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The Hugo Pages

  Hugo: Scorned and Praised
Literature for people and Pretense for Academe

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There is a tendency to downplay or dismiss Hugo’s status as a literary and philosophical figure. Gide’s “Hélas” (offered in response to the question, "Who is France's greatest poet?") is the anecdote par excellence of authors criticizing authors; Nietzche’s dismissals of Hugo as a philosopher, though less well known, are searing. That these two remark on Hugo at all calls into question their premises: if Hugo were so terrible, why would history have failed to consign him to the category of writers we no longer read? If Hugo had no philosophy and no one could even suspect he did, why would Nietzche have commented? The plainest example of snobisme comes from the other side of the Atlantic in the form of the appraisal of Cliffs Notes:

Victor Hugo has frequently been criticized for vanity of character and shallowness of mind. The vanity of which he was accused is largely justified by the large scope of his talents, unparalleled in literary history since Shakespeare and Goethe (8).

This seemingly glowing paragraph concludes:

It is true that he was not a profound thinker, but his devotion to “the good, the beautiful and the true,” if uncritical, was instinctive and sincere. The people of France whom he loved have judged him better than the critics, and he remains to this day one of France’s best-loved authors (8).

Whether one believes Cliffs Notes to be a road map to understanding literature or a tool for cheating, they often provide a sense of what scholars feel that students should take from their reading. It is interesting, then, to note that throughout this guide for the American reader we encounter glowing praise followed by cautious caveats. How striking to note that critics are dismissive but the people like him! Need any perceptive undergraduate give more than a moment’s thought in deciding what tone he ought take in class?

We would suggest that Hugo’s poor reception among critics stems at least in part from the fact that people other than critics can appreciate him. The elegance and sophistication that require decoding and explication seem to be lacking. Yet the work endures. Does this mean the people are simpletons and Hugo their bard? Rather, Hugo is perhaps the most sophisticated of authors, finding the language to move readers with simple yet important truths most authors lack the confidence to assert, lest they be thought unsophisticated. This intellectual chicanery comes through loud and clear in Emerson’s assertion, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” The sentiment is evident in much of the Hugo bashing in which his writing and ideas are not attacked, not questioned, but simply dismissed as beneath probing. Yet Hugo still moves. One goes to class to read Gide and does so on the threat of poor marks in literature; one spends one’s own money to see Hugo brought to life, be it poorly, as in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, moderately well, as in the musical, Les Misérables, or cleverly in such as Rigoletto: an offering for every social class.


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