Stéphane Gerson

Professor of French

New York University

Born and raised in Belgium, Stéphane Gerson received a B.A. in philosophy from Haverford College in 1988 and a Ph.D. in modern European history from the University of Chicago in 1997. He is a cultural historian of modern France, with interests in memory and history, political culture, place and identity, the occult and the irrational.

Much of Gerson’s work has revolved around the ways people respond to upheaval and traumatic changes that they associate with modernity.  He is especially intrigued by the aftermath of events that, like the French Revolution, can be at once liberating and deeply traumatic. His research investigates how men and women have fashioned meaning, defined public identities, and granted coherence to their world when this world seems unrecognizable. Gerson began with the passionate interest in the local past in nineteenth-century France: historical research, monuments to great men, archeological digs, local museums, historical pageants, and more. This cult of local memories, so strong during a period of political and industrial revolutions, sought a deeper understanding of one’s pays (land) and a richer sense of place. By providing moral teachings, civic participation, social cohesion and true national unity, it promised to recompose localities and nation alike. Gerson’s book on the topic, The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell University Press, 2003), won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. This research also won the William Koren Jr. Prize for best article on French history.

Gerson then broadened his chronological, spatial, and thematic scope to write the first cultural history of Nostradamus and his predictions from the Renaissance to the present. Nostradamus has captured the West’s imagination for five centuries. Across the planet, millions have consulted his prophecies about the rise of dictators, the death of presidents, and the end of the world. And yet, we hardly know why his predictions grew so influential, how they have helped people forge ahead during traumatic times, and how these poetic verses became an enduring political and cultural phenomenon. By tracing the afterlife of Nostradamus — the figure, the name, and the predictions — one can shed light on our relationships to uncertainty and horror, fear and anxiety, time and the future. This research also contributes to international histories of collective catastrophe, perceptions of time, and media and has led to two books. The first is a cultural history entitled Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom (St. Martin’s Press, 2012). The second is a Penguin Classics edition of Nostradamus’ Prophecies, with a new translation by Richard Sieburth and copious accompanying material about the book’s history and poetics (2012).

Gerson’s next project will revolve around industrial catastrophes in nineteenth-century France. It is about how societies anticipate, experience, assimilate, and respond to catastrophes that are both without precedent and by-products of what it defines as modernity.  The project will examine medical responses; attitudes towards grief and death (and the death of children); the role of politicians (rulers as compassionate fathers?); changes in technology, safety, and insurance; various modes of explanation (science, religion, prophecy); forms of investigation and legal resolution; the search for culprits (including Jews); media depictions of such events; martyrdom and heroism; commemorations; and feelings of national identity.

Gerson’s other area of interest revolves around the writing of history. He explored historian Alain Corbin’s approach to cultural history in a special issue of French Politics, Culture & Society which he guest-edited in 2004. He also delved into historian Eugen Weber’s understanding of popular culture, and how that concept has changed over the past three decades. Finally, Gerson and Laura Lee Downs edited a collection of autobiographical essays by American historians of France: Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (Cornell, 2007, translated into French by Le Seuil). The book seeks to understand why thousands of American historians have devoted their careers to France over the course of the twentieth century. How have they imagined and depicted France? And how have their various relationships with France — intellectual, professional, and personal — changed over the years? These questions open onto broader ones: the inflections of the Franco-American relationship; the meanings of ‘France’ in American thought and society, and the relationship between intellectual milieus and international relations.

Gerson’s teaching includes French civilization, cultural theory, and cultural history.  He has also created a course that trains doctoral students to teach French civilization.