Friday, July 11, 2014

WANTED: Lovers of French Literature

This blog is designed to help a vital part of western culture survive and flourish.  Please take a minute to let me explain my goals in starting it.

I have spent the last half-century of my life in higher education, specifically as a professional historian.  I have written seven books, including Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler(1990), and most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. (A full list of my books is available here.)  The history of international politics, however, has never been my only intellectual interest.

When I was fourteen my father's career took our family overseas, and I spent the next two years in a French lycée and learned the language.  I took several French history and French literature courses in college, and I have continued to read French classics from time to time for pleasure.   My college courses dealt mostly with twentieth century authors, but my more recent reading has come from the 19th century, mostly from Zola, Balzac, and most recently, Stendhal. (See below.)  I am fascinated by these writers' historical sense, and by their attempts to relate their characters to French history more broadly.  In my opinion, they are a critical part of our western cultural heritage, one from which anyone can still learn a great deal.  Recently the French economist Thomas Piketty, in his sensational new work Capital, drew heavily on Balzac to make the inegalitarian nature of 19th-century French society clear.  My knowledge of these works is anything but exhaustive, and in fact, some of the greatest classics, including Madame Bovary, are still on my to do list.

I am also very concerned that this part of our cultural heritage is dying--not, perhaps in France, but certainly in the United States.  The study of foreign languages and literatures has become much less popular, and literature departments have been badly hurt by postmodernism, which shamelessly lifts these works out of context and re-interprets them according to very narrow new ideologies. (I am sure there are still a few exceptions within French departments, but I suspect that there are fewer every year.)  I have started this blog to provide a forum to keep these works alive with the help of interested readers all over the world, whom I hope will discover it with the help of google and word of mouth.  

I am looking for a group of volunteers who already love nineteenth-century French literature or who would like to explore it. Knowledge of French is not necessary.  Those who choose to participate in an ongoing discussion may read the books in any language, and contribute in any language.  (TThis page already has a translator built into it, above.)  I am hoping to find participants from all over the world--especially France--and participants from a number of different generations.  Here is what I have in mind.

Every month, or perhaps every two months, one member of the group would select a 19th-century novel to discuss, and become the leader for that particular discussion.  We would then need a minimum of three people to volunteer to join the discussion.  The leader would contribute an essay of approximately 1000 words, explaining what he or she found most interesting about the book, what it has meant to them, how it seems to address more contemporary concerns, etc., etc., etc.--in short, anything the leader thinks the book has to offer.   Then the designated commentators, and anyone else who wants to take the time, would weigh in with their own thoughts.  Anyone who submits a commentary will be added as an author.

The first book, which I am now about two-thirds of the way through in the original, will be Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal.  Set in the Restoration, and specifically in 1830, it tells the story of Julien Sorel, a brilliant young man of modest origins who finds himself in the midst of Parisian high society.  I received a copy as a present more than half a century ago, and I finally got around to starting it on a recent trip to France.  It has been difficult to put it down ever since. 

Most of those who initially see this  will be regular readers of  Please pass it on to any friends, anywhere, whom you think might be interested in it.  When we have a critical mass of about 10 participants, we will set a date for our first discussion. I am hoping to find participants of all ages.  I can also promise that my own analyses of the book will have, among other things, a generational angle.

Please simply post a comment here if you want to participate. I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. I tried commenting here this weekend to show my interest but the comment didn't show up, and I couldn't tell if it was in a moderation queue or if Blogger ate it. So, short form:
    - sounds interesting
    - previous experience: some Dumas, some Hugo, Cyrano, Rocambole, Dangerous Liaisons
    - don't count on me for heavy lifting but I'll try to participate
    - have downloaded The Red and the Black from Project Gutenberg

  2. Great! I hope there will be more.

  3. I recall reading R&N in college (in French). To this day I cannot walk past Saint-Sulpice without a "frisson". I would like to give it another read. Before that, all I knew of 19th century lit was basically Dickens. R&N was an awakening, as was L'Assommoire, of which I still bear the scar. Yes, it was that much of a shock (was was Max Havelaar -different country of course).

  4. Correction: The Rise of Social Theory, Heilbron

    1. Professor
      To clarify the above, I had said something like wonderful idea, a sort of eSalon, mis cited the above; have been reading the chapter re academies and salons.

      All the best

  5. If you google Le Rouge et Le Noir there are plenty of free pdf's, at least in French.

    Found a free English version here: