Voltaire and the not-so-random Random House


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On April 25, the New York Public Library’s exhibit ‘Candide at 250: Scandal and Success’ will end its six-month run. Times staff writer Adam Tschorn recently paid a visit and reports back below.

As a philosophy major (and unapologetic optimist) who has long counted Voltaire’s satirical skewering of Rousseau and Leibniz among my favorite works, I knew I’d enjoy the New York Public Library’s Candide exhibit. I just didn’t realize exactly how much I’d enjoy it.


In a room barely the size of a Manhattan master bathroom, I found all 17 known editions of the book first issued in 1759, as well as a version known as the handwritten ‘La Vallière Manuscript’ -- believed to have been dictated by the author himself to his secretary, Wagnièr -- and a red leather, gold-embossed case that Voltaire most likely carried it in.

Among the nuggets I hadn’t known: Voltaire (already a pseudonym for a man born François-Marie Arouet) originally published the book under the pen name ‘Dr. Ralph’; that the book had been banned by the Catholic Church from publication until barely 50 years ago; and that writer Terry Southern (screenwriter of ‘Easy Rider,’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’) co-authored ‘Candy,’ a racy sexual satire based on ‘Candide’ in 1958, while he was under FBI surveillance.

But the most delicious discovery of all came in a video clip, which featured the library’s president -- and Voltaire scholar -- Paul LeClerc, who, quite unexpectedly, answered a question that, as a onetime TV game show question-and-answer man (and full-time trivia monkey) had often crossed my mind: What house, exactly, is depicted in the Random House logo (left)?

According to LeClerc, it’s anything but random. In this video clip (if you don’t have time to watch the whole clip, start at about 3:30), he explains that ‘Candide’ was the first book published under the Random House imprint in 1928, and American artist Rockwell Kent had been commissioned to illustrate a limited-edition volume. (In an additional bit of serendipity, Kent lived for a time in Arlington, Vt., a small town that eventually became my own home stomping grounds).

LeClerc says the image of a house Kent had drawn, and that appeared on the book’s colophon page, was intended to depict the home where Candide and his companions lived out their days cultivating their garden as described in the last pages of the story.

‘That became the company’s logo,’ LeClerc says. ‘Which is still in use today.’

Is this, as the good Dr. Pangloss would posit, the best of all possible worlds?

No, perhaps not. But for an ardent fan of philosophy and tracker of trivia, for a few hours in Midtown Manhattan, it came awfully close.


-- Adam Tschorn

Image (top): The colophon page of the 1928 Random House edition of ‘Candide,’ from the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division, by artist Rockwell Kent. Credit: New York Public Library.

Image (bottom): The current version of the Random House logo. Credit: Random House