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“A Backward Glance o’er American Fiction in French Academia”

Abstract

In the pioneering times before WWII, only the Sorbonne and the universities of Lille and Lyon offered courses in American literature and civilization and it took several more decades for American literature to evolve into a full-fledged specialty within the larger English departments that still held sway over Anglophone studies in French academia. Originally treated by English departments as “a poor relative of British literature” (Charles Holdefer), American literature and its institutional partner, American “civilization” (a construct comprising history, culture, social ideas, intellectual life and the visual arts), eventually achieved at least partial emancipation from the tutelage of English departments in France in the wake of the events of May 1968 and the academic revolution that followed. Through the prism of a historical contextualization, this essay purports to give an overview of the booming and blooming of American literature on the French academic scene, focusing not so much on the why as the how of this effervescence, and the particular directions it took in the context of the troubled 60s and 70s. The “extraordinary mushrooming” in American studies that marked the late 60s and early 70s in France can be traced back to a number of factors: first, the impact of what came to be known as “The Age of the American Novel” (the title of Claude-Edmonde Magny’s 1948 breakthrough study) and the period of americanophilia that stamped the French literary scene between the two world wars, before the geopolitical and ideological concerns linked to the Cold War and the upheavals of the 60s entailed a more divided response that resonated inside the French university, fostering critical analysis and pushing the margins towards the center. Hence, prominent among the hallmarks of French American studies at the time figured Faulknerian studies, which expanded into Southern studies, under the influence of André Bleikasten, Michel Gresset and François Pitavy, along with African-American studies, launched by Michel and Geneviève Fabre, while the 70s saw the development of the study of the most contemporary forms of literature, including the new fictions of high post-modernism under the impetus of André LeVot, Marc Chénetier and Pierre-Yves Pétillon among others. Other than the trends in the objects of study, another point to consider is the evolution in the methods of teaching, from the Lansonian approach that long prevailed—the man and his work—to the various critical theories that proliferated over the 60s and 70s and came to shape the approaches to literature. This in turn must be framed in the context of the peculiarities of the French academic system, an intellectual tradition that privileges the technique of explication de texte and micro-readings as well as the rhetoric of argumentation on larger questions involving the synthesis of a work or current. Both exercises (commentaire de texte and dissertation) are staples in the prestigious national civil service competitive exam, the Agrégation d’Anglais, that is the sesame for high school and university appointments and which since WWII has included two or three American texts on a list of ten required titles for reading. By way of conclusion, a close examination of the American works selected over the last half-century in the successive Agrégation programs may prove a useful tool to discern the figures in the carpet that make up a kind of institutional canon of American literature within the French university system.
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Dates and versions

hal-03947857 , version 1 (19-01-2023)

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  • HAL Id : hal-03947857 , version 1

Cite

Sylvie Mathé. “A Backward Glance o’er American Fiction in French Academia”. Lawrence W. Mazzeno; Sue Norton. Contemporary American Fiction in the European Classroom: Teaching and Texts, Palgrave Macmillan, pp.253-271, 2022, 978-3-030-94165-9. ⟨hal-03947857⟩
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