Source: Contemporary Authors Online.The Gale Group, 2000.
New Entry: 12/10/1999
Table of Contents
Awards Personal Information Career Writings Sidelights Further Readings About the Author Obituary Sources
A scholar, educator, and author, Henri Peyre was acclaimed by his peers as a prolific writer, a profound thinker, a dedicated teacher, and an ambassador of good will between America and France. Peyre was Sterling Professor of French and chairman of the department of romance languages at Yale University from 1938 to 1969. Before joining Yale on a permanent basis, Peyre taught briefly at Byrn Mawr College and at the Egyptian University in Cairo. Following his retirement from Yale in 1969, Peyre joined the City University of New York Graduate Center as a Distinguished Professor, a post he retained until 1980.
Peyre was the author of more than thirty books in English and French on topics ranging from modern literature to higher education. Titles include Writers and Their Critics: A Study of Misunderstanding (revised edition published as The Failures of Criticism), The Contemporary French Novel (revised edition published as French Novelists of Today), Observations on Life, Literature and Learning in America, and Literature and Sincerity. Peyre edited Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays,Fiction in Several Languages, and other books, and contributed articles and book reviews to the New York Times.
"There ought to be a word for writers which would serve as the equivalent of `omnivorous' for readers," observed Victor Howes of the Christian Science Monitor in a review of Henri Peyre's Historical and Critical Essays. "`Prolific' and `voluminous' hardly seem adequate to describe the tireless energy of writers, lecturers, culture-transmitters like Henri Peyre. With one foot in academe and one foot in Chautauqua, Professor Peyre [turned] out essays and articles in the `light classical' repertoire for a generation. . . . He [wrote] like a pinwheel, ideas flaring out like sparks against the night. . . . If all this literary productivity sounds too good to be true, let it be said at once that Professor Peyre [knew] his business. . . . He [had] a knack for getting to the heart of the matter, a sense of the crucial issue, a flair for throwing out provocative lines of investigation."
Though the subjects he discussed in Historical and Critical Essays ranged from a French view of Shakespeare's women to the responsibilities of the mass media, Peyre's real specialty was modern French literature. His studies on the topic, most of which are directed at the non-specialist American reader with little or no knowledge of French, have been highly praised for their comprehensiveness as well as for the author's enthusiasm. One book in particular, The Contemporary French Novel, and its revised version, French Novelists of Today, were very well received. Like Howes, J. H. Matthews of Comparative Literature found that the author's work "reveals Henri Peyre as a man of decided opinions, possessed of the courage to express them, and of the ability to organize his material in a volume soundly constructed and cogently argued. Reading this book one is impressed by many qualities, but above all one is struck by the author's integrity. This [was] a critic who believe[d] in clearly establishing his position, indicating the criteria which oblige[d] him to hold it, and in defending it consistently, with the utmost clarity."
Others, too, noticed and praised the skill and firmness with which Peyre presented and defended his position. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, for example, found it stimulating to read the work of a scholar who "never allowed himself to fall into the pit of pedantry," while the New York Herald Tribune Book Review's Wallace Fowlie noted that "there are many books on French novelists of the 20th century, but Professor Peyre's study is unique in its completeness, in the fullness and detail of its evaluations, [and] in the vigor with which this critic present[ed] his viewpoint and develop[ed] his critical theories." Laurent Le Sage of Saturday Review was impressed by the fact that although Peyre did "not hesitate to speak out when he [thought] the importance of a writer . . . exaggerated," he always gave "his own reasons and recognize[d] the existence of other points of view." Thomas Bishop, another Saturday Review critic, agreed with Le Sage, declaring that "the strength of Mr. Peyre's work is contained in his formidable command of his subject, the precision of his judgments, and his willingness to express definite opinions. Mr. Peyre [was] not one to throw praise around indiscriminately; he approach[ed] the great names of the modern French novel without awe but rather with refreshing iconoclasm." Though a few reviewers disagreed with Bishop and Le Sage, claiming that Peyre was more dogmatic than he was willing to admit, Le Sage pointed out that "it is hard to quarrel and quibble before such forthrightness."
Among the most common targets of Peyre's wrath were structuralism, the use of computers and card indexes in analyzing literary works, and the "new novelists" (as Louis Allen reported in Commonweal, Peyre endorsed Robert Penn Warren's insistence that "experimental writing is an elite word for flop"; Peyre, he said, "refuse[d] to regard [it] as a touchstone of greatness in art"). A staunch moralist, he approved of writers like Malraux, Sartre, and Saint-Exupery who, according to Allen, "carry on the essential moral debate for each generation, on the meaning of life in society, and on individual destiny in a hostile or indifferent universe." Novelists who failed to deal with these concerns in a lucid manner were not worthy of consideration in Peyre's eyes.
But even though some may find his views harsh and uncompromising, few can argue with the extent of Peyre's knowledge of his subject (whatever it may be) or his ability to discuss it with the sparkling vitality, precision, and thoroughness characteristic of almost all his work. "Peyre [was] a humanist in the richest sense," observed Alfred Owen Aldridge in Books Abroad, while Howes, describing his writings as "warm with humanity, scholarship, and the desire to communicate," thanked him for "the way he kindles a learned flame." Concluded Sidney D. Braun of Criticism: "A prolific writer, a profound thinker, a universally acclaimed ambassador of good will between America and France, he . . . , in the opinion of many, [did] more than any other Frenchman or American in this country to act as friend, mentor and guide to students and scholars."
Family: Born February 21, 1901, in Paris, France; immigrated to United States, 1925; died of heart failure, December 9, 1988, in Norwalk, CT; son of Brice Henri and Marie (Tuvien) Peyre; married Marguerite Vanuxem, August 9, 1927 (died, 1962); married Lois Haegert, March 11, 1963. Education: University of Paris, Sorbonne and Ecole Normale Superieure, B.A., 1918, Licence, 1922, Agregation, 1924, Doctorat, 1932. Military/Wartime Service: French Army, 1924-25.
Memberships: American Philosophical Society, American Association of Teachers of French, Modern Language Association of America, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Officier de la Legion d'Honneur; recipient of honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities, including Bard College, University of Cincinnati, University of Miami, Middlebury College, Oberlin College, Rutgers University, Tufts University, Boston College, University of Laval, and Kalamazoo College.
Teacher of French and French literature at Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, 1925-28, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1928-33, and University of Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, 1933-36; Yale University, Sterling Professor of French, 1938-69, chairman of department, 1939-69. City University of New York Graduate Center, Distinguished Professor, 1969-80. Visiting professor or lecturer at University of Lyons, University of Chicago, Cornell University, and Columbia University.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
Louis Menard, 1822-1901, Yale University Press, 1932.
Bibliographie critique de Phellenisme en France, 1843- 1870, Yale University Press, 1932.
(Editor with Joseph Seronde) Three Classic French Plays, Heath, 1935.
Shelley et la France, Paul Barbey, 1935.
(Editor with Seronde) Nine Classic French Plays by Corneille, Moliere, Racine, Heath, 1936.
(Editor with E. M. Grant) Seventeenth-Century French Prose and Poetry, Heath, 1937.
Hommes et ouevres du XXe siecle, R. Correa, 1938.
L'influence des litteratures antiques sur la litterature francaise moderne, Yale University Press, 1941.
Le classicisme francais, Editions de la Maison Francaise, 1942.
(Editor) Essays in Honor of Albert Feuillerat, Yale University Press, 1943.
Problemes francais de demain: Reflexions a propos d'un livre recent, Moretus, 1943.
Writers and Their Critics: A Study of Misunderstanding, Cornell University Press, 1944, revised edition published as The Failures of Criticism, 1967.
Les Generations litteraires, Boivin, 1948.
(Editor) Pensees de Baudelaire: Recueillies et classees, J. Corti, 1951.
Connaissance de Baudelaire, J. Corti, 1951.
(With others) The Cultural Migration, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.
The Contemporary French Novel, Oxford University Press, 1955, revised edition published as French Novelists of Today, 1967.
Observations on Life, Literature and Learning in America (essays), Southern Illinois University Press, 1961.
(Editor) Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Literature and Sincerity, Yale University Press, 1963.
(Editor) Contemporary French Literature, Harper, 1964.