France Honors H. George Fletcher with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
On March 6, 2014, H. George Fletcher, a bibliophile who began collecting books at 15, was conferred the medal of chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry. The convivial occasion was held among family, friends, and colleagues in the Grolier Club’s Rare Book Room which features a permanent display of historic book bindings, including a work by Jean Grolier. In his various positions at New York institutions such as the Morgan Library and Museum (curator of Printed Books and Bindings) and the New York Public Library (Special Collections), Mr. Fletcher always shared with colleagues and the greater public his passion and insight through his work, writing and exhibitions. He has thus been dubbed not only a “chevalier” but a true “honnete homme” in the spirit of a 17th-century gentleman, enriching the arts of the 21st century and deepening French-American cultural relations.
Dear George Fletcher,
Dear Friends, Chers amis,
Today we honor an exceptional man of letters, a man of books and a true gentleman, our dear friend George Fletcher.
C. S. Lewis tells us, “We read to know we are not alone.” Today we honor a man who has brought so many people to the threshold of literature, and thus to the threshold of comfort, knowledge, and connection.
George, I extend a warm welcome to your wife and friends, who have come to show their support and admiration.
Today, we are surrounded by many supporters of France and I feel like we are part of a secret society! The society of those who believe in the transformative power of books and their magical ability to inspire, educate and change the world…
As you surely know, books are France’s backbone. From literature to poetry, Molière to Mallarmé, they are its core. Literature is the primary cultural industry in France, even before cinema. And France is THE country where the highest number of translations are published - one third of our novels are translations, with American fiction being the first group.
Today, it is essential that we consider books as a living link in the literary chain – there is the author, the publisher, the distributor, the bookstore and so on, and each link of this chain must be vigorously supported. This is really a matter of civilization, and I think we can all agree on this.
Dear George, your whole life you have strengthened each step of this literary chain, from the most subtle aspects to the most concrete.
You have a clear vision of all this world encompasses - from the binding processes to your publications to your curatorial participation at the greatest literary institutions in the world. This love for books was born early and you started collecting at 15. Years later, now, being “retired” is merely an opportunity to delve into literature and the bindings that structure it.
Through your consulting activities at the New York Public Library, you keep writing, publishing, and sharing the treasures of the history of books. Frankly, for you it’s all about books!
Tonight we are surrounded by the living members of the literary chain, those who breathe life into the texts. We are also fortunately surrounded by symbols that recall France and your treasured relationship with French literature.
Hosting your ceremony at the Grolier Club provides an excellent opportunity to see your passion for French culture. This room features a permanent array of historic book bindings, many of them French, from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It includes one from Jean Grolier, a great figure of luxury book binding. Your ceremony is set in the radiance of French cultural heritage — and I could even mention the French wines, waiting for us at the bar!
I could have addressed you en français tonight, since you are fluent in the language and many others. If pressed, I am sure you could even converse in Latin or ancient Greek! However you are not only a polyglot, but a key player of intellectual life in New York.
Perhaps the best description of any that I can give to you is that great French noble figure, the honnête homme from the seventeenth century. Translated as a gentleman, this person is a voracious reader invested in culture who also values the pleasures of other’s company. The honnête homme found it essential to share his passion for books and displayed this wit and humor in delightful conversations. French history has always celebrated the art conversation. George, as THE honnête homme, or a “spritely fellow”, you excel in this art and may really be French.
Lively and cheerful, you demonstrate your gentlemanly ways through your long-lasting friendships with so many. I should also mention Yves Peyre, the director of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, who is not able to be with us. I heard you are planning an exhibition with him next year in New York and I look forward to it!
Indeed as this honnête homme, or secret Frenchman, you connect people to books and are a central node in the web of book lovers worldwide. Your passion for books and your dynamic spirit fully drive your engagement in this world.
As Director and Editor-in-Chief at Fordham University Press and as former Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library and Museum, you organized numerous exhibitions and published numerous works and articles. At the New York Public Library, as Brooke Russell Astor Director for Special Collections, you demonstrated superior executive skills, led a 55 person team and oversaw a 25 million dollar budget.
I highlight three exhibitions of note that reflect your passion and connection to France: “French Book Art- Livres d’artistes”, “French Literary Life under Nazi Occupation”, and “Renaissance Bookbindings for Henri II”.
But perhaps the most defining moment of your expansive career was the outstanding show you curated here in 2011. It was dedicated to the Imprimerie nationale française, the official printing establishment of the French government.
You unveiled the marvelous history of French printing and it was a real contribution to the French-American relationship. This exhibition was made possible by a generous grant from the Florence Gould Foundation. I must recognize your dear friend Mary Young, who worked tirelessly for French culture and is greatly missed today. I believe that she is looking down on us and smiling with pleasure as you receive this distinction.
Your written works demonstrate as much passion and insight as the exhibitions you organize. They exemplify your curiosity for the physical nature of books, from your publication Gutenberg and the Genesis of Printing to your recent thorough study: Art Deco Bookbindings.
I truly understand this fascination with tangible and physical properties of books and writing. It is important to have an actual object to read, lend, store, and treasure. We are moving into a digital age where pages are condensed into tiny metal chips in our devices, but it is the real ink and paper that seduce us. Maybe you look at me and think I'm a young 21st century guy, or maybe not, but I often feel like I am from a different era with fountain pens, plumes and a leather bound planner.
In just a minute, I will bestow upon you the medal of Arts and Letters. André Malraux, the first ever French Culture Minister, founded this award, to celebrate extraordinary contributions to culture.
In 1947, he wrote Le Musée imaginaire, a work which I cannot resist linking to your book entitled Ma Bibliothèque, c’est moi. In it, you couldn’t have better expressed your passion for books and the transmission of ideas. Your title could easily refer to a Bibliothèque imaginaire, or the library of our minds. As we know, imagination, the birth place of literature, is perhaps the most important point in the living literary chain. Thoughts, theories, and dreams, are all held in books, between their bound pages. But it is the imagination that spins each budding idea into a unique tapestry of text.
What is remarkable to me, George, is that you focus on both the literary content and style of a work, but always also appreciate the book as an object. It is this combination of both that helps us establish an intimate appreciation of literature. The book is a being, one to be nurtured and held in great esteem. It has a soul which can give back to humanity. With your gentle nature, it does just this.
George, your passion for France and literature is both soulful and physical, passionnée and concrète, érudite and sociale.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes—a favorite figure of yours—to acknowledge your contribution to the literary sphere but more so, to the cultural landscape in France and the United States.
Today, we celebrate an honnête homme who has never stayed in an imaginary library but someone who has given so much to make books living objects for all to share. We praise you for your work, so rich in culture, so thoughtful and so generous.
Cher George, au nom du Gouvernement français, nous vous faisons Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Grolier Club, March, 6th
610 West 112th Street, New York NY, 10025