Stéphane Gerson is Professor of French and French Studies at NYU and director of the Institute of French Studies.
Educated at Haverford College (B.A. in Philosophy, 1988) and the University of Chicago (Ph.D. in Modern European History, 1997), I am a cultural historian of modern France, with special interests in the nineteenth century, Vichy France and its aftermath, and questions of place, memory, political culture, and margins and center. Much of my work has revolved around the ways people respond to upheaval and traumatic changes that they associate with modernity and can seem at once liberating and disturbing.
My first book, The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell, 2003) explored what I call the cult of local memory in nineteenth-century France: a passion for the local that encompassed historical research, monuments to great men, archeological digs, museums, and historical pageants. Against a backdrop of political and industrial revolutions, the local past provided deeper understanding of one’s pays (land), moral teachings, modes of civic participation, social cohesion, and national unity. It also unveils complicated relationships between the central state and provincial elites. The Pride of Place won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. This research also won the William Koren Jr. Prize for best article on French history.
My second book explored another memorial phenomenon that, from the margins of Western modernity, has grown increasingly prevalent in recent decades: Renaissance astrologer Nostradamus. By explaining how his prophecies endured for nearly five centuries, Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom (St. Martin’s, 2012) helps up understand the memorial lives of figures and texts that no regime or organized religion, no intellectual school or pantheon deem worthy of recognition. Translated into French (Tallandier), this book contributes to histories of memory, collective trauma, media regimes, and fluctuating relationships to uncertainty and horror, fear and the future. I have also co-edited a new Penguin Classics edition of Nostradamus’ Prophecies (2012).
Much of my current research revolves around family histories that involve a historian’s own kin. I am writing, first, a dual micro-history of two couples before, during, and after WW2: a couple of Belgian Jewish refugees in Nice (my grand-parents, as it happens) and the policeman who, with his wife, saved them. This is at once an inquiry into the ordinary aspects and extraordinary aspects of war, a ground-level analysis of survival and rescue, and an exploration of familial memory and silence in France and Belgium. In addition, I am completing a review article that, by putting several such family historians into conversation, outlines a new mode of historical writing which draws readers close to the complexities and contradictions of the social world. “Historians and Their Kin: A New Family History” is forthcoming in the Journal of Modern History.
My interest in writing and the writing of history has taken other forms. I recently published an essay on trauma and the historian’s emotional life ( “History in the Face of Catastrophe,” Chronicle Review, 2018) as well as a personal memoir on a catastrophe in my own family, Disaster Falls: A Family Story (Crown, 2017). I just finished editing the U.S. edition of the Histoire mondiale de la France, the bestselling and controversial transnational history of France that Patrick Boucheron and other historians published in 2017. France in the World: A New Global History will come out in 2019 (Other Press). Earlier, I explored historian Alain Corbin’s approach to cultural history in a special issue of French Politics, Culture & Society that I guest- edited (2004). With Laura Lee Downs, I also edited a collection in which fifteen American historians of France penned autobiographical essays on their intellectual, political, and personal relationships to France. Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (Cornell, 2007) provides a model for a self-reflexive historical practice while opening onto broader questions: the inflections of the Franco-American relationship; the meanings of ‘France’ in American thought and society, and the relationship between intellectual milieus and international relations. Why France? was translated into French (Le Seuil).
“Remembering and Forgetting,” in A Cultural History of Memory in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Susan A. Crane (Bloomsbury, 2019).
“Pourquoi la France? Retour une enquête aux Etats-Unis,” Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale de France 57 (2018).
“La Repubblica Francese e il Locale: Lo State Dell’Arte,” Nazion e Regioni 9 (2017).
Co-author, “Putting the ‘Studies’ in French Studies: Teaching History and Social Sciences in a French Department.” Contemporary French Civilization 40, 1 (2015).