VanderWolk Discusses Hugo's Impact on History

Story posted January 23, 2007

When Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staged his coup d'état in 1851, he sent out a rallying cry against those he deemed "purveyors of chaos."

VanderWolk
William C. VanderWolk, Bowdoin's new Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Professor of Modern Languages.

Their specific identity remained nebulous until Napoleon exiled a group of liberal republicans — among them, Victor Hugo.

Hugo's dissenting views, and their impact on historiography, are the subject of a Feb. 1, 2007, talk by William C. VanderWolk titled "Victor Hugo's Ideology of Disorder." It is the inaugural lecture of his appointment as the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Professor of Modern Languages.

It is a subject VanderWolk jokingly refers to as "good subversive fare."

"Napoleon used words such as 'order' and 'security' for political ends in order to limit personal freedom," notes VanderWolk. "Hugo's writing from exile was just the opposite. He called for personal freedom based in part on his theory of Romanticism — a harmony of opposites: grotesque-sublime, black-white, day-night."

Literature and History Meet
Hugo Book Jacket

Victor Hugo in Exile: From Historical Representations to Utopian Vistas (Bucknell University Press, 2006)

Banished by Louis-Napoléon Bonapart to an island off the Normandy coast for the entire Second Empire (1852-70), Victor Hugo wrote and clandestinely published a series of scathing critiques of the new regime, including Les Misérables. From his island of isolation he could see what the people of France could not — an empire that was the antithesis of the republican values the French had come to hold dear since the revolution of 1789.

In his study of Hugo in exile, William VanderWolk emphasizes the power of literature to act as a historical text and a vessel for collective memory.

Read more about this important work.


VanderWolk, an accomplished scholar of French literature and history, recently published a book on Hugo, titled Victor Hugo in Exile: From Historical Representations to Utopian Vistas (Bucknell University Press, 2006). It examines the literary titan's 18 years in exile, during which he wrote such works as Les Misérables.

VanderWolk examines the ways in which Hugo becomes "an influential historian and a keeper of the national memory" through his literary criticism of Napoleonic politics. "His version of history is actually more accurate than the propaganda of the emperor," says VanderWolk. "Narrative becomes a historiography."

The language professorship began in 1829, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was appointed as a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin, teaching French, Spanish, German, and Italian. VanderWolk says it is a particular privilege to be appointed as the Longfellow Professor during the year marking the 200th anniversary of Longfellow's birth.

"Obviously, it's a great honor," says VanderWolk, who has taught at the College since 1984. "I'm especially pleased for the Romance Languages department, for being recognized as a place of enduring scholarship."

VanderWolk's lecture will be held Thursday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Lancaster Lounge, Moulton Union. It is free and open to the public. For more information call 207-725-3423.

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