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Les Mis Takes the States: the First Sixty Years of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

17:15, LT2, Arts Complex, Woodland Road

Everyone seems to have heard of Les Misérables, but 150 years after the publication of Victor Hugo’s monumental prose masterpiece, we might well wonder what accounted for its extreme popularity early on. This lecture considers this question from an American perspective, asking how the novel had come to be a part of the country’s national consciousness by the 1920s, when many dramatisations and several film versions had already reached deep into American popular culture.

Speaker

Prof. Kathryn M. Grossman, Pennsylvania State University
IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor & BIRTHA Distinguished Lecturer

Full Abstract

These days almost everyone seems not only to have heard of Les Misérables, but also to have seen its current incarnation as a musical. This is as true in the U.S. as in France and the U.K. When Les Misérables began appearing worldwide in serial form on 3 April 1862, the United States were far from united: eleven of thirty-four states had seceded over the previous fourteen months and entered into a bloody civil war that would last another three years. Yet, amid all the strife and disarray, sales of the novel did exceptionally well, continuing briskly into the end of the century and beyond. As we contemplate Hugo’s monumental prose masterpiece 150 years after its publication, we might well wonder what accounted for its extreme popularity early on and in what ways it eventually became part of the American national consciousness. After all, it was a foreign import, a French book no less, and thus seemingly far removed from the pioneering ethos and frontier mentality of U.S. citizens, slaves, and immigrants. This lecture examines the reception trajectory of Les Misérables between 1860, when Hugo announced its completion, to 1922, when many dramatisations and several film versions had already reached deep into American popular culture. After examining how the novel was sold and how it was read, Prof. Grossman will identify the features of Hugo’s work that elicited the most passionate coverage, thus captivating several generations of American readers long before talking pictures and musical comedies again took them by storm.