208 Barrett Hall
PO Box: AC# 2255
Jay L. Caplan
Professor of FrenchAmherst College
Courses in Fall 2007
Courses in Fall 2008
Courses in Fall 2010
Courses in Spring 2011
Courses in Spring 2013
Professional and Biographical Information
Ph.D., French literature, Yale University (1973)
M.A., French literature, Yale University (1969)
A.B., Oberlin College (1967)
A.M. (honorary), Amherst College (1991)
My work has primarily concerned eighteenth-century French literature and culture, which I have interpreted in ways informed by theoretical awareness and knowledge of historical context. Although most of my Ph.D. dissertation was about travel narratives (fictional and non-fictional) from the eighteenth century, it was heavily weighted toward theoretical issues, some of which (the relationship between language and power, historical context and artistic forms) I have continued to work on. I spent the first few years of my career learning about the two fields that the University of Minnesota had hired me to teach: eighteenth-century French literature and “Francophone” literature (that is, literature in French from France's former colonies). Having found it very difficult to focus in a serious way on two such different fields, I decided (after achieving tenure!) to focus on the literature and culture of eighteenth-century France. I became interested in the wave of sentimentality that took hold of Europe in the last half of the eighteenth century, in all the weeping and sobbing that people were doing in novels, in theater, and in everyday life. Why, I wondered, were so many characters and people getting so much pleasure out of shedding tears? The subsequent research resulted in my first book, Framed Narratives: Diderot's Genealogy of the Beholder (University of Minnesota), which was published in the year (1985) that I joined the Amherst faculty.
In my next book, In the King's Wake (U. of Chicago, 1999), I tried to show that long before the 1789 Revolution brought a violent end to the political structure of the ancien régime, the culture of absolutism had already perished. The book traces the emergence of a post-absolutist culture across a wide range of works and genres: St-Simon's memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency; Voltaire's first tragedy, Oedipe; Watteau's last great painting, L'Enseigne de Gersaint; the plays of Marivaux; and Casanova's History of My Life. While absolutist culture had focused on value that was considered present in people (in their blood) and things (such as coins made of precious metals), post-absolutist culture instead explored the capacity of signs to represent something real (as John Law's banknotes stood for mineral wealth and, in Marivaux's plays, actions rather than birth signify nobility).
I am now working on a book that aims to describe the material conditions of letter-writing in the Enlightenment and consider how those conditions affected the way in which members of the “Republic of Letters” imagined each other and themselves. I will present these issues through the cases of Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire, for example, lived in a succession of places throughout his long life, all the while remaining at the center of European Enlightenment. At a time when national postal monopolies and postage stamps did not yet exist, he maintained a vast correspondence with persons all over Europe, from England to Russia. I plan to show how Voltaire's letters (and those of his correspondents) reached their destinations, what itineraries they followed, and how long it took for the letters to reach their destinations. Today everyone knows that the apparently instantaneous delivery of email leads users to adopt a style that is different from that of “paper” letters and to imagine themselves and their correspondents in new ways. I hope to show how the material conditions of letter-writing in the Enlightenment influenced the ways in which people wrote letters and understood themselves at the time.
Like the rest of my departmental colleagues, I regularly teach intermediate language and literature. In addition, I teach a wide range of more advanced courses, including French civilization and culture (from cave-dwellers to 1789), seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theater and narrative, and (in English) French cinema.
Framed Narratives: Diderot's Genealogy of the Beholder (U. of Minnesota Press, 1985)
In the King's Wake: Post-Absolutist Culture in France (U. of Chicago Press, 1999).
I am a member of the Association for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Société Voltaire, and the Modern Language Association.