ΦBK Member Honored by French Government

On May 6, Albert James Arnold, professor emeritus of French at the University of Virginia, received the Ordre des Palmes Académiques from the French Ministry of Education. The honor was presented to Arnold by a representative of the French embassy in Washington, DC. 

The event was hosted by Washington and Lee University, where Arnold’s professional archive is maintained as part of the special collections library.

The French Academic Palms recognizes those who have rendered eminent service to French education and have contributed actively to the prestige of French culture. 

Napoleon I first created the palmes académiques as an honorary title to recognize members of the University in 1808.  The academic palms became a decoration in 1866, under Napoléon III, at which time the honor was also extended to non-teaching persons who had rendered illustrious service to French education. Thus, the academic palms is the oldest non-military French decoration.

Outside of France, both foreigners and French living abroad who contribute actively to the expansion of French education and culture in the world may be recognized.

In his formal remarks at the event, Arnold gave pride of place to Phi Beta Kappa in his career, from start to finish. The full text of his speech is provided below.

Arnold became a member of Phi Beta Kappa at Hamilton College in 1961. He taught in the Department of French at the University of Virginia from 1966 to 2007.


Washington and Lee University, May 6, 2016 

Remarks by Professor Albert James Arnold 

Receipt of the Order of Academic Palms from the French Ministry of Education 

Archival Copy

Late in his career the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote that it is impossible to present oneself. Until this occasion loomed, that seemed merely a nice philosophical problem. Please understand that it is now quite personal. These remarks will therefore focus on the institutions that have made it possible for us to be here today, with the least possible use of the first person subject  pronoun.

First and foremost, various branches of the French Ministry of Education, which administers the Academic Palms, deserve particular thanks. When a green young American arrived in Paris from a college very much like Washington and Lee, the Institut des Professeurs de Français à l’Étranger subjected him to its rigorous program of grammar, phonetics, and literature, permiting the novice to compete as a third-year student with M.A. candidates from Middlebury College and students from Japan, South Korea, Luxemburg, Canada, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. Without that strenuous combination of lectures, tutorials, and tough grading, election to Phi Beta Kappa the following year would have been quite impossible.

Phi Beta Kappa will be the first of several lines to be thrown out in order to demonstrate how a discreet event may have important repercussions decades later. Twelve years after his election, a young associate professor whose first doctoral candidate proposed to work on the Virginia author Julian Green received permission to present the great man with his own Phi Beta Kappa key in an abridged ceremony in Paris. Julien Green, as he is known in France, expressed his gratitude for that gesture with several signed copies of his work that can now be found in the special collections department of the Leyburn Library, along with correspondence from Simone de Beauvoir and others. Before setting aside the Phi Beta Kappa career thread, at least one colleague  present this afternoon will recall an invitation from the chapter at Washington and Lee to lecture on “Piracy as one of the (Il)liberal arts” in the Lee Chapel during the 2008 induction ceremonies.

Government programs that promoted excellence in the literary humanities have a special place in these remarks. The National Defense Education Act, which provided a full fellowship to one of the foremost French programs in the country, and the Fulbright-Hays Act, which funded the final year of doctoral research at the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, are foremost among them. A senior Fulbright grant some thirty years later contributed to teaching Francophone Caribbean literature at the colonial university of the Netherlands. A three-year assignment followed at the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright program, as one of three senior scholars who make the final recommendation on all pre-doctoral Fulbright awards to France in the humanities and social sciences.

To return to the French ministry of education, in 1981 the Université de Paris III proposed an exchange professorship in Littérature Générale et Comparée, which opened up a new career path that is still active today. The Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée founded in Paris by Paul Hazard needed an experienced scholar to coordinate a comparative literary history of the Caribbean region. That task occupied your servant from 1985 to 2001 and resulted in the publication of three substantial volumes covering all linguistic regions of the Caribbean, including Dutch, which had remained terra incognita outside the Netherlands up to that point. Attention received by that project prompted the bibliographical journal Critique to commission a special issue entitled “La Caraïbe dans tous ses états” in 2006.

Comparative work on Caribbean literature and culture resulted in curricular innovations as well. An undergraduate course in English attracted a diverse student population who, on their best days, learned a great deal from interactions among more or less specific cultural groups present in the class. The Francophone Caribbean was always at the center of that pedagogy, which proved useful in pointing up the history of racial conflict in the United States as compared to a broader spectrum across the Americas. In the 1980s the CARAF  book series created at the University Press of Virginia brought into focus French West Indian and Haitian works translated into English, so as to provide teaching materials for similar courses. The corresponding graduate seminar on comparative Caribbean material, taught in French, eventually produced several young academics specializing in Francophone literature with a broadened disciplinary scope. A second book series, labeled New World Studies, produced thirty-five volumes before the editorship was passed along to a colleague. Some in this room today may recall a lecture for the French section of Romance  Languages in May 1996 that reviewed those curricular innovations.

A few minutes should be devoted to specifically linguistic aspects of a long career in teaching, research, and academic publication. The rigorous preparation in French language alluded to at the outset laid the groundwork for a third-year course in advanced literary composition that was singled out by the College Entrance Examination Board in 1985 and recommended to secondary school teachers of AP French. Lest these remarks appear to lead inevitably back to the classroom, let it be noted that a high level of cultural competence in the French language has been useful in other respects as well. In August 1973 the Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée met in Montréal and Ottawa. Roberto Fernández Retamar – a former instructor in Comparative Literature at Yale who directed the Casa de las Américas publishing house in Havana – had recently published in Spanish and French an essay on Caliban as agent of cultural change in the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s adaptation of Césaire’s Tempest was only three years old. In order to engage Fernández Retamar in a discussion of Caliban’s role in the Caribbean it was necessary to converse in French because of the ideological hostility between the US and Cuba a little more than a decade after the revolution. The success of that conversation led to publication of an article on Césaire twenty years later in Casa de las Américas and, in 1998, to an invitation to serve as a juror for the Casa de las Américas Prize in English. Until then no other US passport holder born in the United States had served in that capacity.

A first sabbatical in Cambridge, England in 1975 made it possible to interview Albert Camus’s widow and to prepare a manuscript copy of his 1939 and 1941 versions of the play Caligula. Initial suspicion of American scholars on the part of Camus’s widow and sister-in-law was overcome by familiarity with the imperfect subjunctive and a shared taste for single-malt whiskey. Seven years later, when the new director of the Teatro Stabile di Roma wanted to premiere Camus’s unpublished Caligula at the Teatro Argentina, his heirs knew whom to contact. It was a definite plus that the American academic’s wife, Jo Arnold, was a hit with the Italian actors and directors. She brought a Mediterranean flavor to two weeks’ work as Dramaturg with the assistant director and the principal actors in September 1983. When the Italian language was found wanting on technical grounds, French guaranteed smooth communication among all concerned. Jo’s Mediterranean connection has frequently served on other occasions to temper an otherwise incapacitating Anglo-Saxon bluntness. Indeed, in a more just world she would have received the Palmes Académiques long ago.

Grant agencies, public and private, deserve mention for fostering the career that the French Ministry of Education honors here today. The Camargo Foundation’s residential center in Cassis, near Marseille, provided a comfortable and beautiful setting for drafting research projects during three sabbaticals between 1981 and 2001.  The American Council of Learned Societies funded the sabbatical at Cambridge University already mentioned; the National Endowment for the Humanities provided a year at the National Humanities Center in 1989; and the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored two seminars at the Bellagio study center on Lake Como. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities provided seed grants for larger projects. Research funding at this level regularly involves subsequent service on other grant committees, which in this case called for chairing the university committee on summer grants for over a decade. Service with the Institute of International Education has already been mentioned. It was a pleasure to pass along to colleagues at an earlier stage of their careers lessons learned in the curious and specialized craft of grantsmanship.

When one looks back on the careers of one’s elders, they may appear to follow a more or less straight line to the casual observer. This is all the more likely when, as in the present case, the professor spent over forty years at the same institution. Closer observation will, however, reveal changes in direction and sometimes more of a zig-zag course. A decision to follow up the remarkable poetics of a Martinican writer who had been little studied in the 1960s can, and did, contribute to founding the new field of Francophone literature a decade later. In order to better understand the cultural climate from which the poetics of Negritude emerged it was necessary to broaden the field both linguistically and disciplinarily as well. Creation of a sub-specialty in New World Studies resulted from that fundamental zig-zag movement. Mention has already been made of the comparative literary history of the Caribbean region that entailed recruiting three score international specialists across the globe and coordinating their labors over a fifteen-year period. Ten years’ service on the Coordinating Committee on Literary History of the Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée permitted lessons learned in that challenging task to be passed along to scholars embarked on similar comparative literary histories.

It is a commonplace of our profession that we know not how we may have touched the lives of our students, most of whom leave never to be heard from again. There are exceptions, of course; and it is a pleaure to welcome several former students here this afternoon, all of whom live and work in the Valley of Virginia. Others would have liked to attend but were simply too distant for that to be a practical possibility. It happened that in the final decade of a long career several students matriculated in order to benefit from the specialty in Francophone literature and culture just discussed. Most have gone on to promising careers in college and university teaching. Two of them, however, were in active military service when they undertook their degree work; one other had taught French in two of our national service academies. On completing their degrees one of those students was assigned to supervise all the overseas study programs of the US Air Force academy; another taught French at the US Military Academy before returning to Afghanistan to command a Special Forces unit in coordination with the French military. The third became a civilian analyst with the US Army’s African command in Stuttgart, Germany and has since been deployed to Wagadugu in support of French anti-terrorism efforts. Let their careers be entered into the record as counter-examples to the frequently heard complaint that professors in specialties like ours live and work in an ivory tower. 

Without ever leaving the university that fostered a career that has been described in broad strokes, it was possible to respond to numerous invitations to build up similar programs abroad. These included the University of Queensland in Australia and, in Europe, the universities of Leyden and Potsdam. Election to a Visiting Fellowship at Trinity College of Cambridge University was the capstone of all these efforts, following which emeritus status beckoned. Since retirement in 2008, a new editorial collaboration with Caribbean literature specialists at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris has resulted in the publication of Aimé Césaire’s complete literary works in one volume so large as to test the capacity of the binding machine. During the three years required to build and coordinate a team of Césaire specialists for that effort in France, it also proved possible to translate, with the American poet Clayton Eshleman, Césaire’s poetic corpus spanning the years 1939 to 1994. Wesleyan University Press will bring out The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire in 2017. The Cultural Services of the French embassy recognized the significance of that project with a Hemingway translation grant in 2015.

The materials that testify to all these efforts, and many others that have not been mentioned this afternoon, are now in the special collections department of the Leyburn Library, where future generations can puzzle over a time before the Xerox machine when all research notes were made on paper, with a pencil; then typed on a machine with no electrical connection and organized in physical boxes.

If presenting oneself is impossible, ending the presentation is as difficult as it is necessary. Dr. Leva, some exit music, if you please….