On Thursday, May 16, Northwestern University Library and the Consulate General of France in Chicago hosted a symposium in Norris Center focusing on the fate of cultural property displaced in wars and other disasters. Following the symposium, a collection of important letters that came to the United States during World War II, recently discovered in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, was presented to the French Consul General in Chicago, Graham Paul, for return to France.
The McBride Letters Collection, housed in Northwestern’s McCormick Library of Special Collections and named for the American in a USO troupe who saved them from destruction by soldiers retreating in the final months of World War II, consists of approximately 250 pieces of correspondence and other archival material spanning the years1472 to 1939. The most prominent item in this collection is a hitherto unknown letter written in 1792 by Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, in his native Italian, commenting on a bloody event involving his brother in Ajaccio, a city in southwestern Corsica. It is one of the earliest known records of Napoleon’s early military exploits.
The bulk of material in the file deals with social matters and courtesies, marriages, deaths, etc.—documents all of potential interest to historians and biographers. But there are also letters written by figures very prominent in Corsican and French history, among them Pascal Paoli, author of the Corsican constitution and an early close ally of the Bonaparte family, Count Pozzo di Borgo, another prominent Corsican politician, Louis Napoleon, who reigned as Napoleon III in the mid 1800s—and the famous French dramatist and short story writer Prosper Mérimée . Individually as well as cumulatively, the artifacts comprising this collection offer great insight into French history over several centuries, especially during the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries.
This cache of letters and other documents was uncovered in Northwestern’s Special Collections in 2009 in the course of a retrospective cataloging project. Research undertaken by Northwestern University Special Collections staff in the following years revealed that the collection came to Northwestern as a deposit in the late 1980s from the family of Jack McBride who, while stationed in Corsica, saved them from destruction. McBride died in the 1970s.
In the course of reviewing the ownership status of these letters, Northwestern researchers also determined that the collection was still the cultural property of France—and should be returned to the appropriate diplomatic representatives of the French Republic.
The event restoring this valuable cultural property to France commenced with a symposium featuring remarks from the Northwestern librarians on the rediscovery and identification of these letters, by Northwestern historian Professor Peter Hayes, speaking on "The U.S. and the Repatriation of Objects Taken in World War II: An Erratic Tale," and from representatives of France who accepted the return of this cultural patrimony. The symposium closed with a ceremony restoring the McBride Letters Collection to France.