A 19th-century writer's words still resonate

Celebrating the man who wrote 'Les Mis' and 'Hunchback'

Two hundred years after his birth, the French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is best known in America as the author of the novels that inspired the Broadway musical "Les Miserables" and the Disney film version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

But as people worldwide - including many in Russia and China - celebrate the novelist 200 years after his birth, his contributions as a poet, a politician, and a nonfiction writer are also being more widely lauded in a growing number of English-speaking countries.

In addition to his novels, Hugo wrote nearly two-dozen plays, 18 collections of poetry, and about 3 million words of nonfiction prose (history and criticism). Seen as a major political activist and defender of individual freedoms, the Frenchman embodied a kind of varied energy that still impresses readers and inspires some politicians today.

"Hugo was one of the most popular writers in the world during most of his adult life," says Syracuse, N.Y.-based poet Brooks Haxton, who recently translated Hugo's "Selected Poems" for Penguin Classics. "The whole of the Arc de Triomphe was draped in black velvet for his funeral in Paris, and the size of the crowd attending exceeded the entire population of the city."

In France, Hugo is perhaps remembered most for his poetry, which he wrote in a freer style than French poets had for centuries. But in the United States and other countries, the main reason for Hugo's enduring popularity was that he took a stand for his political beliefs and lived what he wrote.

When Hugo opposed the royalist Louis Napoleon's seizure of power in France in 1851, he didn't just object in print; he went out to the streets to help build barricades for protesters. Indeed, after 1851, Hugo was obliged to live in exile in the Channel Islands for 20 years.

"His politically oriented works still speak to all who feel oppressed, wherever and whenever they may be," says Missouri-based Hugo aficionado John Newmark, who launched the website www.gavroche.org (named after the heroic urchin in "Les Miserables"). "Society needs good role models, and Hugo [was] one."

Newmark says American affection for Hugo's work is a long-standing tradition, ever since "Les Miserables" was published simultaneously in English and French in 1860.

"In the USA, so many [members] of the Confederate Army had copies of 'Les Miserables,' they nicknamed themselves 'Lee's Miserables' (combining Gen. Robert E. Lee's name and Hugo's novel)," he says.

One of Hugo's campaigns that is still a point of controversy was his rabid opposition to the death penalty and his fight for prisoners' rights. (He called the guillotine "that infamous machine.")

When California passed the "three strikes law," which mandates heavy prison sentences for a third criminal offense, even a relatively trivial one, a California state appellate judge compared one case to "Les Miserables," in which the hero, Jean Valjean, was sentenced to heavy prison terms for stealing food.

This kind of timeliness adds energy to celebrations in Hugo's native France, where conferences, performances, and art exhibits are planned. In February, events include a major exhibit at the Bibliothèque Nationale, lectures on subjects ranging from "Victor Hugo and Women" to "Victor Hugo and the Ouija Board," and a staged version of his sentimental late work, "The Art of Being a Grandfather," on a houseboat on the Seine River.

Yet his verse remains of primary importance because he wrote passionately about a broader range of human experiences than other French poets, poet Haxton says.

"He was almost universally acknowledged as the greatest living poet in France," he says. "Hugo enlarged the French sense of poetry, producing a great number of the finest poems in the language and preparing the ground for the burgeoning of poetry in France...."

But in America, Haxton says, Hugo's poetry is still underappreciated. "Very few people except students of French have ever read a poem by Victor Hugo," he says. "This is all the more inexplicable because Hugo at his best is highly accessible, lucid in thought, and passionate in feeling. An important, largely indirect influence on American poetry, especially on the poetry of social conscience and unfettered feeling, he remains unknown to many writers whose work he has made possible."

Haxton says he hopes that during this Hugo year, "the perennial popularity of Hugo's fiction will lead to a revival of interest in the poems which, almost everyone who knows them will agree, are his most substantial accomplishment."

Indeed, Haxton's clear English translations in his book "Selected Poems" allow the reader to see Hugo's gift for simplicity, as well as his grandiose fervor.

But even those who just listen again to rousing music of "Les Miserables" or watch Disney's "Hunchback" may gain a bit of appreciation for Hugo, whom Alfred Lord Tennyson called: "Victor in Poesy, Victor in Romance, Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears, French of the French, and Lord of human tears."

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