A Brief History

The first professor of French at Columbia, Jean-Pierre Tétard, who taught from 1784 to 1787, was a Huguenot preacher who graduated in divinity from the University of Lausanne. The modern history of French at Columbia begins with the establishment of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures by the Trustees on January 6, 1890. The Department was small in its early years. Its faculty consisted of two professors, one adjunct professor, one instructor, and two tutors. The professors, Adolphe Cohn and Henry Alfred Todd, had been hired away from Harvard and Stanford, respectively.

Adolphe Cohn was born and educated in Paris. He moved to New York after serving as a volunteer during the Franco-Prussian War and graduating as archiviste paléographe from the Ecole des Chartes. A friend and supporter of Léon Gambetta, he was the American correspondent of La République française from 1876 to 1884. He was also a regular contributor to Le Temps and Atlantic Monthly. He chaired the Department from 1891 until his retirement in 1916. Even though he was a philologist by training, Cohn taught literature and civilization rather than philology.

Henry Alfred Todd, born in Woodstock, Illinois, received his BA from Princeton in 1876, and his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1885. He was one of the first American-trained scholars of French literature, and an eminent philologist. He served as president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1906. He founded the Romanic Review in 1910 with the collaboration of his younger colleague Raymond Weeks (PhD, Harvard, 1897) who had joined the Columbia faculty in 1909 (and later served as an ambulance driver on a sabbatical in France during World War I).

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As the emphasis gradually shifted from philology to literature, the link between French, Spanish and Italian seemed increasingly tenuous, and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures was divided into three sections in 1929. The section of Romance Philology and French, then headed by Henri F. Muller, was later renamed Department of French and Romance Philology.

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A new phase began in 1936 when Horatio Smith was called from Brown University to chair the Department and rebuild it following a wave of departures and retirements. In short order Norman Torrey, Jean-Albert Bédé, Mario Pei, Justin O’Brien, and Otis Fellows joined the faculty, followed by Jean Hytier immediately after World War II. Most of this team remained in place until the 1960s. They trained Gita May and Michael Riffaterre, who did their graduate work at Columbia, stayed on as junior faculty in the late fifties, and played a major role in the history of the Department in the 1970s and 1980s. Gita May, a specialist of the relationship between literature and the arts, chaired the Department from 1983 to 1992.

As early as the mid-sixties, new ideas coming from France began to have a major impact on the American academic scene. A small number of French departments were early adopters. At Columbia, Michael Riffaterre and Sylvère Lotringer, who were important advocates of “French theory,” had very different personalities and profiles. Chairing the Department from 1974 to 1983, Riffaterre developed his own version of structuralist theory, emphasizing a strongly formalist approach.

Sylvère Lotringer joined the Columbia faculty in 1972. Under the banner of Semiotext(e), the journal he founded in 1974, Lotringer brought together academics, fiction writers, musicians, and visual artists, and played a pioneering role in the dissemination of the work of Foucault and Deleuze in the United States.

Maryse Condé, Antoine Compagnon
Maryse Condé, Antoine Compagnon, 1990s

With the recruitment of Antoine Compagnon in 1985 and Maryse Condé a decade later, the Department moved toward a reassessment of historical approaches to the study of literature and culture, and committed itself to the study of Francophone literature. By then, “French theory” had become mainstream, having permeated many fields and disciplines in the United States. In 1994 Compagnon began splitting his time between New York and Paris, first at the Sorbonne where he introduced the teaching of literary theory, and then at the Collège de France, where he now holds the chair in modern and contemporary literature.

Pierre Force, 2012 (Photo credit: Eileen Barroso)
Pierre Force, 2012 (Photo credit: Eileen Barroso)

Following a wave of retirements in the mid-2000s, the Department was almost entirely rebuilt under the leadership of Pierre Force, who served as chair from 1997 to 2007. Interdisciplinary connections were emphasized in the hiring of new faculty, leading to the establishment of formal and informal links with the Departments of Art HistoryHistoryPhilosophy, Sociology, and Anthropology,

Four former chairs of the Department are included in the picture below. From left to right: Pierre Force (1997-2007), Phil Watts (2008-2012), Antoine Compagnon (1992-1994), and Elisabeth Ladenson (2012-2015).

From left to right: Pierre Force (1997-2007), Phil Watts (2008-2012), Antoine Compagnon (1992-1994), Elisabeth Ladenson (2012-2015)
From left to right: Pierre Force, Phil Watts, Antoine Compagnon, Elisabeth Ladenson.