was running benevolently a sort of exchange system, sending books loaned from one place to another. He also received donations. He had model boats from his wife’s father (who made them) and quite a few others. One of these model boats, the "Ville de Paris" which so crucially aided the American Insurgents against the British, is at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis today. It made a swing through Paris on the first leg of the Vattemare exhibition tour.

Almost on par with Tocqueville

Vattemare returned to America a second time in 1847, for a three-year, on one of the first steam boats. By then he was well-known in the U.S.. The self-made man was a practically self-made learned man, and inventor of something big. He was offered passage on the steamship, given governmental letters to wave duty, and put up by state governments and local VIPs. He had seven crates of luggage, 12 metric tons in all,  European curios and books which he gave in exchange for American ones. A great many individuals simply offered him paintings (portraits, landscapes), coins, medals, historical letters, stuffed animals.

After he resettled in France in 1850 his fame had grown, he had proponents and detractors, and it would seem the latter won out. But Vattemare still impressed cultural circles: his American contacts sent him some of the first photographs of architecture and civil engineering (bridges, buildings, etc) of the U.S., a country ahead of France and even Britain in this regard. He helped popularize American Indians in France, when a certain George Catlin brought a group of Iowa Indians to France. Vattemare remained a friend and helper of Native Americans.

He tried, from France, to get the U.S. to start up a National Institute, which was stifled by a jealous Smithsonian Institution which refused all cooperation with a man "considered a charlatan in France". The plans for this institution are on display in this traveling exhibition.

In 1855 the French government launched the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Few Americans entered, and Vattemare took it upon himself to make the American display presentable. To do this he re-assembled the objects he had brought back from his two travels to the U.S., got named Director of the American stand, and set up the objects. The details of the Universal Exhibition has been gathered for this current exhibition.

It is this relation with the U.S. that got him noticed at the Court of Napoleon III. The Library of the City of Paris also became interested in his collections. But his ideas were still not properly recognized, and he never gained the political backing he needed under the Second Empire.

Irony of ironies, one single week after his death in 1864, an administrator at the Paris Library finally gave Vattemare’s work a thorough review, concluding that the man had made valuable achievements in the field of cultural exchanges.


Boston Public Library
Photo: (c) Boston Public Library

Vattemare’s son tried to plod on but lack of financing became untenable. Within the next generation, nationalism began running against Alexandre Vattemare’s ideals of a universal humanity with everything to share. The Alexandre Vattemare correspondence collection was brought by the American legate to France, who then bequeathed it to the New York Public Library.

Saved From the Dustbin of History by a Few Librarians

Boston municipality remembered him in 1911 when it inaugurated its New Public Library, because Alexandre Vattemare had bequeathed 50 books to the people of Boston in 1841, which, in the word of today’s Library, "was a pivotal act in the creation of the modern Boston Public Library, and Vattemare’s System of Exchanges led directly to the inauguration of the public library movement in America."

The exhibition, and its future shorter version, will have stirred up new interest among a discerning and curious public, and the academic world. When the objects are returned to their owners, they will have taken on a new significance and will no longer be UFOs of the collectible world. Now a stuffed bird with an "AV" tag will probably see its value increase, which would have made Vattemare laugh because he made nearly no profit out of a life of strenuous cultural exchanging.

Extravagant Ambassador: Alexandre Vattemare, The French Ventriloquist Who Changed the World
Until 28 October 2007
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
Tel: (1) 617-536-5400
Web Site: http://www.bpl.org  

 

Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs and cultural diplomacy. He has worked for Radio France Internationale, Courrier International, and Radio Classique (news section), and now works for BFM TV.  He last wrote on Afghan Treasures in Paris Saved from the Taliban for Culturekiosque.com

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