by guest contributor Benjamin Bernard
Editors’ Note: given the summer holidays, for the month of August JHIBlog will publish one piece a week, together with our regular What We’re Reading feature on Fridays.
The mood was grim when literary historian Gilbert Chinard delivered one of five Trask Lectures at Princeton University. With sentiments similar to much of the hand-wringing of today, his colleague, philosopher Theodore Meyer Greene explained: “the whole world is drifting or being driven with ever greater acceleration into a state profoundly antagonistic to the values which the humanist method most sincerely cherishes.” Greene warned that this was due in part to “the deliberate activities of certain individuals and groups whose ideologies are monopolistic and totalitarian and who, in one way or another, have acquired autocratic power in our society.” Prefacing the edited collection of these lectures, Greene insisted that such men had “succeeded in arousing in their supporters a passionate and uncritical devotion to a ‘common’ cause. The modern scene testifies with tragic eloquence to the immediate effectiveness of this anti-humanistic strategy.”
That spring, Hitler annexed Austria.
Gilbert Chinard’s own transatlantic trajectory—born in France, he spent his career in America—mirrors the content of his scholarly work in a field he dubbed “Franco-American relations.” In what we might today recognize as an amalgam of literature, history, and international relations, he studied flows of ideas across space and time; but, alongside European intellectuals like his Mercer Street neighbor Albert Einstein, he also participated in a migration of his own. Upon Chinard’s hiring in 1937, after nearly two decades in America, The Daily Princetonian remarked on his “Franco-American accent.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Princeton bustled with martial activity. Some students and even faculty advocated that professors teach technical skills like engineering and military tactics in order to better prepare student-officers for war. Walter “Buzzer” Phelps Hall, the popular Dodge Professor of History and expert on Britain, advocated this position in The Daily Princetonian: “The war will not be won by propaganda; no wars are,” he wrote. History could only help “to a minor degree” in a war; he lamented that “those of us on the Faculty untrained in science and too old to act” were relegated to “guarding the treasured culture of the past.” The university surveyed professors in other departments to determine what war-related courses they might be qualified to teach. Many undergraduates opted for technical studies electives, like Professor Kissam’s popular aerial photogrammetry course, over humanities ones. Chinard’s department, Modern Languages, made a minor capitulation in order to resist more extreme changes. Around 1941-42, Princeton added a vocational French class that, even if only a summer crash course, was unprecedented. It taught a skill needed to prepare students for possible deployment to Europe: French conversation.
Not all faculty and students, though, agreed with such changes. Chinard defended arts and letters on surprising grounds: their utility. He took to the pages of the campus newspaper on February 2, 1942 to respond to Buzzer Hall, to defend the humanities against practical pre-military courses. He argued that Americans needed critique in order to combat propaganda; without such skills, America could collapse just as France had. “Men can be well shod, clad and fed,” he wrote, but “unless they can analyze and disbelieve, in a crisis, rumors spreading like grass fire, unless they have developed what I would call a healthy Missourian attitude, they will rapidly change a partial setback into a total rout.” Old frontier skepticism serves here as a foil for a passive French imagination occupied by German political ideology. Rather than memorizing facts about the past, students should adopt a critical posture. Than the sword, he might have said, the typewriter is mightier. With wry understatement, he noted, “When Hitler’s mind seems to be obsessed by the memory of Napoleon, it may not be entirely out of time and out of place for the men who fight Hitlerism to know something about the French emperor.” Chinard’s colleague Americo Castro supported him, invoking a conceptual framework central to Chinard’s writings. “The war happens to be between two forms of civilization,” he wrote, “and people are going to kill or to be killed because they are fighting on behalf of a certain form of civilization. I do not think that there is any other place to learn what a civilization is except a school of Humanities.”
Chinard understood the process of humanist scholarship, “traditional” French culture, and the war itself via a common metaphor: as the slow accumulation and rarefication of virtue over time, leaving a stable precipitate. In 1940, Chinard had received a form letter questionnaire from Rene Taupin, secretary of La France en Liberté, a new quarterly of French refugee writers whose advisory board included Princeton’s Christian Gauss as well as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams. Taupin asked: “Do you think that French culture can live under a Totalitarian regime?” Chinard replied in French on October 15, 1940, and took care to preserve a copy of his outgoing message:
Yes, without any doubt. All of history is there to prove to us that in a country with an old civilization, political vicissitudes cannot in any fundamental way affect the culture of the country. A political regime can snuff out a culture being born, or can prevent a still barbarous country from developing; it can make the superstructure disappear, or constitute an obstacle to the expression of certain ideologies. But what Louis XIV, the Jacobins, Napoleon I, and the none-too-liberal December 2 government all failed to do cannot be accomplished by repressive measures which, moreover, can only be temporary (Gilbert Chinard Papers [C0671], Box 12, Princeton University Library).
In Scènes de la vie française, his French culture reader for intermediate university classes, Chinard described his fictionalized, composite hometown in similar terms: “[My village today] represents the continuous effort of successive generations, tweaking themselves according to the era, but who always retained their essential traits.” Yet, turn Chinard’s historical tapestry upside down and it would tell a different, yet still intelligible, story: those same high-water marks of French culture—resistance to the baroque court, to the Revolutionary tribunal, and so forth—that Chinard interpreted as evidence for a liberal tradition could instead argue for an ancient French tradition of concentrated authoritarian power.
In light of this contradiction, I suggest that this intellectual and rhetorical position was fundamentally political. Chinard sought to understand this culture, how it developed, and how it interacted with American culture. His essay in the inaugural issue of the journal he co-founded, the Journal of the History of Ideas, serves as a useful exemplar for approaching the history of ideas in this political context. Social media-adept readers may recognize Chinard’s article from JHIBlog‘s Facebook cover photo. In “Polybius and the American Constitution,” he argued that while scholars rightly apprehended an intellectual link between French Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and scholar-politicians like Thomas Jefferson, too little attention had been paid to the fact that the ideas thus transmitted originated in classical antiquity, for which Polybius and the notion of the separation of powers served as a convenient synecdoche. Chinard hoped that studying literature through the framework of the history of ideas could help make the case that, rather than the “dilettantism” of “mere questions of form… the framework of literary works… [or] the noxious and convenient divisions into genres,” studying literature could provide important raw material for understanding “the larger body of human intellectual activities.” His article underscores a particular vision of a politico-cultural heritage—in other words, a definition for true France, a concept over which French intellectuals with political clout sparred from exile in New York.
The war reached him in many more ways, even in the relative haven of verdant suburban New Jersey. Chinard sounds indignant but matter-of-fact in his letters that allude these years. He resigned himself to never again seeing his in-laws: the Blanchard family remained in occupied territory. It would take him years to recover and renovate his country house in Châtellerault, where he had previously taken his family each summer. Although he did support the American Field Service and help find job placements for some French expatriate academics, these were not the primary target of his energies. He did engage in lecturing for elite east coast audiences and mobilized his political expertise to advise non-governmental advocacy groups like France Forever, a New York-based Gaullist organization presided over by industrial engineer Eugène Houdry.
Chinard seemed more troubled by broad political changes than by humanitarian concerns of refugee subsistence. Most distressing was the perception that an international disregard for Western values enabled authoritarian powers to trample on endogenous liberties. In one characteristic letter, he opined: “The Vichy government has allowed neither any journalist nor any neutral investigator to make a thorough investigation of the situation.” His disdain for Communism, organized labor, and a new, insular coterie of “depressives” coming to be known as “existentialists” is palpable. Instead, he located true Frenchness, in his advocacy for De Gaulle just as in his scholarship, in a particular constellation of ideas.
During the war, Chinard had the chance to implement his earlier writings about humanism’s instrumentality, which nonetheless met certain limits. As far as I know, Chinard never published an op-ed explaining how the reception of the image of Napoleon contained the key for defeating masculine authoritarianism. Yet I suspect Chinard’s pre-war sentiments about the value of studying the humanities, from his Trask Lecture of 1937-38, did not change much: that training in the “careful analysis of the elusive meaning of words… is an absolute necessity in a democracy.” Chinard’s individual influence is difficult to assess. What is clear, however, is that he contributed to a postwar liberal discourse that relied on a narrative of an ancient and Revolutionary political heritage. Wartime resistance and academic life found common cause under this banner.
A strategic dilemma for intellectuals emerges out of considering this historical moment. What if, by pursuing sweeping research into phenomena that we might take decades or centuries to influence, scholars inadvertently neglect present-day politics such that anti-humanist forces destroy the very institutions that enable their work? Theodore Greene remained at once resigned and optimistic on this point.
[Humanists] cannot, however, hope for immediate or spectacular success; they cannot avert a sudden social cataclysm, if that is the fate presently in store for us…. Now, as ever, our chief concern must be not the changing scene or the passing crisis but rather the nature of the human spirit in its eternal quest for enduring values.
For Chinard, at least, these words fell short of the role he would eventually play. He struck a balance between pursuing an ambitious intellectual research agenda and speaking to the urgent political issues of his day, engaging in work on multiple time scales.
Benjamin Bernard is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at Princeton University, where he studies early modern European history. His dissertation investigates moral reform in France circa 1700. Elements of this research were first presented at the “So Well Remembered” conference organized by Neil Safier at the John Carter Brown Library in April 2017. All translations are the author’s.