France Honors Tom Bishop

December 18, 2012 | By French Culture

On Monday, December, 10th, Tom Bishop received the insignia of the Commander of the Order of Arts et Lettres at the Maison française New York University. Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, presided over the ceremony and delivered the following speech.


Cher Tom, chers amis,

It is an immense pleasure to be here with you all tonight, to honour a dear friend, and an exceptional intermediary between France and the United States.

In French, we would say Tom is a “passeur”. I actually prefer the French word and I am sure you will recognize the traditional French modesty. Passeur has a tricky double meaning in French: it refers to intermediaries, but also to smuggling. I like the idea that, to help literature and culture cross borders and circulate, you have the official ways, but also the parallel lanes that can lead to great projects. Tom, I know you well enough to assert that you wouldn’t dislike being called a passeur, both in broad roads and serpentine lanes.

In such a distinguished company, I will not take the risk of greetings: even for a diplomat from the French Embassy, it is a perilous exercise not to forget anyone.

Still, I would like to particularly pay tribute to my dear friend John Young, President of the Florence Gould Foundation; to Guy Wildenstein, President of the American Society of the Legion of Honor; to Katherine Fleming, Vice Provost and Vice Chancellor of Europe NYU; to Gabrielle Starr, NYU’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and, of course, to the artist Christo.

I warmly thank Francine Goldenhar, the director of NYU Maison Française, for welcoming us tonight with her renowned hospitality. This ceremony could not have taken place elsewhere. The Maison française is not only Tom’s second home, but also one of the main pillars of French culture in the US. Over the last half-century, and thanks to Tom’s personal involvement, it has become a leader for the promotion of French-American cultural exchange.

Last but not least, I want to greet your exceptional wife, Helen, who accompanied you during all these adventurous, intense and incredible years.

Dear Tom, tonight, you will be awarded Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres. If you allow me this cheeky remark, you are already decorated like a Soviet marshal. France has expressed its gratitude by awarding you every order we have – we have quite a few, but it is truly exceptional to collect them all: Grand prix de l’Académie française; chevalier, and then officier in the Palmes académiques, the Arts et Lettres, the Légion d’honneur, and the Ordre national du mérite you received from the hands of President François Mitterrand himself. What a pressure on me! Tonight, I am entering the prestigious world of Tom Bishop’s awards givers!

And it is even more pressure on my shoulders when I recall you have always been distrustful with honours and praises. However I know that you deeply admire André Malraux as a writer. I guess you will be sensitive to being awarded the honorific decoration he created in 1957, when he was the Minister of Culture. Malraux noted the Arts et Lettres was “respected and envied by artists, writers, and creators. Tonight, you receive the highest rank, Commandeur, which is granted to only 50 people in the world.

I would like to highlight your personal and professional path in the field of arts and letters. Your cosmopolite career is all the more interesting that it conveys an important piece of history in the intellectual friendship between France and the United States.

You were born to an Austrian father and a Hungarian mother, and left Vienna when Hitler’s troups entered the city, in 1938. You were only 9 years-old when your father hurriedly took the family to Paris. You could not speak a word of French: who could imagine that, when now hearing your native-speaker French! You actually learned French in less than two months. Who says French is a difficult language? But I guess not everyone is Tom Bishop.

Your stay in France was short-lived and just as France’s occupation started, your family left for New York, on the last boat that managed to leave France: the Transatlantique Champlain, which was torpedoed on its way back. You then had to start all over again, for you did not speak a word of English. But English is so much easier, as you can hear it from my perfect American accent.

You have lived in the US ever since and you are 100% a New Yorker. But you carried on speaking French with your elder brother, Emile. On June, 18th 1940, after the General de Gaulle’s call, you were very proud, as a little boy, to wear the Croix de Lorraine.  You have always remained a true friend of France. Everybody here knows your strong character and the Homeric discussions and battles you can fight when you want to launch a project. But at the end of the day, if there is one person France can rely on, it’s definitely you.

You studied at NYU as an undergraduate and you specialised in French, Italian, Spanish and Philology (French was definitely not enough). Your PhD hails from Berkeley in Romance Languages, Literatures and Philology.

In 1956, 56 years ago, you were appointed an instructor at NYU. You have remained there since. And you excelled with an accomplished and impressive carrier in the French-American literature world. At the time, NYU was not the prestigious first-rank university it has become today. But you refused Harvard’s offer because you did not like the atmosphere there. You have always considered it a priority to work in a friendly and positively stimulating atmosphere. Everyone, even at NYU, told you it was totally extravagant not to accept Harvard’s offer. But you followed your instinct. And you were right. Tom, you have played a major role in creating one of the best French departments in the whole United States.

The very distinguished scholar Germaine Brée quickly remarked how unique you were. She appointed you director of the Maison française, which had just been created. At 30 years-old, you led the Maison française for 5 years.

In 1966, you became chairman of the French department. You remained there 33 years, an absolute record! In 1978, with Michel Beaujour, you created the Center for French civilization and culture, the first one in the US. It soon acquired an international reputation and became a model for others.

You specialised in two fields. First, experimental forms: Nouveau Roman, Nouvelle Critique, avant-garde drama (with Genet, Beckett, Jean-Louis Barrault, Georges Blin). Secondly, on French-American relationships, through studies on French “exception culturelle” or anti-Americanism you developed in three books: Le Passeur d’océan, Les antiaméricanismes and L’Amérique des Français.

You could have satisfied yourself with being a respected university chairman and a first-rank academic scholar. But throughout the years, you have also fuelled New York’s intellectual life, inviting many French writers to speak and share their work in politics and literature.

You have always had a craze for respectful but passionate political debate and have welcomed notable French political personalities, such French Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Pierre Mendès-France, Robert Badinter and Jack Lang.

Thanks to you, a visiting professor is at NYU every year and offers students a wealth of diverse perspectives. That is your goal: for your students not only to speak perfect French, but also to discover all that is creative in France’s intellectual life. The first visiting professor to come was Umberto Ecco. Alain Robbe-Grillet and Gérard Genette also came for many years (25 years for Robbe-Grillet, who apparently definitely fell in love with NYU). There were also novelists such as Philippe Sollers and thinkers like Jacques Derrida, François Furet and Julia Kristeva. Through them, you greatly contributed to educate many generations of young bright Francophiles.

You aroused the interest for Absurd Theater, by bringing Eugène Ionesco and other major dramatists to the US. You were with Ionesco when the news broke that Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You like to recall how Ionesco said “finally, we got it”! Ionesco was half French, and once again, that must be the traditional modesty of his French side which is speaking here.

You are also the one who brought the Nouveau Roman to the US. You organised a huge colloquium at NYU with Robert Pinget, Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and great American writers, such as Susan Sontag. What is maybe less known : you were so keen on promoting the Nouveau Roman that you used all means possible : you performed a play (Freshwater by Virginia Woolf) with an amazing cast: Ionesco, Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. I wish I could have been there.

You organised numerous symposiums and events in New York and Paris. To list them all would be too long. But I would like to mention, among others, French literature in the making, with Olivier Barrot, and the Festival of new French writing you organised in New York with the French Cultural Services: francophone and American writers debated, including Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Philip Claudel, Jane Kramer, Atiq Rahimi, Russel Banks, Genevieve Brisac, Philip Gourevitch and Chris Ware. Hundreds of people attended each conference. What a definitive answer to the so-called “death of French Culture”! I perfectly remember your witty and sharp reply to a distinguished American writer who clearly considered that French literature had no importance: “If I understand you right, it is not worth American having French books because American already have books”. Very clearly, without your contribution, French ideas would most certainly not be as present as they are today in the US.

You like to quote Josephine Baker saying “j’ai deux amours”. Even though you are an American before everything, you need both France and the US. In Le Passeur d’océan, you explain that these two countries, through their history, are less strangers than complements. For more than half a century, you have been defending this human, intellectual and cultural position.

You are 83 and your commitment to share your passion of French culture continues to grow. As a conclusion, I would like to borrow Beckett’s words : « I cannot continue, one must continue, I will continue” (“je ne peux pas continuer, il faut continuer, je vais continuer”). I am sure I am not the only one here who reckons that the formula perfectly applies to your outstanding career and personality.

Tom Bishop, Au nom du Ministre de la Culture, nous vous faisons Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres.

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