Professional and Biographical Information


Ph.D, French, University of California at Berkeley (1979)
M.A., French, University of California at Berkeley (1974)
B.A., French and Spanish, summa cum laude, Kent State University (1972)
A.M. (honorary), Amherst College (1995)

Research Interests 

Following an early interest in contemporary French autobiography and its ties to history, especially World War II, I have focused my work in modern French literature and culture on how one constructs or represents identity. I emphasize borders and their crossings between life and writing, history and literature, self and other. In my book on contemporary women's autobiographies in French, I looked at the ways women writers have developed strategies to deal with issues of gender within a genre perennially considered “suspicious” because potentially self-serving and easily confounded with fiction. Studying autobiographies by five women novelists (Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Monique Wittig and Maryse Condé) from different cultural backgrounds and literary traditions, I explored questions of gendered identity as they are linked to nationality and theories of language. One of the writers I discussed, Guadeloupean Maryse Condé, led me to explore at greater length political, racial and literary identities across cultures in a postcolonial framework. I have continued to publish on the multicultural intersections that make up Caribbean identity.

The newest directions of my research have brought me back to the history of World War II and its effects on France 's understanding of itself as a nation. I recently completed a book that considers how national identity figures in French films about the German Occupation, 1940-1944. I have been especially intrigued by the ways female characters embodying France's traditional national icon, Marianne, repeatedly take on morally ambiguous roles to portray France's conflicted memories of the Occupation. While the French government has used in the modern era famous actresses such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve to represent Marianne in official documents, statues and on postage stamps, French filmmakers have chosen such actresses to depict national ethical dilemmas about complicity with Vichy and the Nazis. The ties between Marianne's official symbolism and her artistic versions in French films about the Occupation tell the complex story of a collective identity crisis.

Teaching Interests

I teach both intermediate and advanced courses in French. In my advanced courses I have been fortunate to be able to teach courses that feed off my research. I offer courses on French autobiography, the memory of World War II France, literature of the French Antilles, and France's contemporary “culture wars.” Another of my mainstays is the contemporary French novel course, in which we tackle together classics of the modern period: writers such as Proust, Sartre, Camus, Duras, and Modiano are regularly featured on the syllabus, but new names are always added to the list to keep up with the changing face of French literature and culture. While focusing on primary cultural texts (especially literature and film), I also introduce students to scholarly critical works on the theories of literature, language and culture. Although France 's rich critical tradition is a challenge for anyone, I am struck by the ways Amherst College students tackle difficult critical approaches and new ways of thinking with gusto.

I am always curious to see how students react to works I have been pondering and I find the exchange rewarding. Although emphasizing a critical approach to the study of French culture, I ask students in my autobiography course to provide their own sample of autobiographical writing in French at the end of the semester so that the genre's structural and theoretical difficulties, its pitfalls and its pleasures, may be experienced in a more direct way. The application of critical acumen to personal and collective musings and undertakings is one I hope students take with them beyond the classroom.

Awards and Honors

National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, 1987-88

Amherst College Senior Sabbatical Fellowship, 2001

Amherst College Research Awards, 1994-97, 2006

Scholarly and Professional Activities

Ongoing member of the Modern Language Association

Elected Delegate to the Modern Language Association Assembly, 1988-90

Editorial Board Member for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies: Sites


Leah Hewitt's Website

See also: Selected Publications and Research Interests