Tom Bishop, the Emissary of French Culture in America, Has Died

American academic Thomas Bishop, a champion of Francophone thought and literature in the United States, a leading figure of the French department of New York University, and the longstanding president of its Maison Française, has died on January 2 at the age of 93. We published an in-depth profile of him in December 2013.

To understand Tom Bishop’s visceral connection with France and its culture, we have to look back to the first years of his life. Born in Vienna in 1929 to an educated, wealthy, Jewish family, Tom Bishop was a fervent Austrian nationalist by the age of six. He soon became interested in politics and wrote anti-German poems to the glory of his country. He was therefore fully aware of the dangers of Nazism and felt deeply betrayed when the people of Vienna offered Hitler a hero’s welcome in 1938. That day, not only did he feel like a foreigner in his own country, but also stripped of his very identity.

After spending some time in Hungary with his mother’s parents, his family moved to France in late 1938, where his father, worried about the situation developing in Europe, applied for visas for the United States. Paris quickly had a major, fanciful influence over the young Tom, but he must have been disappointed upon attending the small Janson-de-Sailly high school, where he was called a Boche (“Kraut”) by his fellow students. Yet instead of turning him away from France, this experience pushed him to forget German as quickly as possible and learn French within months. He spoke it so well that the insults and bullying soon stopped.

The following year was little better, marked by the outbreak of war and a lengthy stay in the Breton village of Dinard, where his parents had sent him to keep him safe. While his older brother began going out and courting young women, Tom lived in almost total isolation. However, his love of French never wavered. France had decided to fight against Nazi Germany and had taken over from Austria in his heart, while Vienna had been replaced by Paris. His family finally fled the country in May 1940 on the Champlain, the last boat to leave France for the United States, which was torpedoed upon returning to Europe.

While the young boy learned English, also in a few months, he continued speaking French with his brother, who had begrudgingly left France and become a staunch Gaullist. The pair kept speaking French to each other until his brother died in 2007. Despite rapidly and successfully integrating into life in America, a country he considered his true adoptive country, Tom Bishop always had a special place in his heart for France and the French language, which had enabled him to rid himself of his original, disappointing identity, and bring him closer to his brother whom he admired so much.

A Life Spent Promoting French Culture

As a result, Tom Bishop decided to focus on studying French when enrolling at New York University. Soon after, he returned to Paris for the first time since the war, and this year-long trip saw him discover the full breadth of the city and a sense of familiarity as “a stranger who feels at home,” as he put it. He then continued studying French literature at Berkeley, where he completed his doctorate on Pirandello and French theater in 1957.

He was immediately hired as a French professor at NYU. Shortly after, reluctant to leave his beloved city of New York and a university where he felt comfortable, he refused a position at Harvard, which earned him a certain reputation within the profession. In 1959, he was offered the position as president of the Maison Française, a cultural center founded within NYU a year earlier, designed to host conferences by visiting French figures.

In 1966, he was also appointed head of the French division of the NYU Romance and Slavic languages department, which then became a department in its own right in 1970. With extraordinary passion and professionalism, Tom Bishop fully assumed his role as an intermediary, a “transmitter” tasked with introducing students and the American public to the leading lights of French culture and thought.

Beyond the intellectual aspect of the program, he also unflinchingly tackled the administrative aspects of his job, particularly the inevitable fundraising responsibilities. He quickly understood that, if he wanted to both promote the Maison Française and bolster the reputation of NYU’s French department (which, thanks to him, became one of the finest in the country), he would have to give himself the means to succeed.

This is how he developed relationships with leading patrons, captains of industry, businessmen, and bankers on the both sides of the Atlantic, including with the legendary Florence Gould. She inspired him to organize an annual lunch at the NYU center in Paris, to which he invited literary figures, journalists, politicians, and potential patrons.

Thanks to these fundraising events, he was able to finance the department’s annual program, restore the Maison Française, and create the New York University in France program in 1969 followed by the Institute of French Studies (the first American multidisciplinary organization devoted to contemporary France) in 1978, both overseen by the Center for French Civilization and Culture, which he directed for many years.

His functions also saw him travel to France several times every year from 1950 onwards. On these trips, he not only grew to know the depths of the French soul and the inner workings of its political and intellectual spheres, but he also developed close friendships with the greatest French authors, intellectuals, and politicians. These figures were won over by Tom Bishop’s incredible knowledge and love of France, as well as his ability to bring them to and promote them in the United States.

He was close friend with major names in French literature including Ionesco, Beckett, Jean-Louis Barrault, Madeleine Renaud, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon. He also spent time with many politicians, such as Pierre Mendès-France, whom he admired more than any other, Edgar Faure, Robert Badinter, Jack Lang, and Raymond Barre, without forgetting his charming encounters with François Mitterrand, before and after he became president of France.

A “Bridge” Between France and the United States

While he was passionate about both French and American politics, it was a love of French literature – and above all theater – that pushed Tom Bishop to become an ambassador for French culture in the United States. Theater is the genre that “moved” him the most, and was the reason he chose it as the subject of his doctorate. He also published an anthology of French contemporary theater and wrote a number of books and articles about Anouilh, Giraudoux, Cocteau, Sartre, and of course Ionesco and Beckett, whom he held in the highest esteem.

This is probably because they revolutionized theatral language and form, and are generally considered to be the greatest French-language playwrights of the 20th century. And perhaps because, just like him, they had deliberately adopted the French language, which was not originally their own. He was with Ionesco when the news came that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He remembered the great French-Romanian playwright laughing as declaring: “We certainly deserve it!”

However, he likely felt closest to Beckett’s work. He organized countless celebrations for him in New York and Paris, compiled an audio-visual archive of the author’s work (gathering everything he had produced for German, English, French, and American television), and directed the Cahier de l’Herne, which was devoted to the literary giant.

The Nouveau Roman was Tom Bishop’s other passion. He was immediately fascinated by this new literary movement, which offered a unique renewal of the classic novel. Thanks to a tour arranged by the cultural services of the French embassy in 1962, he was able to meet Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Robert Pinget. Then, while on a sabbatical in France several years later, he formed closer friendships with them, particularly Robbe-Grillet, who regularly came to teach at NYU afterwards.

Tom Bishop was often criticized for only promoting the literary movements he liked. However, this is disproved with a single glance at the impressive list of guests (70-80 per year) invited to give conferences and month-long classes at the Maison Française and the NYU French department. His personal tastes certainly played a part in some of these invitations, especially those that were extended repeatedly, but he was nothing if not eclectic.

With this in mind, and going beyond his day-to-day activities, he tried to put new ideas into practice, such as the French Literature in the Making series with Olivier Barrot, launched in 2007. This initiative saw NYU host authors representing a vast swathe of contemporary French literature, whether they were translated in the United States or not, covering all genres, styles, and reputations. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Frédéric Beigbeder, Cécile Coulon, and Dany Laferrière were just a few of the illustrious guests.

He also helped organize the Festival of New French Writing, held in 2009 and 2011, whose aim was to shine a spotlight on French and American writers (such as Bernard Henri-Lévy, Marie NDiaye, Pascal Bruckner, Philippe Claudel, Chris Ware, E.L. Doctorow, and Rick Moody), which drew in more than a thousand attendees across three days. Then there was the Re-Thinking Literature conference, held in late September 2013 with the support of the French Institute and the cultural services of the French embassy, which brought together literary and artistic writers, philosophers, critics and theorists from both countries, with the French panel including Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Camille Laurens, Paul Audi, and Hélène Cixous.

“It is not all that surprising that this role as an intermediary tasked with receiving, welcoming, and presenting French figures to the American public suited me so much that I continued it for thirty years,” he said. “It was the dream position, and probably the right place for someone like myself. While enabling me to act as a bridge between these two worlds, it also led me through interplaying contrasts and reflections to better understand the qualities and flaws in each.”

“France Remains a Fundamental Reference for Americans”

Tom Bishop regularly made efforts to contradict those who periodically announced “the death of French culture,” as Time magazine declared in 2007, while also mischievously stating that such journalistic provocations were in fact the finest tribute to the exceptional nature of French culture. He was eternally admirative of the vitality of French literature, and had a great esteem for Michel Houellebecq, Jean Echenoz, Claude Arnaud, Camille Laurens, and Christine Angot, among others. However, like many Francophile Americans and French people themselves, he believed that it had become harder to promote French literature and thought, given that there were no longer literary or intellectual movements as coherent or distinct as the Theater of the Absurd, the Nouveau Roman, or French Theory.

As a result, Tom Bishop humbly admitted that, despite so many years spent discovering, hosting, and presenting new French-language authors, he had never found a miracle solution. An operation like the Festival of New French Writing, which showcased renowned French and American writers, was not easy to reproduce regularly, as there was a limited number of U.S. authors capable of holding a conversation with their French counterparts.

What’s more, he deplored the reluctance of American publishers, who would complain that the works were too French (or not French enough), that translations were too costly (despite a number of available grants), and that the risks were too high, even for books that had enjoyed fantastic sales in France. However, he was quick to add that, in the context of a general recalcitrance towards foreign literature, France did rather well as French works continued to make up one third of all books translated in the United States.

Tom Bishop never rested on his laurels, and believed in constant perseverance. His determination and his stubbornness (some would say pig-headedness) were legendary. Like all people of integrity, he was both a loyal friend but capable of memorable gaffes, such as with Philippe Sollers, although they later reconciled.

And despite moments of discouragement, particularly in the darkest hours of his life, which he spoke of with extreme reserve, he always kept an immutable faith in the cause he defended. “France is, and continues to be, a fundamental reference for Americans. This is not just a historical, unwavering state of affairs, but rather a situation that must be nurtured and developed. That is what I have always tried to do,” he wrote in the conclusion to Passeur d’océan : Carnets d’un ami américain, a manifesto that is just as relevant today, thirty years after it was first published.