The Joseph Buttinger Collection on Utopias at The Graduate and University Center, CUNY

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2009, Vol. 33, No. 1


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 Bavaria, 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 that country. Though formally educated only through sixth grade, Buttinger became a scholar and analyst of Vietnam, writing several well-received books about it. Buttinger died in 1992.

With all that Buttinger had seen in his life, it is little wonder that he would collect materials dealing with utopias. There are a total of 1,204 titles in the collection, with the majority in English. However, there are large parts of the collection in French (247 titles) and in German (229 titles). The oldest book, 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 Duchess of Montpensier, the cousin of Louis IV of France, who was exiled when she refused to marry the man 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 doctoral candidate in her dissertation research.

Buttinger’s broad interpretation of “utopia” included not only works of fiction but also those dealing with the real world. Examples include Bob Brown’s manuscript How to Start a Co-Op Colony, which 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 as well, such as his 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 and published only in 1842-1843. Gustave de Molinari’s The Society of Tomorrow has the most recent imprint (1972) and deals with forecasting future political and economic organizations.

Buttinger kept hand-written cards to record information about individual titles. For the 1644 title, Le Voyageur curieux qui fait le tour du monde avec ses matières d’entretien qui composent l’Histoire curieuse, he wrote, “We could not find any record in Brunet or Barbier. This work eludes all our long search for any record. Of great rarity.” Similarly, Buttinger wrote for Montpensier’s La relation de l’isle imaginare, “An extremely rare 17th century French utopia.” Some of Buttinger’s notes have been included in the bibliographic records for particular titles. Though the Mina Rees Library is not open to the general public, special permission to use the Buttinger Collection can be arranged. In addition, the collection can be browsed in the CUNY library catalog by performing a command search on the two location codes, buttc and buttr (wcl=buttc or wcl=buttr).

Michael W. Handis
(mhandis@gc.cuny.edu)