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John Harvard's Journal

"Un original"

3.1.00

As is its custom, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting of December 14, 1999, began with memorial minutes commemorating deceased colleagues. Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley H. Hoffmann presented the tribute to Laurence Wylie, Dillon professor of the civilization of France emeritus, who died in 1996. Excerpts follow.

 

Laurence Wylie was born in Indianapolis on November 19, 1909. He was the son of a Methodist minister of Scotch-Irish descent; his mother was of English Quaker stock. He went to Indiana University, where he was on the wrestling team and played the piccolo in the university band. A high-school teacher had introduced him to French, and in 1929 Larry went to France for his junior year. He took a course from the distinguished political scientist André Siegfried. Siegfried had written a celebrated book explaining America, 100 years after Tocqueville, to the French. Wylie found, in France, a relief from the constraints and pieties of provincial America. Returning to Indiana, he took an M.A. in French; he then went to Brown University for his doctorate. His thesis...was a remarkable mix of incisive analysis and subtle satirical wit, which revealed a great deal about Wylie’s irreverence toward established authorities and self-righteous elites.

Having become a pacifist, partly because of his Quaker heritage, partly because of his distaste for political violence and ideological conflicts, he worked, during the war, as a janitor at a children’s hospital while teaching at Simmons College. Also during the war, he and his wife enrolled at [Quaker-affiliated] Haverford College in a program called Relief and Reconstruction. This led to his being offered a faculty appointment at Haverford.

The lure of France remained strong. He once met Margaret Mead, who asked him: “What is your hypothesis?” When he spent his 1950-51 sabbatical year in the picturesque village of Roussillon in the Vaucluse, he had no hypotheses: only his curiosity, his empathy, and a knowledge of Rorschach techniques. When Larry wrote his famous book, Village in the Vaucluse, the audience he had in mind...was his Aunt Edie, who needed to understand these strange people who drank wine and voted Communist.

The writer of this minute read Village in the Vaucluse with great enthusiasm, for the way, both affectionate and shrewd, in which Wylie reported on life, education, work, family rituals, and mutual relations among the people of Roussillon. He mentioned the book to McGeorge Bundy, the dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whose teaching assistant he had been...Bundy read the book, was impressed, and in his best Medici manner offered Wylie a new chair in French civilization given to Harvard by C. Douglas Dillon, the former ambassador to France. Not without hesitation, Wylie came to Harvard in the fall of 1959, as a member of the department of social relations.

Wylie never felt very much at ease in that department. He disliked grand theory...and much preferred working with students, especially undergraduates, who studied Chanzeaux [in Catholic and conservative western France] with him... Chanzeaux: A Village in Anjou was edited by him but written by a formidable group of students (including his older son); many of them have had very distinguished careers.

Larry’s interests broadened. He taught a course on French culture and society, which was one of the first to use movies and was nicknamed “Frogs and Flicks.” He took a two-year leave from Harvard in 1965-67 to become cultural attaché at the U.S. embassy in Paris, but the pleasure of explaining the U.S. to French audiences was marred by his opposition to the Vietnam War, which the ambassador expected him to defend.

He became increasingly interested in the study of gestures and nonverbal communication as an approach to understanding foreign culture. He studied mime during another year in France in the early 1970s.... With the photographer Rick Stafford, he published an illustrated book, Beaux Gestes, a guide to French body talk. He sent a copy to President Giscard d’Estaing. An aide of the president wrote a note thanking him for having sent to Giscard “your book for the deaf and mute.”

After retiring, Wylie remained active. He died at home—fascinated until the end by the patterns of French society and culture, by the changes that economic modernization was bringing to rural life and customs, by the persistence nevertheless of strong and united families.

Indeed, he was what the French call un original. With his red hair, freckles, and glasses he looked, to a Frenchman, like a perfect American archetype.... He had an extraordinary talent for understanding the implicit, internalized (a word he wouldn’t have used) rules of behavior that govern people’s lives, and their authority relations (a gift he displayed in a sketch on how a Frenchman gesticulates when he meets an equal, a superior, and an inferior). What he lacked (or disdained) in theoretical erudition he more than compensated for with a kind of sly intuition, spontaneous sophistication, and incisive common sense. What he had found in France was an art of living,...an aesthetic and ethic of pleasure, leisure, work, and limits that appealed to this minister’s son, himself a hard-working Epicurean. Harvard, with its occasional sense of self-importance and its cult of overwork, was not the ideal milieu for him, but his legacy is nonetheless important: a classic book in which specialists as well as a wide audience can find enlightenment and compassion, students whom he trained as both a teacher and a friend, and a way of looking at French culture that embraced all aspects from Montaigne to Montand, and from pastis to patriotism.