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)

Research Interests

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).

My most recent book (Postal culture in Europe, 1500-1800 [Oxford University Studies in Enlightenment, 2016]) was about the early modern postal systems in Euorpe. During the early modern period the postal system became the primary means of communication and transport, yet until recently little has been known the actual conditions in which letters were exchanged, and how the post affected the lives of its users. The book provides the first historical and literary analysis of the practical conditions of letter exchange and how these circumstances disposed people to write about and to see themselves, their interlocutors, and their world. It defines and explores the economic, political, social and existential interests that were invested in the postal service, and presents an updated history of the three main European systems (the Thurn and Taxis, the French Royal Post and the British Post Office) It also shows how the post worked, from the folding and sealing of letters to their collection, sorting, and transportation. If the availability of mail offered a much-needed service to the general public, it also furnished rulers with a source of substantial revenue and an effective surveillance mechanism in the form of the Black Cabinets or Black Chambers. I uncover the paradoxical logic of these institutions, and highlight the tension between state control and the emerging belief in the right of individuals to keep the contents of their letters secret. The book also throws new light on the way correspondents viewed and presented themselves. Through an analysis of the correspondence of Voltaire and Rousseau, I demonstrate how the practical conditions of postal exchange affected their relations with friends, foes and unknown correspondents alike. Ultimately, this book provides readers with both a comprehensive overview of the changes wrought by the newly-public postal system – from the sounds that one heard to the perception of time and distance- and a thought-provoking account of the expectations and desires that have led to our culture of instant communication.

Teaching Interests

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.

Selected Publications

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).

Postal culture in Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford University Studies in Enlightenment, 2016).

Scholarly and Professional Activities

I am a member of the Association for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Société Voltaire, and the Modern Language Association.

Tags:  Jay Caplan