Stéphane Gerson is Professor of French, French Studies, and History 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. Another line of research revolves around the places from which and ways in which historians write about the past, delineate objects, and fashion their own literary selves.
My current research revolves around family histories that involve a historian’s own kin. This is taking two forms. First, I am writing a micro-history of a Jewish couple (my maternal grand-parents) who left Belgium for Nice in 1942, were arrested by the French police and freed thanks to a lowly French official, and then survived thanks to this official and his wife. This project begins with an interview I conducted with my grandmother in 1984 at the age of seventeen. 35 years later, I am re-exploring (and contextualizing) this testimony to write a book that is three things at once: (a) a ground-level, relational ethnography that complicates our understanding of survival and rescue by situating individuals within broader configurations of relations (with policemen, immigration officials, consuls, other Jews, etc.); (b) an inquiry into postwar story-telling as well as familial remembrance and forgetting of an ordinary event; and (c) a reflection on the value and limitations of such testimony as a historical source. In addition, I am seeking to analyze and asses this new mode of historical writing -- the history of one’s own kin -- through a significant review article (“A History From Below: When Historians Write About Their Own Kin,” (forthcoming in the Journal of Modern History) and Scholars and Their Kin, a symposium that brought together a dozen European and U.S. historians who write in this vein (2020).
My first two books explored questions of memory at the margins of the nation. The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell, 2003) analyzed what I call the cult of local memory in post-revolutionary 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: the predictions of 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).
My interest in the writing of history has taken many 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; translated into French, Alma 2020, and reviewed on the front page of Le Monde des Livres). At NYU’s Center for the Humanities, I am organizing a series of conversations among academics who also write memoir, personal investigations, or verse (2021). In 2019, I edited France in the World: A New Global History (Other Press), the U.S. edition of Histoire mondiale de la France, the transnational history of France that Patrick Boucheron and other historians published in 2017. 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).
Since 2018, I teach every year a Freshman seminar entitled Death Talk: Confronting Death and Grief Today. This course — among the most meaningful one I have taught — explores the proposition that, responding to new threats and anxieties, new risks and forms of collective death, and also to longings for autonomy, community, and a richer life, we are witnessing a return to certain forms of the Good Death, an ideal now reconfigured for modern times.
I advise Ph.D students working on the 19th and 20th centuries, in either NYU’s IFS/History tracks or its IFS/French tracks.
“Remembering and Forgetting,” in A Cultural History of Memory in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Susan A. Crane (Bloomsbury, 2020).
“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).