On October 17, 2017, CUNY professor Mary Ann Caws and Princeton professor Florent Masse were honored with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters at a ceremony hosted at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montclaur bestowed the insignia upon Caws and Masse for their dedication to the cultural expansion of France in the United States.
As Cultural Counselor, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to bestow the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters upon both the writer Mary Ann Caws and professor Florent Masse.
In 1957, the Order of Arts and Letters was established by the French government to recognize renowned artists and writers who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.
Tonight, we honor two devoted professors whose fruitful careers have been dedicated to, among various things, sharing and expanding French culture in the United States. Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French, Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of CUNY, has authored a plethora of books, ranging in every topic from art history to cookbooks to biographies. She is also a renowned translator, and she has written extensively on the intersection of literature, language, and the visual arts. Throughout a lifetime of teaching, she has published countless articles, worked on numerous editorial boards of commended publications, and served as president for various organizations, among them the Modern Language Association of America.
Florent Masse, senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton, has contributed hugely to the cultural expansion of French theater in the United States. He curates and directs Princeton’s French theater festival, Seuls en Scène, which brings celebrated French actors and directors to the local community. He also founded and currently directs Princeton’s French theater workshop, L’Avant Scène, helping students improve their language skills in French through theater.
Mary Ann Caws, I turn to you first:
Your life has been marked by your incessant pursuit of knowledge, one that as a professor, you have graciously shared with hundreds of others. Your husband describes your apartment as abounding with books—about 20,000 of them—with cases filled to their maximum and occupying most wall spaces. This is perhaps something we could expect from someone who has spent her life being passionately curious about the beauty in the world around her.
You were born in Wilmington, North Carolina, as the granddaughter of painter Margaret Walthour Lippitt. After graduating cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1954, you went on to receive your Master’s degree at Yale in 1956 and your doctorate from the University of Kansas in 1962. You immediately jumped into the world of pedagogy, first serving as a lecturer in French at Barnard College. Since then, academic institutions all over the country have been lucky enough to count you among their faculty, but you have found your home at City University of New York, where you are now Distinguished Professor of French, English, and Comparative Literature. As your interests are far-ranging, you also serve on the faculty of the Women’s Studies and Film Certificate Programs at CUNY.
You have had incredible success as an academic figure, and have served as a leader in the dissemination of culture and literature. Over your career, you have served as president of the Modern Language Association of America, president of the Academy of Literary Studies, president of the Association for Study of Dada and Surrealism, president of the American Comparative Literature Association. You are also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Life Member at Clare Hall at Cambridge, a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, and a Getty Scholar. This may sound like I am listing off your resume, but I want to make two points: first of all, this is only a fraction of your resume. Second, I name all of these distinctions to emphasize just how much you have contributed to the world of culture and academia, and how widely recognized you are for doing so.
Your work as a scholar, author, art historian, and critic is marked by a boundless passion and intense enthusiasm. You’ve published thoroughly researched biographies on Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Henry James, as well as on artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. You’ve also written your own memoir, To the Boathouse. Your expertise in the areas of Dada and Surrealism is second-to-none.
You overlap your passions and explore their intersections in your writing and teaching. Take for example your 1966 book Surrealism and the Literary Imagination, or your more recent The Modern Art Cookbook. I could go on and name a seemingly never-ending series of articles you’ve published that have all critically and thoughtfully contributed to the dialogue surrounding the fields of poetry, art, and translation.
Not only have you blessed the American community with your insatiable academic pursuit, but you have also benefited the French community with a passion for its culture which you have shared with the rest of the world. You’ve owned a house in Provence since 1973—a lovely home on a rural hill about two miles away from the nearest town, you’re surrounded by vineyards, boulangeries, olive groves, and friends. Your stays in France led you to write the lovely cookbook memoir, Provencal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France, a reflection on the joys of living simply and enjoying the Provençal “good life”―good company, good food, and great wine, preferably from your neighbor’s vineyard.
Your translation of French poetry is recognized as of the highest quality. While you have translated and edited countless works from French to English, perhaps the most notable of your translations are of René Char’s, as you developed a close friendship with this celebrated 20th-century French poet. He was, after all, the reason you initially began spending your summers in the Vaucluse region, and you decorated your cabanon, or field house, with his postcards, photographs, and books. Your children remember paying him visits, and the way that the two of you would spend hours and hours discussing poetry. There is René Char, of course, but you have also edited and translated works by Stéphane Mallarmé, Yves Bonnefoy, Pierre Reverdy, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard and many others. And still, you do more than translate: ever the theorist, you published Surprised in Translations in 2016, demonstrating your meta-critical approach to your work, as you are constantly thinking about this art form and the relationship between the translator and the translated.
Your love of France, its literature, and its “simple life” has manifested itself in more official positions—you co-founded and served as the co-Director of the Henri Peyre French Institute at the Graduate School of CUNY from 1980 to 2002, you are a former Trustee of the Alliance Française in Washington, D.C., and you served as editor for the French publication Le Siècle éclaté from 1973 to 1976.
Furthermore, you were honored as an officier of the Palmes Academiques, a distinction awarded by the French Minister of Education for your remarkable work in academia.
For your outstanding contributions to the worlds of French literature, art, and culture as a professor, author, translator and critic, it is my great pleasure to present you, Mary Ann Caws, with the Order of Arts and Letters.
Mary Ann Caws, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Florent Masse, let us now turn to you:
And so we have another professor, a blessing to his students, his peers, and the world of theater. You have worked tirelessly at the crossroads of the French language and theater, and your career has been marked by a passionate love of teaching. You have taught theater, and you have taught French, but most remarkably, you have taught theater in French, in the United States. Weaving these two cultures together has been described as your “trademark.” Through your efforts, your students have become masters not only of performing, but of a new language, and you have greatly benefitted the Princeton community by bringing in so many luminaries of French theater.
Florent Masse, you were born in Tourcoing, in northern France, and after receiving your undergraduate degree and Master’s degree in American History and Civilization at the Université Charles de Gaulle à Lille, you came to the United States as the Levy-Despas Fellow at Amherst College. There, you served as a teaching assistant in the French department as you pursued theater studies in the Theater and Dance Department. Your training at the Théâtre National de Lille Tourcoing under actor and director Daniel Mesguich, which coincided with your time at the Université Charles de Gaulle, had already extensively exposed you to the theater world, and at Amherst, you further mastered these skills.
In 2001, you joined the Department of French and Italian at Princeton, and you have been there ever since, developing innovative programs like Princeton’s French Theater Workshop, L’Avant-Scène. You speak of your love for transmitting knowledge to others, and the fact that as a teacher, you are able to create new worlds for your students by building beautiful, imaginary universes on stage and by offering your students another language, an invaluable gift that opens them up to new perspectives and new understandings.
Through L’Avant-Scène, you offer theater classes at Princeton conducted in French, and you direct a troupe of students to put on four to five plays annually. The program mimics the programs of French conservatories and the training is based on methods from the French tradition. Indeed, you have found that the skills necessary to be an actor are similar to the ones used to acquire a new language: to be a good actor, as well as a good French speaker, one must pronounce and articulate words well and speak fluidly. Your students are given the chance to fully embrace their language skills and put them into action—and really, what better way to learn French than to dramatically recite bits of Molière or Duras? While you bring France to Princeton’s theater, you also bring Princeton’s theater to France: through L’Avant-Scène, select students travel to France annually, exposing them to first-hand discoveries of French theater, and you even attend the Avignon Festival. Reciprocally, students from the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’art Dramatique came to Princeton and participated in classes and L’Avant-Scène, an initiative which you also planned and coordinated.
Through L’Avant-Scène, you have directed more than forty full-length productions in French, and your productions have included plays ranging from Belle-Époque-era playwright Georges Feydeau to contemporary French director Joël Pommerat. Friends remember you for frequently introducing your productions with “très bonne soirée,” and indeed, it is bound to be a très bonne soirée if you are presenting a play.
Furthermore, you have worked tirelessly to infuse French theater into the United States. The annual French theater festival at Princeton, Seuls en Scène, is one which you initiated and curate every year. This festival brings both established and up-and-coming French actors and directors to Princeton, where the surrounding community has the opportunity to enjoy French productions. You take great care curating this festival, extending invitations to artists that you have been following throughout the year and making the festival accessible to the American audience by adding surtitles in English to some of the productions.
You also focus on building long-lasting partnerships with artists such as Pascal Rambert, Arthur Nauzyciel, Clement Hervieu-Leger, Nicolas Truong, and the actress Audrey Bonnet. These connections reinforce the depth of the cultural exchange between France and the United States. Here, at the Cultural Services, we help you put on this festival, and this year’s production, held in September, enjoyed great success, as well as surprises: one of the plays, L’art du Theatre by Pascal Rambert, a 40-minute piece that follows an actor as he explains his craft to his dog, Elboy, included a 160-pound Newfoundland dog. Every year, more and more people from the PrincetonSeuls en Scène a well-loved facet of the community, as it brings people from Princeton’s surrounding community and New York come together to see these exciting productions.
Outside of the festival, you have also made a great effort to bring French directors and actors to Princeton, as there is no better way to expose your students and the community to French theater. Through your initiatives, Princeton has hosted renowned and promising directors like Guillaume Gallienne, Benjamin Lazar and Elise Vigier, as well as actors like Sandy Ouvrier and Stanislas Roquette.
As a teacher, you push your students to excel not only as actors, but as language-learners. As a director, you gift the community with your beautiful and memorable productions. As a cultural leader, you work to foster French-American intellectual exchange through theater. For these reasons, it is my great pleasure to present you with the Order of Arts and Letters.
Florent Masse, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.